When Disney bought Lucasfilm in 2012, it was easy to get swept up in the excitement and trepidation of more Star Wars films and overlook all the other things that came along with the deal. Willow was one of the treasures in Lucas’ content war chest, returning on Disney+ as a series on 30 November.
Amid all the talk of lightsabers and bullwhips, perhaps the transaction’s most valuable asset was the very concept of nostalgia itself. For many, it’s this rose-tinted, ethereal concept that has since come to define Willow, 1988’s fantasy epic that has since become happily baked into many a movie fan’s psyche thanks to years spent rewatching battered VHS tapes.
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As the first original story Lucas wrote after Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and his first major big-screen project since Return of the Jedi, a lot was riding on this big film with a little hero. In it, we met Willow Ufgood (Warwick Davis), a wannabe sorcerer who finds a human baby named Elora Danan who’s destined to become ruler of his mystical realm.
With an ancient witch also after the child, it’s up to this unlikely hero and his roguish new frenemy Madmartigan (Val Kilmer) to stop the evil crone and ensure both the child’s safety and a happily ever after.
Directed by Ron Howard, it was a moderate hit. However, despite emerging as a defining representational moment for people with dwarfism and a big leap forward for Industrial Light and Magic’s CGI wizards, the film was far from a Star Wars level smash.
Still, as the years passed, love for Willow and his James Horner-penned hero theme grew alongside levels of nostalgia surrounding the film itself. As we suddenly find ourselves back in this world more than three decades later, this same sense of love emerges as a kind of pop-culture power source used to fuel one of the most fun Disey+ series yet, especially after the high-flying tension of Andor.
Watch a trailer for Willow
Picking up chronologically after Howard’s movie, series developer and writer behind Solo: A Star Wars Story, Jonathan Kasdan, wastes no time setting the scene for a new quest. Like any good legacy sequel, we first meet a new cast charged with driving the story forward.
There’s Kit (Ruby Cruz), princess and daughter of original movie character Sorcha (Joanne Whalley), who’s due to marry the book-loving prince Gradyon (Tony Revolori) but seems much more interested in her sparring partner Jade (Erin Kellyman). However, when her brother Prince Airk (Dempsey Byrk) is suddenly kidnapped by evil forces, Willow remerges and warns of the return of an ancient evil that must be stopped.
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From here, the powers-that-be summon a Fellowship-style troupe consisting of Kit, Jade, Gradyon, humble kitchen maid Dove (Ellie Bamber) and a fast-talking warrior and former criminal named Boorman (Amer Chadha-Patel) and send them out beyond the magical barrier protecting their citadel to rescue Airk and also their world.
Plenty of questions and secrets remain — like the location of the now-all-grown-up Elora Danan and the location of Kilmer’s Madmartigan — but as their quest unfurls, Kasdan and his cast have fun delivering answers and fan service in equal measure, while combining the wholesome vibe of Howard’s movie with some sassy humour and fearsome, old-school practical effects.
While it’s hard not to wonder why Kasdan’s series wasn’t just a movie (perhaps Willow’s relative cult status is to blame this safer-bet, serialised sequel) and some comedic styles feel a little rustier than others, its movie-split-into-chunks vibe makes it hard not to get swept up in the pacey speed of this colouful fantasy adventure.
It’s undeniably fun seeing Davis back in his old robes — this time as a curmudgeonly seen-some-s*** wizard with dry comedic wit — but thankfully, it’s just as fun spending time with the show’s newcomers, with Chadha-Patel’s bad-good-guy Boorman providing much of the show’s lasting laughs.
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Throw some great guest spots into the mix and Willow emerges as a nice and light follow-up for all those craving more sword-and-shield adventure after binging House of the Dragon — admittedly with far fewer dragons, swearing and inbred relationships.
Plus, it arrives just in time for the Christmas break, making it the perfect nostalgia trip to help you demolish that box of Quality Street while being swept away on a good old Lucas fantasy. Magic!
Willow is streaming on Disney+ from 30 November with two episodes, with new episodes arriving weekly.
Watch: Warwick Davis talks to Yahoo about returning as Willow