Yikes! It’s time for some nostalgia for times that never existed; yes, this new production from Lucasfilm is both a sequel and a reboot of the 1988 film. Even as a teenager, I steered clear of this sub-Tolkein mish-mash of elves, princesses and whatever, and didn’t really expect to see such a compromised IP resurrected in my lifetime. Rotten Tomatoes are politely running with ‘this series-length sequel should satisfy fans who’ve been patiently waiting for more Willow’ which is probably true, but who exactly has been patiently waiting for more Willow? In several decades of writing about and talking about films, I’m yet to encounter a single soul who has anything good to say about Ron Howard’s original film. (Narrator’s voice; No-one ever has).
Yet with Howard, Kathleen Kennedy and Brian Grazer producing, Indiana Jones 5 scribe Jonathan Kasdan developing the script and a name cast from Joanne Whalley to Ralph Ineson to boot, shouldn’t 2022’s Willow be given a chance to appeal to a wider audience than before? As the first two episodes drop on Disney+, we wrap up a quick recap of the original film’s rather forgettable events before diving into a new story; Elora Danan, future Empress of Tir Asleen has grown up to be played by Ellie Bamber, and now works as a kitchen maid at the court of Queen Sorcha (Whalley). Sorcha has two grown-up kids, laconic Princess Kit (Ruby Cruz) and her twin brother Airk (Heartland’s Dempsey Bryk). Airk gets kidnapped by the Gales running a foggy assault on their home, and Kit and Elora set out to locate the fabled sorcerer Willow (Warwick Davies) to tell them what they should do….
The regular reader of this review-site will know that I’ve never seen a dwarf banquet that I liked; I’m not good with rule-free fantasy universes, and despite coming from the imagination of George Lucas, the world of Willow always seemed like a tiresome one. ‘I am me!’ announces Willow once we finally find him, but such cuteness feels largely un-essential in a violent mix of LotR and GoT that left me FuBAR. The Val Kilmer character Madmartigan, a Han Solo-type rogue that provides comic relief from the po-faced magical dwarf action, is sorely missing, although the personable Cruz is a stand-out as his snarko daughter. And while the story is fairly bogged-down in classic tropes, there are the dashes of wit we might hope for from a Kasdan script; ‘I’m afraid of dying. That, and communal bathing’ says one character, while there’s some fairly anachronistic jokes including Donovan’s Hurdy-Gurdy Man and amusing use of the modern slang word ‘really’.
I guess if Disney+ want to create a big-budget fantasy series, they’ve got more chance of finding an audience if it links to an existing IP, but in Willow’s case, that IP seems to be so poorly remembered that it drags the new venture down, and the Willow tv show will have to stand on its own dubious merits. There seem to be enough Star Wars fans to make each return to that universe some kind of fan-boy event, but it’s hard to imagine exactly who might dig Willow’s dated fantasy of ‘finger tests’, force fields and other ephemera. Breathing new life into venerable, unloved IP like Willow is a fairly impossible task; with Disney’s recent pivot from film-makers to a moneybags streamer disrupting cinema a la Netflix and Prime currently under question, Willow feels like a dead end for considerable talent and investment. Sure, fans may dig it, but it’s hard to see who else Willow’s wacky 80’s world might even work for.