The two biggest fantasy shows of the year this year were… not the fantasy stuff I grew up on. House of the Dragon had plenty of gore and dragons, but was largely a show about the political machinations of a big incestuous family, and The Lord of the Rings seemed to spend every moment focused on being a gorgeous show with a staid pace that Tolkien would have loved but I found slow as hell. But I want a big adventure when I watch a fantasy show. I want to get that buzz of excitement I got the first time I watched Dragonslayer or Ladyhawke or even Labyrinth. Or the original Willow.
And the new show, set more than 20 years after Willow ended, is that adventure. It’s a wildly good time that requires zero knowledge of the world it brings to life — just a willingness to enjoy something earnest, kind, and fun.
That’s the word I kept coming back to after watching the first seven episodes. This show is fun. It takes time to create its characters but hews them just close enough to the tropes of an adventure story that you feel like you already know them. So there’s the princess who wants adventure and to escape her destiny, and the brave soldier torn between love and duty, and the wisecracking bastard with a heart of gold. There’s also Willow, played by Warwick Davis. He’s an older, wiser man haunted by bad choices and a need to do right. He’s also still the harried worrywart of the film.
We’ve been dealing with a lot of big generational sequels the last few years. Star Wars, Star Trek, Jurassic Park, Doctor Who, and even Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness delight in bringing back older actors to reprise roles alongside a younger generation. It’s a big nostalgia play and it usually only works on the surface. As much as I love Picard, I know that show is catering specifically to me — a person who grew up with The Next Generation and will forgive a lot of flaws to see my old faves.
Willow is pointedly doing the same thing, but in this case it works. I don’t feel disappointed by where Willow is in his life like I did when I met hermit Luke Skywalker. The big triumphant ending of the film Willow doesn’t lose anything just because this sequel has made our returning heroes a little miserable in the intervening years. Willow and Sorsha (played by Joanne Whalley) have had a falling out after Madmartigan (Val Kilmer) and Elora (the little baby) disappeared to save the world. Now he lives quietly and far away, she’s ruling the empire her evil mother and Elora left behind, and of course they don’t get along! She’s the warlord daughter of a murderous sorceress and he’s a kind wizard / farmer.
The new show, while being about Willow (and, to a much much much lesser extent, Sorsha) reckoning with all those dark years offscreen, is series of hero’s journeys for the younger cast. After Sorsha and Madmartigan’s beautiful himbo son Airk is kidnapped by some gorgeously designed monsters, his twin sister, the princess Kit (Ruby Cruz), sets off with her mysterious betrothed, Graydon (Tony Revolori); her best friend and crush, Jade (Erin Kellyman); warrior and thief Boorman (Amar Chadha-Patel); and the castle muffin baker, Dove (Ellie Bamber) to find Willow and Airk, and save the world from Airk’s kidnapper.
Every single one of those characters I just mentioned is a delight. They each grow and change over the course of the show, and sometimes they do it more than once an episode. There’s no hinging the plot on big mysteries or secrets — most of them are dealt with in the first few episodes. Instead, Willow just revels in being an adventure story, albeit a very funny one. This cast sparkles and the jokes fly surprisingly fast, but never at the cost of a dramatic moment. The action is good, too (though I still think the best fight scenes on TV this year were on Netflix’s Warrior Nun).
And the special effects find a perfect balance between the blend of stop-motion and practical that made ‘80s fantasy films fun and the CGI that’s more commonly used today. There are giant puppets, people wrapped up in gorgeous prosthetics, and flashy wizard fights. But creatures originally seen in the film aren’t updated. The monster dogs are still clearly just dogs covered in fake fur and the trolls are just dudes in suits and makeup. The result is something charming instead of goofy.
Because I’ll admit, while I don’t think you need any awareness of — or even fondness for — the original film, the show does spend plenty of time pushing the nostalgia button while looking knowingly at you, the audience. As someone who first saw the movie when she was five and always loved it, the nostalgia worked. I got a big smile on my face the first time I saw one of those stupid dogs, or Willow put a character through the magic test Billy Barty put him through in the original film.
Your mileage could vary. If you thought the original film was too dopey, you might not like this show. But if you’ve longed for a fantasy series that takes you on an exciting adventure with plenty of jokes, action, and (queer!) romance, then Willow is a treat. When people ask me what my favorite high fantasy show of the year was, it won’t be the one with dragons or a guy making rings. It’ll be Willow.
The first episode of Willow premieres on Disney Plus on November 30th. Episodes will air weekly after.