Who remembers Willow, the magical quest-in-a-forest film with Warwick Davis in it? It was released in 1988 and hasn’t spawned a spin-off screen universe since – when it has been mentioned, it’s usually in brackets after Davis’s name when he’s doing something else. But in the vicious streaming wars, any viewer-curiosity foothold is deemed invaluable. So here we are: there’s now a sequel in the form of a TV series on Disney+.
We return to Tir Asleen, which in long shot is a castle CGI’d into the Welsh countryside and in closeup is a standard fantasy community: knights, four-poster beds, banquets to celebrate an arranged marriage to unite two ancient kingdoms, and so on. In the film it was a battleground of spells, curses and witchery, but we learn that now it has forbad magic – this is very much the sort of place where people say “forbad” – to secure a peaceful existence. The mystery hanging over it is the whereabouts of Elora Danan, the child of destiny whose rescue was the plot driver of the original movie. Is she dead, hidden or banished? The residents of Tir Asleen don’t know.
Out on a nearby rocky outcrop, tomboyish princess Kit (Ruby Cruz, the murder victim’s best pal in Mare of Easttown) sword-fights lustily with her friend and training partner Jade (Erin Kellyman), before reluctantly returning indoors to put on the dress her mother, Queen Sorsha (Joanne Whalley, reprising her film role), has laid out for her. Kit is the bride in the aforementioned arranged union, so now she faces dutiful domestic inertia with nervous nerd Graydon (Tony Revolori). This is, in more ways than one, not what she wants.
But then, calamity! Despite Tir Asleen’s attempt to live a quiet, neutral life as a sort of Switzerland in a world of murderous sorcery, demonic invaders raid the castle and kidnap a prince. A rescue mission is required and, for reasons not dwelt on for too long because they might not make sense, Tir Asleen sends the kids: Kit, Jade, Graydon and a plucky kitchen maid called Dove (Ellie Bamber). They are pushed out into the great unknown, accompanied by the sarcastic and resourceful Boorman (Amar Chadha-Patel), who is a thief but also Tir Asleen’s most skilled warrior.
Dare these hopeful young adults progress beyond “The Barrier”, a magical forcefield and supersized metaphor for the parental bosom, to save the day? A coming-of age comedy on horseback develops and, as scripted by show creator Jonathan Kasdan, who wrote Solo: A Star Wars Story, it’s got a nice brisk sass to it, with some unexpectedly cheeky gags. Boorman responds with incredulity when told that every single one of his many crimes will be pardoned if he agrees to join the princess and her friends: “Even the one in the haberdashery? I … I just like the feel of velvet!” Or, when the naive Graydon admits his terror at being placed in peril: “I’m really scared of dying. That, and communal bathing.” The obvious unspoken romantic tension between Kit and Jade, meanwhile, isn’t left as a series of nudge-wink hints but resolved almost immediately, turning their relationship into something more progressive than two kids in the closet.
So where’s Willow? He – that is, Warwick Davis – emerges at the end of episode one to deliver the guessable but still neat twist that sets the series up properly. But in the second half of the opening double bill, the show loses momentum. Davis is a beloved performer, yet his comic timing isn’t as sharp as the less familiar actors around him, and his character’s status as a sorcerer and keeper of old lore and prophecies bogs the narrative down in the sort of boilerplate fantasy gubbins that the light-footed opener largely avoided. So far, Willow is almost better without Willow.
Still, if you’re inclined towards a YA-quest series, this one is at least on a par with others in that genre, such as Netflix’s thematically similar The Letter for the King. The gags are better and, if the episode one battle scene is any indication, the monster effects have just the right amount of foggy menace. Willow is worth reviving, even if we probably won’t remember it for long.