It’s still one of the most beloved movies of the 80s, so it was a given that amid the streaming service frenzy to reboot already renowned franchises, especially ones from that decade, Willow was going to make a comeback sooner or later. But just because a film is beloved doesn’t mean it’s easy to revamp. Just as with any other product of its time, the film’s reinvention posed two equally complex and interlinked challenges: to not merely be a show reliant on nostalgia (which would limit its reach to those who saw the film in its day) and the need to adapt its universe to the tastes of today’s viewers, particularly young ones. To cut to the chase, the Willow series, recently released on Disney+, has managed to rise to both challenges. It has done so by adopting a method similar to the one Star Wars used when it embarked on its new era (which makes sense, given the parallels between the two franchises, both in terms of their themes and character archetypes, and of the big names behind them, especially George Lucas, who ironically was not involved in either of the two revivals). Just as the new era of Star Wars introduced a new heroine for new generations – Rey, a young female character – Willow returns with a new heroine in its storyline, Kit, who also happens to be young and female.
In both cases the right balance is also struck between placing the focus on the new protagonist and leaving space for the heroes already known to viewers. Kit is thus presented in the show as a central character with a clear conflict – she doesn’t want the marriage that’s been arranged for her, she wants adventure instead. But at the same time, Kit is closely linked to one of the film’s central characters, Sorsha, who is her mother, and who is played once more by Joanne Whalley. Her father, on the other hand, the foul-mouthed Madmartigan, doesn’t reappear in the series because Val Kilmer’s health problems prevented his return, although his character still looms large in the plot. Before the first episode ends, the series reintroduces the original film’s titular hero, Willow, once again played by Warwick Davis, who has long been keen to resuscitate the role. And not surprisingly, as it is one of the rare occasions on which the actor is recognizable as the star of a film (instead of appearing in costume and practically incognito, as in Star Wars and Harry Potter) and can thus be accordingly acknowledged for it. The actor joked about this subject in the mockumentary series Life’s Too Short, suggesting that one of the streaming services would do well to resurrect Willow. In this reprisal, Davis lends solemnity and gravitas to his character and manages to reflect the passage of time in his personality, which is particularly notable in the face of the ongoing lack of faith in his magic skills on the part of certain characters. The latter helps both the actor and the series bring to the surface Willow’s central theme – that anyone can be a hero if they put their mind to it, no matter their size.
Kit and Willow are pivotal in both developing the series as a TV show with its own, new storyline and one that is a fond reminder of an already familiar story. What they have in common, and what is key to the result, is a big heart, which is very much in line with the original film. The series also preserves the movie’s adventurous spirit by adding a new quest in which a group of heroes must confront fearsome foes while also putting themselves to the test, but at the same time it introduces it to a new generation of viewers with characters they can relate to. It has its measure of nostalgia but to just the right degree (an example of this is the restrained use of the main theme from the soundtrack by James Horner) and doesn’t depend on it. It’s a series that is worthwhile in its own right and any thrill it provides is down to its own merits. Where the series struggles is in replicating the mix of epic fantasy and comedy that marked the original film, in which director Ron Howard pulled off a practically perfect balance. In the series, however, their coexistence is not so peaceful and sometimes the leap from the tension of a perilous situation to larks and quips is far too abrupt.
But the premise remains the same: a clash of personalities that serves both to create humor and to generate conflicts (in the episodes previewed in order to write this review, the main one being that between Kit and Dove), some love interests ripe for development and an unseen menace that occupies increasing screen time as the episodes go by. The fight scenes and the production design are suitably attractive for a series of today and at the same time sufficiently 80s so as not to depart too much from the movie that was its predecessor. The way that was found to continue the tale is not at all forced and even feels natural for this type of fantasy (once again, Star Wars was a good role model in this). And while it’s true that it’s hard to make up for the absence of Madmartigan’s charisma, even by inserting other characters of a similar standing, there was little the show could have done in any case. Willow the series has all the ingredients needed to convert the franchise into an intergenerational product. Now it’s just a matter of seeing if the current generation falls for the charms of this 80s classic or dismisses it as a boomers’ show.