The "Willow" legend continues, only now the quest is open to all who would take it, including girls

Although the Disney+ show takes time to hit its stride, it offers a refreshing take on the usual fantasy narrative

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published November 30, 2022 2:59PM (EST)

Warwick Davis in "Willow" (Disney+/Lucasfilm Ltd.)
Warwick Davis in "Willow" (Disney+/Lucasfilm Ltd.)

When "Willow" made its theatrical debut back in 1988, most movie critics were middle-aged white men, save for the likes of Janet Maslin. To a large extent, that's still true. However, it's important to keep this in mind when considering how George Lucas' fantasy was received.

Here was Ron Howard directing a friendly hybrid of fairy tale and Tolkien-inspired quest about the someday empress Elora Danan, a magical infant protected by an aspiring sorcerer played by Warwick Davis.

"Willow" is a simple story, in which Willow Ufgood joins the valiant swashbuckler Madmartigan (played by Val Kilmer) and, eventually, the warrior Sorsha (Joanne Whalley) to save the kingdom of Tir Asleen. But Davis, whose biggest part before this was the main Ewok in "The Return of the Jedi," was not your typical savior. In the climactic battle, Willow uses his ordinary talent to pull off an extraordinary victory over the villain, Sorsha's evil mother Queen Bavmorda.

All this likely contributed to "Willow" earning two thumbs down from Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, and an emphatic "meh" from others. But if you were a kid back then, "Willow" may occupy an honored place in your memory for the same reasons the critics didn't get it.  "Willow" decentralizes the typical white male hero in its power fantasy, making the most important person in the universe a baby girl and the second most a little person. It's also unafraid to make light of a genre that used to take itself far too seriously.

WillowSorsha (Joanne Whalley) in "Willow" (Disney+/Lucasfilm Ltd.)

The new Disney+ series continuation expands that tradition by placing a queer romance at the heart of its story, one part of a more inclusive vision of what destiny-bound heroes look like. 

Nevertheless, in a genre that still has a male savior complex, placing the quest in the hands of capable young women and tasking them with rescuing a prince instead of the other way around is refreshing. Along with their companions, each is on a mission to find their true greatness, whether intentional or accidental.

The series picks up Elora Danan's legend years later, long after Madmartigan has disappeared, leaving Sorsha to rule Tir Asleen, and raise their children Prince Airk (Dempsey Bryk) and Princess Kit (Ruby Cruz). Airk has his father's penchant for womanizing, while Kit inherited his swordsmanship.

Only when the party gallops away from the castle does the cast's chemistry coalesce.

This comes in handy when Airk is taken by servants of another rising evil, sending Kit and her best friend and knight-in-training Jade (Erin Kellyman) on a mission to find him. Their mother refuses to let them go alone, assigning a battle-hardened rogue, Boorman (Amar Chada-Patel), to assist. Kit's reluctant but brainy betrothed Graydon (Tony Revolori) also tags along, as does a kitchen maid named Dove (Ellie Bamber), who is smitten with Airk.

WillowGraydon (Tony Revolori), Boorman (Amar Chadha-Patel), Dove (Ellie Bamber), Kit (Ruby Cruz), Willow Ufgood (Warwick Davis) and Jade (Erin Kellyman) in "Willow" (Disney+/Lucasfilm Ltd.)

And in case the name doesn't provide enough of a hint, their first assignment is to bring Willow out of retirement to find the long-lost Elora Danan yet again, since he and Sorsha hid her identity from everyone, including her, after their first adventure together.

In the same way that the film dropped into a decade in which cinematic sword and sorcery tales were primarily defined by the likes of "Conan the Barbarian" and John Boorman's "Excalibur," the TV series comes to us in a time when fantasy is shaped by "Game of Thrones."

The good news about that is that the genre is decidedly more mainstream than it once was. Even Chris Pine is starring in an upcoming movie based on "Dungeons & Dragons." That means the audience is primed to accept details, like anachronistic language, that didn't land as well in the 1980s.

Just as Kilmer didn't strain to take on a British accent and screenwriter Bob Dolman refused to contort the script to fit J.R.R. Tolkien's version of formal English, the latest "Willow" heroes sound and think like the people who are keen to watch their adventures unfold.

Only when the party gallops away from the castle does the cast's chemistry coalesce.

Still, it takes a couple of episodes to acclimate to what the show is aiming to do. Like every other piece of TV fiction stretching its narrative hands back in time to connect to an established story, the opening pair of episodes are laden with clunky exposition reestablishing the legend of Elora Danan, striving mightily to remind us of why we once cared and should care now. (This isn't quite a spoiler, but you can figure out what happened to Elora Danan from the moment that one of the characters walks onto the screen.)

WillowGraydon (Tony Revolori) and Jade (Erin Kellyman) in "Willow" (Disney+/Lucasfilm Ltd.)

On the other hand, this "Willow" features inspired cameos that reflect how beloved it has become in the years since its release. Enlisting Whalley to reprise Sorsha is a nice touch and a surefire way to send anyone who hasn't seen the original story since it first came out in the Disney archives for a rewatch. Other celebrities with obvious connections to either the movie or 1980s nostalgia also pop up along the way, including one late appearance meant to serve as an ode to Kilmer.

"Willow" grants viewers of all ages comfortable entry into its realm.

It's unknown whether the original Madmartigan will make an appearance, but Chadha-Patel revels in playing up the roguish humor the "Top Gun" actor brought to the movie, especially in his scenes with Cruz.

WillowScorpia (Adwoa Aboah), Toth (Charlie Rawes) and Boorman (Amar Chadha-Patel) in "Willow" (Disney+/Lucasfilm Ltd.)

Revolori's amiable turn as the band's well-read brainiac keeps a group that primarily depends on edged weapons and acrobatics connected to its large-heartedness. In the main, it is Davis who takes a bit of time to warm up to the title character he first brought to the screen when he was 17 years old. His current version of the sorcerer is a weary man who is aware of his shortcomings but willing to take on a task nobody else is up to. Initially, though, his performance conflates mature concern with emotional flatness.

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For the longest time, being a woman who loves high fantasy meant expecting to seeing yourself in limited roles. Women could be wise and beautiful sages, mages, or queens, the most powerful of which tended to be evil. Or they're princesses in need of saving, whether for love or a grand reward bestowed by one or both of her parents, usually her father.

Then again, as "Game of Thrones" demonstrated, there are worse ways for a woman's power to be portrayed and earned. Considering how emotionally challenging it can be for women to watch adaptations of George R.R. Martin's work, for girls they're downright nightmarish.

This series makes a laudable effort to bring some balance to that energy by empowering all of its heroes with physical and emotional resilience, granting viewers of all ages comfortable entry into this realm.

I still wish that "Willow" were as consistently electric from the start as it eventually becomes from the third episode onward. Then again, if "Willow" takes a couple of episodes to find its greatness, perhaps the story's spirit dictates that is as it should be.

The first two episodes of "Willow" debut Wednesday, Nov. 30 on Disney +.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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Disney Plus George Lucas Review Ron Howard Tv Warwick Davis Willow