When you’re sequelizing an almost-35-year-old movie, awkward shoehorning is going to be part of the territory. In the case of “Willow,” there’s rationalizing why some cast members have returned while others haven’t, justifying the technical leaps in the time since, and adjusting what counts as a modern spin on a time-tested genre. The new Disney+ series, kicking off with an eight-episode season that extends into early 2023, almost seems to realize that all this is a required price for its own existence.
The opening episode of this TV version of “Willow” does all it can to thread the nostalgia needle, right from the opening minutes. The series kicks off with a recap that reduces the 1988 Ron Howard film to a “Previously on,” the first indication that the show is initially banking more on lore and familiar characters than recapturing the overall spirit of the original. True to form, the show’s title character is given the grand, hallowed reveal we’ve come to expect from these decades-later revisits.
It’s a small central unit that seeks out Willow (Warwick Davis), desperate for his help on a far-reaching rescue. There’s the princess Kit (Ruby Cruz), following in the footsteps of her mother Sorsha (a returning Joanne Whalley) as the more active, adventurous member of the royal line. She’s accompanied by a band of misfits including companion Jade (Erin Kellyman), the bookish betrothed Graydon (Tony Revolori), and bodyguard/royal pardon-seeker Boorman (Adar Chadha-Patel), among others.
Once Willow becomes a more active part of the story instead of someone whispered about as a potential magical savior, “Willow” itself tries to bring the rest of the show in line to who this character is, roughly 467 moons after he first arrived. He’s quippy, indignant, or mentoring, depending on the situation, and always the messenger for whatever bad news the team around him is about to face.
The main problem is that, for at least the first half of this season, that ragtag feeling of the show’s core questers gets stretched to the show as a whole. The palace of Kit’s family and the immediate area have the feel of a medieval high school show, complete with dramedy sass and intrigue that feel shoehorned in to get a new generation to care about the fantasy stories of their parents’ formative years. “Willow” wants to have it both ways, to soften up the edges of culture-dominating premium cable/streaming shows and smush them together. There’s goofy, self-aware, MCU-ready undercut comedy for the crowd who thinks that the genre is too self-serious. There’s mystical, world-ending sorcery stakes for the crowd who thinks that anything with a solid genre streak should only be for grown ups. In the season’s first half, neither approach quite works and certainly not in close proximity to each other.
It doesn’t help at all that “Willow” — true to its Lucasfilm pedigree — slides right into another Chosen One narrative. The show races right toward another story of one group having to save all of humanity from monsters and unspecified dangers that come from the sky. (In a moment that summarizes just about everything exhausting about the show, Willow snarkily proclaims, “In case you hadn’t noticed, a portal between dimensions is opening.”) Along the way, all the bloodless stabbings and decapitations still leave this show without any sense of a real threat (except for the ones outlined in one of Willow’s many Calvinball-style explanations of how specific members of their party are destined to save the world).
And then, in the show’s back half, “Willow” readjusts. There’s a side-quest element to a lot of the setup here, with characters splitting up in groups and handling their own dangers and their own business in their chosen way. When the emphasis is on letting this group feel like a unit that’s connecting organically rather than out of some necessity to prevent dimension-wide catastrophe, there’s some genuine fun and excitement there. Outside of Willow, Boorman feels like the most accurate barometer for how well the show is succeeding. When the show’s tone is disjointed early on, the character sticks out like an import from a completely unrelated project. As “Willow” gets a better handle on its own strengths, Chadha-Patel becomes the one with the best handle on the overall throughline.
The longer the show continues, it also benefits from a steady diet of guest stars who have that similar sense of the best possible version of what “Willow” can be. (It’s a collection that starts roughly around the on-screen arrival of Annabelle Davis and grows to include some pleasant additions best not spoiled here.) They pop up with a much-needed infusion of energy and provide a temporary distraction from the labored, tired talk of destiny. Those new one-off characters also appear in the midst of some fresh new environments, some of which offer a nice counterbalance to the familiar fantasy locations that can sometimes feel like box-checking elsewhere.
That sense of familiarity is certainly intentional in some places, where “Willow” becomes not only a place to nod to the original film but to the countless other franchises that series creator Jonathan Kasdan, his screenwriting family, and their famous collaborators have dipped into over the years. There’s an awfully fine line between winking and creating a syllabus, one that “Willow” treads with every bit of its Disney+ budget.
Yet, the best parts of “Willow” don’t feel beholden to anything. Late in the season, those side-quests become the main attraction, offering a chance for this group to brush up against the kind of magic that doesn’t come from a wand or a staff. There are real anxieties and desires and some unexpected bouts with impostor syndrome. In visual, thematic, and spiritual ways, “Willow” manages to carve out some room of its own that doesn’t feel connected to algorithmic genre expectations or the finer points of a plot from decades past.
Still, it takes a lot of journeying to get there. Should “Willow” continue past the prophecy-centered arc that it’s set out for itself, there’s the potential for a show that feels like a true campaign centered on experiences rather than explanations. In the meantime, the strength of “Willow” is when it rolls its own dice instead of following a script set out by its predecessors.
“Willow” is now available to stream on Disney+. New episodes will be available on Wednesdays through the beginning of 2023.