Recently, I sat down with my seven-year-old son to watch Willow, Ron Howard’s 1988 fantasy epic. I was the same age as he is now when it first arrived in theatres.
The film, in which Willow Ufgood, a simple farmer who dreams of becoming a great sorcerer, embarks on a quest to save the world, remains one of my favourite movies of all-time. (I couldn’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen it, and once even gave a class presentation about it in grade school, which tells you the kind of kid I was.) It is a portal to my childhood – the closest thing to a time machine that exists – and so I was excited to share it with my son.
I pressed play. The Lucasfilm logo gave way to the prologue text, which explains how the evil Queen Bavmorda has imprisoned the realm’s pregnant women in order to seize the baby it is prophesied will one day overthrow her. Cut to a wailing baby, ripped from her mother’s arms. Bavmorda and her dark wizards arrive in the dungeon to begin the ritual to banish the child to a different dimension.
“Please turn it off.” I looked over at my son. His face was twisted in anguish, tears streaming down his cheeks. I hit pause. We’d lasted about 90 seconds. I put on Bluey.
Maybe I’ll hold off on introducing him to the new Disney+ series, Willow, a sentence I cannot believe I just typed, the first two episodes of which premiere this week after years of waiting for a sequel that never arrived.
The series, from showrunner Jon Kasdan (who came up with the idea while working with Ron Howard on 2018′s Solo: A Star Wars Movie) is set a couple of decades after the events of the movie. Joanne Whalley returns as Sorsha, Bavmorda’s virtuous daughter; who is now Queen and the mother of two: Airk, a girl-crazy swordsman, just like his father, Madmartigan (Val Kilmer, who looms large over the series in spirit, though not in body); and headstrong Kit, who is bequeathed to a hapless prince from a neighbouring kingdom.
One night, monsters attack the castle and kidnap Airk. A fellowship is quickly assembled to go after him, which includes Kit’s best friend, Jade, who is on the cusp of becoming the kingdom’s first woman knight; Graydon, the aforementioned hapless prince; and Boorman, a treasure hunter who once served as Madmartigan’s squire, and was with him on the quest on which he went missing.
Speaking of missing – viewers might ask the same question my son did after I turned off the movie: Where’s Willow? The sorcerer is almost entirely absent from the uneven first episode. But we’ve been waiting 30 years for this moment. What’s another 50 minutes?
In any case, this Willow, once he shows up, is different. What I, and probably most kids, loved about the character was that we could see ourselves in him (quite literally: actor Warwick Davis is a dwarf) and latched onto the film’s message that even small people can do big things. The Willow of the film was kind, persistent and brave; in the show, he’s cranky, jaded and arrogant. He sees himself as one of the world’s greatest sorcerers, one who never got the proper credit for vanquishing Bavmorda. The gentle charm that infused Davis’s performance is almost entirely gone; here he’s sour, impatient and pretty much a total jerk, disinterested in going on another quest to save the world.
He’s also very funny. Unlike most of the fantasy shows on TV right now, Willow never takes itself too seriously. Magic wands, spell books, visions and prophecies – so, so many visions and prophecies – are inherently silly, and Willow leans into the absurd elements of the genre. It is a rather strange show – certain scenes and narrative decisions left me scratching my head, not because they don’t work but because it seemed, for a moment, Kasdan and his team forgot what show they were making. I’m still trying to figure out an encounter with a pair of woodcutters that comes midway through the third episode that felt like a lost sketch from Tim Robinson’s I Think You Should Leave.
In any case, the show gains momentum after its lacklustre first episode, and hits its stride by the fourth. And although it doesn’t approach the highs, or feature the cerebral storytelling of another Disney+ show, Andor, Willow is one of the streamer’s best series to date. I cannot believe that I’m living in a world where a Willow TV show exists.
A few days later, as I watched the original film again, my son came and sat next to me on the couch. It was an early scene set in Willow’s village after he’s found Elora Danan, the baby from the start of the movie. My son watched in silence for a few minutes, and then began to pepper me with questions: Why is Willow small? Does he know magic? What happens next? Is there a scary part coming up?
When the scary part arrived, he put his hands over his eyes, and then ran upstairs to his bedroom. But at least he’d met Willow. And although he didn’t come back down that night, he continued to ask me questions about the movie in the days that followed. I could tell that a spell had been cast.
Willow is available to stream on Disney+ starting Nov. 30.