The streaming fantasy boom gets a welcome addition on November 30th when Willow begins streaming on Disney+. The eight episode series marks the return of a cult universe that probably not a lot of people thought about…but those who did are very happy indeed.
It’s often been said (by me anyway) that Disney leaves no scrap of IP unused. When the mega corp purchased Lucasfilm they got the obvious behemoth (Star Wars) and the beloved franchise (Indiana Jones) but also a couple of oddball things lying in a forgotten filing cabinet.
One such forgotten franchise was Willow, the 1988 film that marked the end point of another fantasy boom. Legend, Labyrinth, The Neverending Story, The Princess Bride, Ladyhawke…after Star Wars made SF extremely profitable, the idea of launching a fantasy series of films was a brass ring for many filmmakers. Yet as beloved as all those movies are in their own way – and as huge as fantasy is as a genre – nothing caught on, mostly because the VFX of the period just wasn’t up to the task.
The models and early CGI of Star Wars still holds up today, but for Willow – the story of a Nelwyn named Willow Ufgood who is tasked with saving Elora Danan, the infant who will grow up to liberate the kingdom – well let’s just say, green screen wasn’t at where it is today and Ray Harryhausen wasn’t around to animate the models.
The Willow franchise was created by George Lucas – as with SF in Star Wars and pulp adventure in Indiana Jones, it would have been his third monster franchise. But the movie didn’t catch on. While it wasn’t exactly a bomb, it was a one off- and the characters lay fallow for 34 years until the gaping maw of streaming demanded more content.
In this case, it’s a happy resurrection. The new show is a refreshingly lighthearted fantasy that doesn’t take itself too seriously – even if the world of Willow is still full of dark magic and terrible dangers.
Joanne Whalley is back as Sorsha, now the queen of the land, and her twin children by Madmartigan, Airk (Dempsey Bryk) and Kit (Ruby Cruz). Elora Danan is nowhere to be found, having been hidden by Sorsha for her own wellbeing.
As for the kids, Airk is a lad who trifles with the ladies, leading on scullery maid Dove (Elle Bamber) with sweet nothings. Kit is a swordsman in her mom’s mold, sparring with her bestie (and possibly more?) Jade (Erin Kellyman).
When, of all people, prince Airk is kidnapped by sinister forces, a band is recruited to rescue him: Kit and Jade are joined by wisecracking swordsman Boorman (Amar Chadha-Patel) and Prince Graydon (Tony Revolori) – a rejected suitor for Kit’s hand. And of course the greatest sorcerer of the land, Willow Ufgood is the final piece for this D&D excursion. Adventures begin, red shirts are removed, and magic is in the land again with Davis at the heart of it in a marvelous turn.
The resurrection is mostly the work of screenwriter Jonathan Kasdan. The son of legend Lawrence, and co-writer on the underrated Solo, Kasdan certainly makes his mark with a romp that opens up the world of Willow while staying true to the fairy tale subtext – and keeping the modernisms of the original in place as well, with rock songs ending each episode.
The idea for the sequel was born on the set of Solo, star Warwick Davis revealed, although fans has pestered him over the years. “’When are we going to see a sequel to that movie?’ And it’s a question that I could never answer. Until I met Jon Kasdan, who I understood was also a fan.” Davis joked that Kasdan shadowed him constantly on the Solo set about the movie. “Surely we should be concentrating on making this Star Wars story here, shouldn’t we?”
Although the world of Willow had languished for more than 40 years, the new version came together quickly in Holywood terms, Kasdan confirmed, as he, Davis and original director Ron Howard agreed that the story should continue. “I came at it as a fan, and they came at it both as the creators, and they found a champion in me, and I kept fighting and sort of hoping that we’d get a chance to go back here. My ace was always that Warwick would be back.”
Like many youngsters of a certain age, Kasdan had been mesmerized by the original. “I remember hearing that George Lucas was giving us a new franchise. And this one would have magic and wizards and sword fights, and it wasn’t called Star Wars. That was a pretty unbelievable concept to an eight-year old kid. For me, it’s sort of a miraculous thing that it hasn’t been developed more, and that it sort of remains as this artefact from a certain time in my life, with all this potential for more stories and more adventures.”
Kasdan reunited with Howard as exec producer on the show to continue the tale of Elora and Willow, but creator George Lucas was more of a benign faraway presence over the proceedings. Kasdan’s sole conversation with Lucas came on the set of Solo, with Davis also present. “He came and visited the set of ‘Solo’ because he is devoted to Ron, and they are dear, dear friends in real life,” Kasdan recalls. “They told us that he was going to come for just a moment, and we shouldn’t make direct eye contact or ask him any direct questions, and instead he ended up staying for six hours and answering all our questions, and being nothing but lovely.”
Kasdan wasn’t going to let this opportunity slip away to bring up his forgotten film franchise. “When I found myself sitting next to this God of my childhood, [I said] the one thing I thought that Lucasfilm really had an opportunity to do was to tell more Willow stories. And he kind of smiled wryly and said he couldn’t agree more, and had been trying to make that happen for quite a while.”
While Lucas didn’t have anything to do with Willow’s development, he was “a supporter and an advocate for any of that that we could get off the ground. And that sort of faith and excitement and genuine boyish enthusiasm was really critical to feeling like this was something we could go off and do.”
On the other hand, Howard along with Lucasfilms head Kathleen Kennedy was “presiding over everything,” said Davis. “[Ron] was kind of like our Yoda, I suppose.”
Kasdan says that Howard would call him every day to check in. “I’d get a text from him saying like, ‘how’d it go today, like did you get the work, and how is that rain stuff, and are they still really wet…?’ And then I was like, ‘yeah, they’re still really wet.”
Making the show was about finding the right tone, said Kasdan. “With every episode you’re sort of walking the line between, between making it familiar and satisfying what fans expect from the brand ‘Willow,’ and then trying to push it forward and tell a story that’s surprising and unexpected. And you know, the great weapon we had with us was Warwick.”
As for Davis, he’s starred in many films (Leprechaun) and many franchises (Harry Potter) since Willow but returning to the world and its story is a unique pleasure. “For me, one of the most enjoyable things about the series was really those call backs to events that had happened in the film. I think fans will get a kick out of. But also we went back to locations, environments that we’d already been to in the film. In particular, Nockmaar was one of those particular places, that for me really kind of gave me the shivers.”