It’s not every day that an iconic (cult) 1988 fantasy film gets a Disney+ sequel series…
In his showrunner statement, it’s clear that Jonathan Kasdan is a huge fan of Ron Howard’s film about a halfling that gets caught up in an epic battle between good and evil. Willow not only confirmed the star power of Warwick Davis (as the titular character), the film arguably features Val Kilmer at his most charming and charismatic, and has no shortage of memorable set-pieces.
The 2022 series takes place many years after the film. Mad Martigan (Kilmer) has been missing for nine long years, and Queen Sorsha (Joanne Whalley) is now a hesitant queen who is incredibly overprotective of their twin children, boyish Kit (Ruby Cruz, Mare of Easttown) and lothario Airk (Dempsey Bryk, Heartland). The identity of Elora Danan, the powerful baby at the center of the film, is kept secret – even from herself – to prevent enemies of the realm, including the series’ new villain the Withered Crone, from finding her.
Elora’s true identity occupies a substantial amount of real estate in the first few episodes. It could be Kit, or her best friend and protector Jade (Erin Kellyman, The Falcon & The Winter Soldier), or Airk’s lover, the beautiful cook Dove (Ellie Bamber, Les Misérables).
When the reveal arrives, the result is…underwhelming. In part because it feels like the least interesting choice, but also because it’s not clear why the audience should care. There are too many characters and too much focus on palace intrigue, too many teenage emotions, and, frankly, not enough of what the audience truly wants.
Therein lies the single biggest flaw of Willow, at least in the first third of the season: where is Willow?! The sad reality is that, early on, Willow isn’t about Willow, at all; it’s a hero’s journey for Elora and Kit.
Yes, Willow gains prominence as the series progresses, but too much of the early episodes focus on Kit’s lack of interest in marrying Prince Graydon (Tony Revolori, The Grand Budapest Hotel), or the efforts of Commander Ballentine (Ralph Ineson, The Witch), the head of the Pacalcade guard, to hide a poisonous infection from the Withered Crone.
Things become more interesting after Airk is abducted and the series initiates a proper quest, but the growing pains involving the new characters persist. It’s clear that the series is aiming to expand on the world building of the film and it is using Kit, Jade and Dove to get new viewers invested in the narrative.
Unfortunately for legacy audiences, the teen drama is a little jarring. There were no teenagers in the film, and the focus on the young cast here feels more like a business decision than a narrative one. In its first two episodes, Willow feels indebted to the current slate of YA TV fare, particularly the character of Kit, whose petulant, childishness would be a better fit for The CW than a fantasy series with purported world-ending stakes.
Thankfully once Davis turns up in the present (initially he’s introduced in confusing and poorly executed flashbacks), Willow’s stabilizing presence rights the ship and the narrative finds its footing (the increase in action sequences doesn’t hurt, either).
The other character who anchors the series is sellsword Boorman (Amar Chadha-Patel), who acts as a kind of surrogate Mad Martigan in Kilmer’s absence. Boorman is both a warrior and the source of most of Willow’s humour and, as such, he’s easily the best (new) character on the series. It’s clear that Chadha-Patel is having a ball playing the droll, sarcastic anti-hero.
The Bottom Line: Willow gets off to a rocky start as the Disney+ series struggles to balance ties to the original film while charting its own path. Several performances, including Kellyman, Chadha-Patel and Warwick, are great, while most of the young cast struggles. There’s plenty of potential here, but Willow isn’t a slam dunk out of the gate.
Willow premieres on Disney+ Nov 30, 2022. Three episodes watched for review