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‘Willow’ on Disney+ Review: An Enchanting, Raggedy Ode to the ‘80s Cult Classic

Once upon a time, there was an enchanting fantasy movie about a hero small on stature, but big on heart. Willow — directed by Ron Howard and based on an idea by George Lucas — cast Warwick Davis as a farmer thrown into a dangerous mission to protect a baby girl destined for greatness. Willow Ufgood rises to the the challenge and protects little Elora Danan from Bone Reavers and Brownies. He befriends the incorrigible rogue Madmartigan (Val Kilmer), meets powerful sorceresses, and eventually defeats the evil queen Bavmorda (Jean Marsh) through a stroke of dumb luck.

34 years later, we finally have a sequel that continues the Willow saga with the heart and soul the story deserves. Disney+‘s new series Willow is a raggedy, hilarious, and absolutely enchanting continuation of the Lucasfilm cult classic. Instead of wallowing in “grimdark” imagery or losing itself tripping over unnecessary mystery boxes, Willow embraces the joy of its source material. Willow is a tour de force of fun and fantasy frivolity.

When it debuted in 1988, Willow was too quaint and quirky, too simultaneously low-fi and high concept to woo the masses the way Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings would do in 2001. However, it had its indisputable charms. Willow was earnest in its convictions, unapologetically goofy whenever it can manage to be, and pulsing with sensuality. (The cross-dressing, womanizing, lust-driven Madmartigan has more sexuality in one of his thin braids than most fantasy epics have in full.) Naturally, it would go on to become a cult classic beloved by generations of proud dorks, like yours truly.

Sorsha (Joanne Whalley) in Willow the series
Photo: Disney+

Disney+’s Willow is set about 20 years after the events of the film. As now Queen Sorsha (Joanne Whalley) explains in the opening narration, our heroes thought they had won the war against evil for good. However, Willow has a nightmarish vision of an ancient evil returning to destroy the rightful empress, Elora Danan. Sorsha decides to hide the child away, keeping her identity a secret from even Elora herself.

When we catch up to the present day, Madmartigan and Sorsha’s twins Kit (Ruby Cruz) and Airk (Dempsey Bryk) have grown into spoiled, spirited chips off the old block. Kit would rather crave adventure than submit to an arranged marriage with Galladoorn’s scholarly Prince Graydon (Tony Revolori) and spends her days training as a warrior with bestie Jade (Erin Kellyman). Sweet, flirty, airhead Airk, meanwhile, has found himself caught up in a romance with adorable kitchen maid “Dove” (Ellie Bamber). (A future episode reveals her name is Brunhilde, but she understandably prefers Airk’s nickname.)

All seems well until evil strikes. A cadre of monstrous warriors descend upon Sorsha’s castle in Tir Asleen and kidnap Prince Airk. This sparks the central quest of Willow Season 1: a ragtag group of warriors, rogues, and naifs team up to save Airk. First, though, they need to seek the help of the wisest sorcerer alive…Willow Ufgood.

Dove and Airk kissing in Willow (2022)
Photo: Disney+

As far as television goes, Willow is not high art. It doesn’t have the pathos or electricity of Disney+’s last flagship series, Andor. However, it still rules. Willow is the perfect continuation of the 1988 film. Creator and showrunner Jonathan Kasdan has imbued the series with all of the hallmarks of a labor of love. Scenes from the film are revisited and expanded upon. Fan favorite characters like Kevin Pollack’s Rool returns with his own daughter in tow. Warwick Davis’s real-life daughter Annabelle is allowed steal scenes as the grown up version of Willow’s daughter Mims.

The most incredible part of Willow is its heart. I found myself utterly charmed by this new generation of gawky heroes and plucky heroines hurling themselves into the fight against evil. Willow feels less like a massively expensive attempt by a streamer to chase Game of Thrones‘s cultural clout and more like a love letter to RPG nerds and ’80s fantasy.

Willow sagely avoids a lot of the mistakes made by more “prestige” fantasy projects. Where Prime Video’s The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power undermined itself with frustrating mystery boxes and unnecessary backstories, Willow gets right to the meat of the story. Spoilers, but we learn rather quickly what became of Elora Danan. And because Willow faces that reveal early on, we get to watch the characters sit with the emotional repercussions of that knowledge.

Kit, Jade, Boorman, and Graydon on horseback in 'Willow'
Photo: Disney+

Furthermore, Willow is able to honor the world of 1988’s Willow while inviting new fans in. When we learn more about Bavmorda’s backstory or the culture of the Death Reapers, it’s to complicate what we know about our younger heroes, and what they know about themselves. And much like Willow itself made progressive strides for its time, the show doesn’t shy away from the ways in which cultural mores have shifted in the last three decades. (Ahem, yes, there is explicit gay romance in this show!) As Graydon sagely tells Kit in Episode 1, “One day you and I are gonna be in charge. And when that day comes, we don’t have to do things the way our parents did.” Willow remains true to the ’80s film while bringing a 2022 attitude to the screen.

Another one of Willow‘s strengths is its ensemble cast. Original Willow star Joanne Whalley dazzles as an older version of warrior princess Sorsha and Christian Slater hams up the scenery in his late season guest turn. But the real stars are the new kids in this magical world. Ellie Bamber is absolutely endearing as a muffin-making maestro who finds herself way over her head and Dempsey Bryk is maybe the most likable himbo since Noah Centineo’s star-turn in To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. Amar Chadha-Patel offers some great sarcastic and swaggering comic relief as thief Boorman, while Ruby Cruz and Erin Kellyman effortlessly sell Kit and Jade’s connection as something soulful and special. And of course, Warwick Davis gorgeously takes ownership of the mantle of mentor.

Willow might not be the most sophisticated fantasy series of the year, but it is the most unabashedly joyous. Disney+’s Willow is a perfect storm of new and nostalgia, full of characters who will tug on your heartstrings and set pieces that will leave the whole family breathless with laughter.

The first two episodes of Willow premiere on Disney+ on Wednesday, November 30. New episodes premiere weekly on Wednesdays.