The two biggest fantasy shows of the year this year were…not the fantasy stuff I grew up with. House of the Dragon had a lot of gore and dragons, but was largely a show about the political machinations of a large incestuous family, and Under the spell of the Ring seemed to be focused every moment on a beautiful steady pace show that Tolkien would have loved, but I found it slow as hell. But I want a big adventure when I watch a fantasy show. I want to get that buzz of excitement I got the first time I watched dragon slayer or Ladyhawke or even Labyrinth. Or the original Willow.
And the new show, set more than 20 years later Willow that adventure is over. It’s a mighty good time that doesn’t require any knowledge of the world it brings to life – just a willingness to indulge in something genuine, friendly, and fun.
That’s the word I kept coming back to after watching the first seven episodes. This performance is pleasure. His characters take time to create, but he keeps them just close enough to the tropes of an adventure story that you feel like you already know them. So there’s the princess who wants adventure and escape her fate, and the brave soldier who’s torn between love and duty, and the smart bastard with a heart of gold. There’s also Willow, played by Warwick Davis. He is an older, wiser man haunted by bad choices and the need to do good. He is also still the tormented worry child of the film.
We’ve had a lot of big generational sequels over the years. Star Wars, Star Trek, Jurassic Park, Doctor whoeven Dr. Strange in the multiverse of madness pleasure in bringing older actors back to reprise roles alongside a younger generation. It’s a big nostalgic game and it mostly only works on the surface. As much as I love Picard, I know that show is aimed specifically at me – a person I grew up with The next generation and will forgive many flaws to see my old favourites.
Willow emphatically does the same thing, but in this case it works. I’m not disappointed with where Willow is in his life, as I was when I met the hermit Luke Skywalker. The great triumphant end of the film Willow loses nothing just because this sequel has made our returning heroes a little miserable in the intervening years. Willow and Sorsha (played by Joanne Whalley) got into a fight after Madmartigan (Val Kilmer) and Elora (the little baby) disappeared to save the world. Now he lives quietly and far away, she rules the realm left behind by her evil mother and Elora, and of course they don’t get along! She is the daughter of a warlord of a murderous sorceress and he is a friendly wizard/farmer.
While the new show is about Willow (and, to a much much lesser extent, Sorsha) reckoning with all those dark off-screen years, it’s a series of hero journeys for the younger cast. After Airk, the beautiful himbo son of Sorsha and Madmartigan, is kidnapped by some beautifully crafted monsters, his twin sister, the Princess Kit (Ruby Cruz), sets out with her mysterious betrothed, Graydon (Tony Revolori); her best friend and crush, Jade (Erin Kellyman); warrior and thief Boorman (Amar Chadha-Patel); and the castle muffin baker, Dove (Ellie Bamber) to find Willow and Airk and save the world from Airk’s kidnapper.
Each of those characters I just mentioned are a delight. They all grow and change over the course of the show, sometimes doing it more than once per episode. The plot doesn’t rely on big mysteries or secrets – most of them are covered in the first few episodes. Instead of, Willow just enjoy being an adventure story albeit a very funny one. This cast sparkles and the jokes fly surprisingly fast, but never at the expense of a dramatic moment. The action is good too (although I still think the best fight scenes on TV this year were on Netflix Warrior nun).
And the special effects strike a perfect balance between the mix of stop-motion and practicality that made ’80s fantasy movies fun and the CGI more commonly used today. There are giant dolls, people dressed in beautiful prosthetics and flashy wizard battles. But creatures originally seen in the movie have not been updated. The monster dogs are still clearly just dogs covered in faux fur and the trolls are just dudes in suits and makeup. The result is something charming rather than goofy.
Because I admit, while I don’t think you need any sense of — or even affection for — the original film, the show spends a lot of time hitting the nostalgia button while looking knowingly at you, the audience. As someone who first saw the movie when she was five and always loved it, the nostalgia worked. I got a big smile on my face when I first saw one of those stupid dogs, or Willow put a character through the magic test that Billy Barty put him in the original movie.
Your mileage may vary. If you thought the original movie was too lame, you might not like this show. But if you’ve been longing for a fantasy series that takes you on a thrilling adventure full of jokes, action and (weird!) romance, then Willow is in for a treat. When people ask me what my favorite high fantasy show of the year was, it’s not the one with dragons or a man making rings. It will be Willow.
The first episode of Willow premieres on Disney Plus on November 30. Episodes will air weekly thereafter.