Willow is back!
34 years after the film Willow premiered from the creation of George Lucas and the direction of Ron Howard, we are journeying back to the world of Andowyne in the new Disney+ series Willow. Jon Kasdan serves as the showrunner (with Ron Howard returning as one of the show’s executive producers), and the show brings back the beloved Willow Ufgood and a brand new cast of delightful characters for a fun fantasy adventure that manages to more than capture the magic of the original film.
The first two episodes of the series premiered today, and though this is a Star Wars site, I’ll keep up with this series too. It’s the first non-Star Wars series that Lucasfilm has developed for Disney+, and along with Indiana Jones it’s one of three franchises that the company is returning to in the months ahead.
Let’s dive in to our review of the first two episodes of Willow: Episode 1: “The Gales,” and Episode 2: “The High Aldwin.” Full spoilers are ahead.
The series begins with Queen Sorsha (Joanne Whalley) calling her two children, Kit (Ruby Cruz) and Arik (Dempsey Bryk) to a dinner, where she announces a prearranged marriage between Kit and Graydon (Tony Revolori), a prince from another land. Kit and Graydon will one day rule the land, while everyone waits for the return of Elora Danan to rule as Empress and unite the peoples in their fight against evil. Upset about this arranged marriage, and upset that her best friend and love interest Jade (Erin Kellyman) is planning to train to be a knight, Kit plans to run away… until at night the city is attacked by the Gales, a group of sinister creatures. Sorsha frees the mysterious Boorman (Amar Chadha-Patel) from prison to aid the fight before she joins it herself, and as the heroes fight back against the Gales the enemy suddenly pulls away. It is discovered that they got what they came for, having taken Arik and disappeared.
In the wake of this, Kit volunteers to journey into the unknown far beyond the land to rescue him, and a team is formed. Sorsha sends them in search of the last sorcerer, one who had long ago foretold what would happen. The team is surprised to find that Arik’s most recent love interest, “Dove” (Ellie Bamber), follows them, but as they journey on and are attacked the crew presses forward together. They find the great sorcerer, Willow Ufgood (Warwick Davis), in a small village. He reveals to them where they must go, but is stopped in his tracks when he sees Dove. He uses a bit of magic to reveal the markings on her arm, revealing that, unbeknownst to any of them (including “Dove”), she is Elora Danan.
The second episode includes flashbacks of Willow speaking with Sorsha, wanting to start Elora’s training early, but Sorsha simply wants to let her have a normal life growing up. This leads to a big falling out between Willow and Sorsha, and he leaves to settle down outside the kingdom. Excited about the return of Elora, Willow wants to train her to become a great sorcerer, having seen that she is the only one who can stop the great evil that is out there. But Elora doesn’t grasp it as quickly as he’d like, leading to everyone involved being frustrated. She only agrees to this if Willow will travel with the group, training her as they go. Meanwhile, as Sorsha learns that Elora is missing, she sends out the captain of her guard, Ballantine (Ralph Ineson), to find her – but Ballantine has been infected by one of the Gales and is now serving them. Elora can’t grasp a simple spell of making a plant grow, and Willow gets upset – confessing to one of his friends that in his vision of what was to happen, in order for the evil to be stopped, Elora must die. While Elora is off by herself practicing the spell, she is ambushed and taken by Ballantine – but in the wake of it, we see a plant beginning to grow.
This should is just a ton of fun, in a way that a fantasy adventure series should be. I’m thoroughly enjoying it and think it’s fantastic.
It bears strong connections to the original film. The child that Willow found in the movie, which sparked the whole thing, was still a baby at the end of that movie, leading to all sorts of possibilities of what happened to Elora Danan. This show is following up on that, telling us that Sorsha hid her and that precious few people knew of her true identity. It’s a classic fantasy trope, that this humble young woman is actually the long-awaited ruler, but it works really well here – in part because the series doesn’t drag on the mystery forever. In the very first episode, we end with the reveal that Elora’s been hiding in plain sight all this time. It comes just late enough to serve as a very effective narrative device, but it’s not dragged on forever. Instead, it changes the dynamic of the series drastically, and that’s for the better.
There are other homages to the original film, namely in the appearance of Sorsha and the disappearance of Madmartigan. All their kids know is that Madmartigan left one day, never returning, but as these episodes go on we learn more tidbits: it was actually Sorsha who sent him away, in search of a mysterious artifact that she believed could defeat the evil that Willow believed only Elora could. She never saw him again. Furthermore, it turns out that Boorman was Madmartigan’s squire on the quest, revealing to Kit that not only does he know what happened to her father, but that her father found the artifact he sought after. There’s much about Boorman’s character that remains a mystery, but this fact alone – that he was Madmartigan’s squire on the quest – helps explain why he was imprisoned by Sorsha, why he was still sent by Sorsha on this mission, and why the enemy recognized him.
Perhaps the most surprising connection in all of this is that Willow and Sorsha had a falling out, one that seems to center around two things: first, that Sorsha didn’t believe Willow would actually become a great sorcerer, and second, that they disagreed on what to do with Elora. Yet as things unfold exactly as Willow had foreseen, in her moment of crisis with her son missing, Sorsha sends the group in search of Willow – who is as great as ever here. He’s charming, kind, and sincere, and from the moment he steps on-screen the show is better for it. Our heroes aren’t perfect and it hasn’t always been an easy ride in the years following their previous adventure, but they’re still easy to root for.
But all respect to Warwick Davis aside, the real stars of these two episodes are the fantastic ensemble cast of newcomers. Ruby Cruz, Erin Kellyman, Ellie Bamber, Tony Revolori, and Amar Chedha-Patel make up a powerful cast, and the series does a terrific job at introducing them well, allowing you to understand enough about them to care, while not getting slowed down by it. This is a rolling adventure that mixes humor and heart superbly, complete with a great cast, an engaging score, beautiful scenery, and exciting action sequences. In short, it’s just a lot of fun. That’s probably the best word I can come up with to describe it: it’s really fun.
This is a series you can jump into relatively easy (without needing to watch or keep up with tons of other stuff), settle back on the couch, and enjoy while you’re entertained with thrills and laughs. It won’t be for every Star Wars fan, but for fans of the original movie, you’ll find that it captures the fantasy magic in a way that you may not have thought possible. And for those not familiar with the original, it represents a good jumping-on point into this magical world. I was looking forward to it, but it certainly managed to exceeded my expectations! I thought it was great, and I can’t wait to see where it goes from here.