With the exception of “The Matrix: Resurrections,” most of the legacy sequels that we are getting nowadays are follow-ups of movies that existed before my time. But the reason I loved “Doctor Sleep,” “Candyman,” “Halloween,” “Bill and Ted Face The Music,” “Tron Legacy,” “Blade Runner 2049,” “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” “Creed,” “Mad Max: Fury Road,” and “Top Gun: Maverick” is because the originals are stone-cold classics, and I grew up watching them. Now, when it comes to “Willow,” the movie was quite the hit, and it even received two Academy Award nominations. However, the mixed reviews never gave it a wider reach. So, it wasn’t until the announcement of its Disney+ sequel series that I got around to the film. And not only is the Ron Howard directorial one of the most creative, chaotic, and charming fantasy epics ever, but the Jonathan Kasdan-led series is one of the most gorgeous, enjoyable, and heartfelt entries into the fantasy genre.
The first season of “Willow” was developed by Jonathan Kasdan and takes place several decades after the events of the original film. Sorsha (Joanne Whalley), the queen of Tir Asleen, has become the mother of Airk (Dempsey Bryk) and Kit (Ruby Cruz). Canonically, Madmartigan (Val Kilmer) went away on a quest to look for an elusive piece of armor and never returned. His squire, Boorman (Amar Chadha-Patel), did return, and he has been imprisoned in the castle. Kit is about to be married away to Graydon (Tony Revolori) for diplomatic reasons, but she is in love with her best friend and knight-in-training, Jade (Erin Kellyman). Meanwhile, Airk is “in love” with the castle kitchen maid, Dove (Ellie Bamber), but the class divide between them prevents them from going ahead with their relationship. Amidst all this chaos, a new villain arises and kidnaps Airk, thereby prompting the heroes to unite with Willow (Warwick Davis) and rescue the prince.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the first seven episodes of “Willow” season 1 that were provided by Disney+ Hotstar.
After reading that plot synopsis, if you are wondering what is up with Elora Danan, i.e., the infant princess from the film who was prophesied to bring about Bavmorda’s downfall? Well, it’s a spoiler. So, I can’t spill the details on that. What I can talk about, though, is that the writing in “Willow” is bloody brilliant in terms of how the writers manage to shift their weight from world-building to character-building to genre-jumping to simply having some fun. Since it’s a quest, they progress the plot forward toward its eventual destination and treat each episode like an insular event. Therefore, you get a sense of the pace at which the characters are moving, you get to spend a lot of time with each of the characters, and you see them grow together before they step into the next stage of their journey. It’s baffling how simple it is. But it’s the effectiveness with which they focus on the individuality of the characters, their interpersonal dynamics (with the romance between Kit and Jade being a huge win for the LGBTQ+ community), and their strengths and weaknesses as a team that draws you to this band of misfits.
“Willow” Season 1 is visually stunning. The production design, cinematography, costume design, VFX, SFX, art direction, hair, and make-up are top-notch. The balance between shooting on physical sets, the volume (I am assuming), green screens, and actual locations is phenomenal. In fact, the show spends a significant amount of time in real locations, thereby giving the viewers that feeling of being a part of the adventure. Movies and T.V. shows of late look really hollow, bland, and devoid of life because they are literally taking place in green-screen-laden voids, which are then being populated by underpaid and overworked VFX and CGI artists. Since everyone isn’t James Cameron and cannot give their workers the time, they need to make their virtual sets look realistic, these projects are failing to connect on a fundamental level. So, the best “hack” to work around this problem is to go back to the roots, rely on sets and physical locations, and use VFX only when it’s necessary. And that’s exactly what Kasdan and his team have done, as you can see the actors in the dirt, muck, moss, and windy environments wax eloquent about honor and magic. As for the action scenes, there’s a lot happening in there, and the work that has gone into them is appreciable, but they are badly framed and edited.
That brings us to the actors, who are truly the heart and soul of “Willow” Season 1. As mentioned before, Ruby Cruz and Erin Kellyman (the latter is developing quite a theme of wearing masks on screen) are simply electric. Yes, they are amazing on their own when they develop their individual characters, wield swords, perform stunts, and undergo various kinds of crises. But when they are together, sparks just fly off the screen. Amar Chadha-Patel is an instant favorite. The man simply exudes charisma. His mannerisms and appeal are similar to Val Kilmer’s Madmartigan, but it’s not the same brand and all the better for it. Tony Revolori is adorable as ever while smartly handling the inhibitions his character has about his past. Ellie Bamber is designed to slowly make her way into your heart. So, she can seem to be playing it weak. However, she eventually comes at you with various kinds of literal and emotional punches. Warwick Davis anchors the whole cast with his mix of determination, world-weariness, and pragmatism. Dempsey Bryk, Joanne Whalley, Annabelle Davis, Christian Slater, Ralph Ineson, and Kevin Pollack are phenomenal in what can be described as extended cameos. Everyone under layers of make-up as demons, ghouls, trolls, etc., deserves a round of applause for their work.
In conclusion, if this is the kind of praise a non-fan, who doesn’t have any kind of nostalgia towards the I.P., can heap on “Willow” Season 1, you can only imagine how much you are going to love it as a fan and as someone who is nostalgic about this particular fantastical world. There is a kind of simplicity, a sense of comfort, and an air of whimsy to the show that puts it right in the middle of the Shakespearean self-seriousness of “The Rings of Power” and the edgy self-seriousness of “House of the Dragon.” That is a roundabout way of saying that Kasdan and his team have done a great job of pushing the recent resurgence of high fantasy to the next level. I am hopeful that it’s going to educate studios, showrunners, and filmmakers on how they can employ physical sets and locations when it comes to creating a fantastical world, thereby giving their actors, stunt teams, and SFX and VFX teams so much to work with instead of relying too much on green-screen voids. And I expect everyone to watch it when it starts streaming on Disney+ Hotstar on November 30 so that we can get more seasons of “Willow.”