Willow has been a long time coming. The original 1988 fantasy film that the new show is based on, which starred Warwick Davis as wide-eyed Nelwyn sorcerer Willow Ufgood, never enjoyed the critical or commercial success of LucasFilm’s previous endeavour (a little saga called Star Wars). It was damned, too, by comparisons with The Princess Bride, which had come out just one year earlier. But Willow grew into a bona fide cult hit, an original fantasy epic that helped propel Val Kilmer to stardom, and retains a loyal affection among its now-adult fans, decades after its release. So when Disney announced it was pushing ahead with a long-gestating sequel, split into eight episodes on Disney Plus, it qualified, for many people, as Big News.
Willow (the series) picks up roughly a couple of decades after the events of Willow (the film). Elora, the baby MacGuffin around whom the movie’s plot revolved, has been raised in total anonymity for her own safety. Sorsha (Joanne Whalley) is now queen, with two children: the spirited warrior Kit (Ruby Cruz), and her twin brother Airk (Dempsey Bryk), the palace’s resident f***boy. After an assault on the palace leads to Airk being taken by demons, Kit leads a ragtag fellowship of heroes – including kitchen maid Dove (Ellie Bamber) and a swashbuckling thief (Amar Chadha-Patel) – to find Willow and get him to aid in Airk’s rescue.
Willow was very much Davis’s apex as a movie star; he returns with the same sort of craggy gravitas as Mark Hamill in The Last Jedi – and subverts it just as nimbly. Cruz, a relative newcomer, delivers a charismatic and perhaps even star-making performance as Kit, but there’s no escaping just how idiosyncratically modern she both looks and sounds. The Green Knight’s Erin Kellyman, meanwhile, who plays Kit’s sparring partner cum apparent love interest, seems to have a face custom-built for chainmail. Kilmer’s absence among all this – a result of the health problems he has suffered in recent years – is keenly felt.
The script is often patience-strainingly earnest, but there’s a rich vein of (somewhat incongruous) humour running through it. This is a boon for Davis, who is far more engaging as a comic figure than as a straight man; lines such as “He’s a prisoner of the withered crone” sometimes clack out of his mouth like foreign objects. Also, like so much television now, Willow suffers from a muddy aesthetic during night scenes – a shame, because its daylit sequences generally look good, with fine production design, and there’s some real pep to the fight choreography.
Of course, this is all coming from someone who found the original Willow a bit of an embarrassing slog. If you’re one of the diehard fans, there’s every chance this will cast the selfsame spell that worked wonders back in 1988.