The most surprising thing about “Willow,” the new Disney+ streaming series based on the ambitious 1988 movie of the same name, is not that it was made at all despite its disappointing performance at the box office; it’s that the TV show version, at least based on the pilot episode, is actually pretty good.
One could be forgiven for expecting otherwise. After all, the current fantasy boom, especially on the small screen, has resulted in what might politely be called “a mixed bag.” Recent TV shows of this genre have ranged from Netflix’s “The Sandman” (reasonably good) to Amazon Prime Video’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” (embarrassingly bad), with nothing quite reaching the giddy heights of something like HBO’s “Game of Thrones” at its peak. (To be fair, that show was a mixed bag of its own, plummeting from absolutely brilliant to appallingly awful in the span of eight seasons.)
Let’s face it, fantasy sells… and recognizable fantasy sells even more. So what if the intellectual property is literally decades old? It doesn’t matter! As long as you’ve sort of heard of it, as long as you have somewhat fond memories of it, as long you or someone you know somewhere has a t-shirt of it, that fantasy property is going to be dusted off and made into a movie or TV show, and soon. (It doesn’t even matter if the thing is any good! Case in point: The three “Hobbit” movies collectively made a staggering $2.9 billion worldwide, despite being so bad as to be almost unwatchable.)
It was really only a matter of time before current-day producers (in this case, Lucasfilm, among others) set their sights on “Willow,” a 34-year-old sword-and-sorcery epic that, while it was eventually nominated for two Academy Awards, was not the big box office success it was expected to be upon its release.
Still, many people think fondly of the film to this day. One such person is “Willow” series creator Jonathan Kasdan, who has taken the best elements of a— let’s face it— so-so fantasy movie and expertly inserted them into an enjoyable TV series that expands the original material, honoring it without falling into the all-too-common “nostalgia for its own sake” trap. (Yes, I’m looking at you, “The Rise of Skywalker.”)
The story is nothing you haven’t seen before: You’ve got your magic and your monsters and your mismatched misfits. You’ve got your ancient prophecies. You’ve got your consequential-sounding (and slightly silly) names of people and places and artifacts.. You’ve got your valiant warriors riding across stunning landscapes to fulfill a quest that will save the kingdom from a powerful, slightly vague evil force. It’s your textbook Fantasy Quest. So what makes “Willow” so enjoyable?
The answer is: almost everything. Sure, you’ve seen the story of “Willow,” or something resembling it, before (perhaps many, many times before), but it hardly matters when it’s all executed so well. The main cast, led by Ruby Cruz (Kit), Erin Kellyman (Jade), Ellie Bamber (Dove), and Amar Chadha-Patel (Boorman), is charming and watchable. The action sequences are imaginative and genuinely thrilling. The production design is lush and eye-catching, and a great match for the equally stunning cinematography. The creature design and makeup effects are top-notch. The dialogue, which features the kind of anachronistic contemporary speech that made the 2001 Heath Ledger vehicle “A Knight’s Tale” so distinctive, is involving and frequently humorous— but without being forced. The entire endeavor was so much fun, it managed the neat trick of making me feel nostalgic for a movie I didn’t really like that much in the first place. No small feat!
Sadly, it’s not all good news. Some of the editing seems abrupt, almost as if a frame or two were inadvertently left on the cutting room floor. The accents are all over the place, and largely unexplained. (Why, for example, would a British-sounding woman have kids that sound so distinctively American?) Furthermore, everything is a little too clean: the costumes, the hair, the makeup, and the locations all seem to have been sanitized for the sake of younger viewers. (Perfectly understandable, though, given that this is a Disney+ show; but it does somewhat diminish the sense of peril overall.) But the biggest flaw of “Willow” lies in the character for whom the show is named. Reprising his role as the Hobbit sorcerer— uh, I mean “Nelwyn” sorcerer— Willow Ufgood, Warwick Davis is, sadly, the show’s weakest link. His line readings are so painfully clunky and stilted, it’s like he’s somehow forgotten how to act!
Luckily, Davis is not the star of “Willow,” despite what the title would suggest. Based on this extremely promising pilot episode, this show is one of the good ones. Bring on the rest of the series!
5 crowns: a must-see
4 crowns: excellent
3 crowns: good but not great
2 crowns: just about watchable
1 crown: avoid at all costs