A Willow TV series did not need to happen. Of all the IP-driven sequels and spin-offs the Disney+ machine has spit out in the three years since the streaming service debuted, Willow is among the most extraneous on paper. The Warwick Davis-led 1988 fantasy saga that inspired the series never reached the heights of other Lucasfilm projects, and at the time, it failed to launch the franchise its creators surely hoped for. So why return to the middlingly popular story decades later? Well, after seeing seven episodes of the show’s extremely entertaining first season, I think the question should actually be: why the hell not?
It turns out, Willow the series is a whole lot of fun. An impressive hybrid of modern visuals, practical effects, and throwback swashbuckling adventures, it hits a delightful, mostly lighthearted sweet spot that very few fantasy shows do these days. The series has an overarching plot, but it’s more episodic than one might expect, and its self-contained storylines are the stuff that great comedy-genre shows are made of. Each week, a dynamic, flirty cast of characters gets stuck facing obstacles like haunted houses, truth serums, and riddle-spouting foes. The show’s infectiously fun energy owes as much to ‘90s classics like Buffy the Vampire Slayer or The Mummy as it does to the film that gives it its name.
Willow does continue a storyline fans will be familiar with, though, as the baby who was prophesied to change the world, Elora Danan, is all grown up and reunited with the sorcerer Willow Ufgood (Davis). Davis plays his character with a sense of both wisdom and mischief and carries the show’s more serious beats well. He’s also surrounded by a stellar cast of youngsters – would-be heroes and rapscallions who are thirsty for knowledge, life experience, and each other.
Princess Kit (Ruby Cruz) and future knight Jade (Erin Kellyman) are best friends whose relationship is put to the test when Kit’s himbo brother Airk (Dempsey Bryk), goes missing. The pair soon take to the road on a journey to find him and are joined by Airk’s lover Dove (Ellie Bamber), Kit’s betrothed Graydon (Tony Revolori), and a charming, roguish thief named Boorman (Amar Chadha-Patel). Together with Willow, the group ends up entangled in a mission that involves the future of the realm itself. But the show isn’t afraid to let them get sidetracked, and the cast has enough chemistry to make any number of semi-random quests entertaining.
Ahead of the show’s release, fans have fretted about the Val Kilmer-shaped hole in the cast and what it might mean for the series. Yet Willow doesn’t suffer too much without Madmartigan and quickly finds its own distinct voice. Said voice is goofy as often as it’s serious, and Willow is quite funny in an offbeat way that matches the tone of the original film. When Boorman tells a tall tale, the camera focuses on him as if he’s a heartthrob action hero, playing out his version of events with a straight face despite the fact that they clearly didn’t actually go down that way. Willow, meanwhile, is as likely to berate his apprentices with silly asides (“don’t say ‘groin’ in mixed company!” he barks at one point) as he is to give them magic lessons.
If Willow has a drawback, it’s that the series has clearly been to the Joss Whedon school of quippiness, and viewers’ mileage may vary when it comes to its kooky, sometimes anachronistic one-liners. Yet any ground it loses with its cornier script elements, Willow makes up for with surprisingly well-written romance plots. The show doesn’t take its young heroes’ love lives too seriously, but it knows that they do (because they’re star-crossed teens, duh), and it features several compelling plots about first love, rekindled love, and love that blooms unexpectedly. The series also grounds its emotional and upbeat moments alike with a fantastic, cover-heavy soundtrack; nearly every episode ends with a needle drop that I didn’t know I needed until it arrived.
All in all, Willow feels like a nearly-extinct type of story: a largely family-friendly adventure saga that isn’t afraid to include humor and danger that appeals to adults, too. I didn’t realize that I’d gone years without watching a series that features cheeky double-entendres, big hero moments, kiddish humor, and swooning romance all at once until Willow packed it all into one watchable package. The show has an intelligence and emotional sophistication that will challenge and intrigue younger viewers, yet it also appeals to the child in all of us with throwback gags and nostalgic practical effects. In a world that’s teeming with self-serious fantasy shows, this one may take some getting used to, but it’s absolutely worth hanging in there through the adjustment period. This sequel may not have been strictly necessary, but it’s a rollicking good time.
Willow begins streaming on Disney+ on November 30, 2022. Watch the series trailer here.