It's almost a breath of fresh air to watch the new Disney+ show "Willow," a sequel sharing the same name as its 1988 predecessor. Where so many of the current spate of big-budget Disney+ series are heavily tied to something greater, whether it's the Marvel Cinematic Universe or the "Star Wars" franchise, nu-"Willow" is connected only to itself. While the TV revival comes from the greater Lucasfilm enterprise, it is, of course, fully disconnected from the franchise on which George Lucas made his name, set in a galaxy far, far away. That singular connection for "Willow" is the selling point … or rather, that should be the selling point. Yet even by the end of the first episode, "Willow" feels very much like a TV-length take on the way "The Force Awakens" revived "Star Wars" seven years ago. Everything old is new again.
Of course, where shows like "The Book of Boba Fett" and "The Mandalorian" can bank on the audience's larger-scale awareness of all things "Star Wars," there's a bit more of a recap of "Willow", the 1988 film, in "Willow", the show, especially the early episodes (I've seen seven of the eight episodes.) No doubt the '80s film has its admirers, but they're fewer and farther between than fans of "Star Wars" or even less popular Marvel characters like Moon Knight and Hawkeye.
The original "Willow," directed by Ron Howard and written by Bob Dolman, was a medieval adventure in which an aspiring sorcerer named Willow (Warwick Davis) went on a quest with the sly rogue Madmartigan (Val Kilmer) to stop an evil tyrant from being generically evil and tyrannical. There was a fair maiden, Sorsha (Joanne Whalley), as well as an infant named Elora Danan who could turn into the most powerful force for good unless the evil tyrant destroyed the kiddo. Good prevailed over evil, and everyone lived happily ever after, but of course, only for so long. (Otherwise, there would be no show.) Now, Sorsha oversees a tiny but kind kingdom, including her twin children Kit and Airk (Ruby Cruz and Dempsey Bryk, respectively), but she can't help but shake a familiar voice in her head warning of danger lurking ahead.
Of course, there is danger lurking ahead, beginning when a terrifying witch kidnaps Airk for murky reasons. His abduction spurs Kit and a few others, including her best friend Jade (Erin Kellyman); her betrothed, the awkward Graydon (Tony Revolori); Airk's fair maiden Dove (Ellie Bamber); and an imprisoned scoundrel (Amar Chadha-Patel) into action to embark on a quest of their own to rescue the prince. And if, along the way, they encounter the legendary and now older and grizzled Willow, who recognizes true magic among their group, wouldn't that be a lovely coincidence?
A Strange Brew
"Willow," like a lot of recent streaming series, is a feature film story stretched out to televisual episodic structure. There are some initial twists and turns regarding our protagonists, such as why Kit's so displeased at being betrothed to a dorky stranger (it's not just because he's a dorky stranger) or the current whereabouts of Elora Danan. But the ways that these supposed shockers take form – especially the surprise regarding Kit's personal life – takes an awfully long time to get going, doled out over the languorously-paced opening episodes.
The effect of "The Force Awakens" and the overall "Star Wars" sequel trilogy on this show is hard to shake. Willow seems initially like a mix of both the elder Han Solo and Luke Skywalker, while one particularly important character echoes Rey by saying "I'm nobody!" at one key point. But the recap style of the opening installments is at least clear enough to those of us who know "Willow" only from long-ago viewings to pick up the basic good vs. evil rehash going on in the show.
Aside from feeling like a two-hour movie stretched to a length of eight hours, easily the most baffling thing about "Willow" is its imbalance between a tendency to make fun of its medieval trappings with modern humor and references, and a tendency to embrace those medieval trappings with sincerity. This show doesn't know if it wants to make fun of itself or be a proudly old-fashioned Middle Ages-style adventure. Sometimes the show seems to very badly want to be cool and edgy, which would have to explain the presence of modern covers of "Enter Sandman", "The Hurdy Gurdy Man", and "Black Hole Sun" playing over the end credits.
And some of the dialogue is aggressively anachronistic. Consider how one character is asked if they've ever been in a fight and responds, "You mean, like, verbally?" Or consider when Willow berates someone as being "the worst apprentice ever." Jokes such as these owe a debt to the writing style of Joss Whedon, from as far back as "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" (which at least was set in the present, allowing for snark and hipper-than-thou sarcasm), and seem out of place with the film. So it's somewhat difficult to grasp who this show is for – will the diehard fans want a show that's only partly similar to the film they love? Leaving that aside, some of the jokes feel intentionally juvenile, but the fantastical elements are dark and spooky enough to imply an audience above the elementary-school set.
Whether or not the audience for a "Willow" TV series is legion is arguably immaterial — the show just needs to be entertaining enough to work. Though there are a number of inexplicably surprising cameos in the show, including at least one Emmy winner who's next to unrecognizable as a friendly forest-dweller, "Willow" is most fascinating to watch from a standpoint of cultural anthropology, without being entertaining enough. The strange brew of 21st-century-style dialogue (with many of the younger actors' American accents warring with Davis' natural English tones, aside from their anachronistic chatter), glib tone, swordplay, and head-scratchers like a "Crimson and Clover" cover (because … sure? Why not?) lands with a bit of a thud after the recently completed first season of Lucasfilm's last effort, "Andor." "Willow" isn't trying to be adult or mature in that way, but the sense of epic scope needed for an adventure like this to work is hiding behind faux-sly humor that belies a lack of confidence in the story.
"Willow" premieres November 30, 2022, on Disney+.
Read this next: Single-Season '80s Sci-Fi And Fantasy Shows That Deserve A Second Shot
The post Willow Review: The Latest TV Show That Should've Been A Movie appeared first on /Film.