Review by Brian Lowry, CNN
Disney’s press materials refer to the original 1988 movie “Willow” as “beloved,” which despite its admirers feels like nostalgic inflation of a pretty generic George Lucas-plotted fantasy that provided an early directing showcase for Ron Howard. Setting that aside, a Disney+ revival series isn’t without its charms, in a more contemporary narrative that brings back Warwick Davis while focusing on the next generation.
The series begins by recounting the events of the movie, which saw Davis’ simple farmer Willow turn sorcerer and join in a fierce battle to protect a baby who carried the kingdom’s destiny on her tiny shoulders, overcoming ancient evil with the help of the swordsman Madmartigan and (eventually) princess Sorsha. The latter were played by Val Kilmer and Joanne Whalley, respectively, who as an off-screen bonus got married after the film.
Kilmer, amid his struggle with cancer, remains out of the picture, but Whalley returns as the now-queen and mother of two headstrong grown children, who play roles in a mythical quest that requires journeying across treacherous lands to thwart the evil crone.
As for the aforementioned baby, Elora Danan, she has grown up in anonymity, “Sleeping Beauty”-like, to protect her, although her identity (a not-to-be-revealed spoiler) soon becomes known. The quest includes a colorful band with plenty of youthful relationship issues, including Princess Kit (Ruby Cruz), who is secretly in love with the knight charged with training her (Erin Kellyman, whose credits include Lucasfilm’s “Solo: A Star Wars Story”); and Boorman (Amar Chadha-Patel), an irreverent brawler in the Madmartigan mode.
Jonathan Kasdan (who also worked on “Solo”) serves as showrunner, collaborating with four directors who each oversaw back-to-back episodes. As constructed, “Willow” draws upon the original while weaving in flourishes that recall the “Lord of the Rings” movies, including lots of sweeping green countryside and abundant, occasionally quite-violent action.
As is so often the case with the growing subgenre of expanded-to-series sequels, this “Willow” at times feels as if it’s spinning its wheels, devoting lengthy stretches to Willow guiding the now-older Elora to master her powers, which he presents as the only hope of saving the kingdom. And while Kilmer’s absence leaves a sizable hole Kasdan and company do a reasonably good job of filling it, including the late arrival of another knight (Christian Slater) with whom Madmartigan shared some history.
Beyond modern-sounding dialogue and situations, the story does exhibit plenty of playful irreverence and humor mixed in among the action sequences and elaborate fantasy production design. The latter in particular suggest that this revival was no small undertaking, and to its credit, it looks like that money ended up on the screen.
While that combination doesn’t add up into making “Willow” significantly worthier of the “beloved” label than its late-’80s predecessor, consumed on its own unpretentious terms, it’s easy enough to like.
“Willow” premieres November 30 on Disney+.
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