In an episode of ABC’s “The Goldbergs,” youngest son Adam (Sean Giambrone, playing the creator of the autobiographical sitcom) suffers a grievous lapse in judgment. It’s Mother’s Day, but rather than spend time with his devoted, if meddling mother, he wants to see “Willow,” the potentially life-changing new George Lucas project. When the conflict comes to a head, Adam tells his mother he hates her, then sprints to the cineplex for what he’s convinced will be the next great franchise from an unparalleled cinematic genius. He emerges two hours later in the grips of despair having realized that “Willow” was barely worth watching, much less worth committing emotional matricide for.
In fairness to the 1988 film, “Willow” wasn’t an abject failure, at least not in the way we currently think of cinematic missteps. With a box office haul four times its budget and a passionate cult following, however small, “Willow” would have been for many producer-director teams the auspicious beginning to a long career. But it was a letdown coming from Lucas, who wrote the screen story as he retained the halo earned from the “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones” franchises. Then there’s director Ron Howard, for whom “Willow” is a weird, disappointing outlier in a hot streak including the likes of “Cocoon,” “Parenthood” and “Backdraft.”
The general indifference to “Willow” makes it an unlikely choice for a Disney+ series adaptation, but also a perfect one. Fandoms are fiercely protective of their respective mythologies, but in the case of “Willow,” there are too few fans of the film to revolt against a new creative direction. Series creator Jonathan Kasdan, who previously reworked Lucas lore in his screenplay for “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” got Lucas’ general blessing to adapt a series from his characters. Kasdan clearly loves the source material, but also relishes building a new world atop Lucas’ landscape.
That perfect balance of reverence and irreverence is what immediately catapults “Willow” to the upper echelon of Disney+ series, and that alchemy could have been accomplished only with such a dust-covered story as “Willow.” For as thrilling as Disney’s Marvel and “Star Wars” series can be, their interconnectedness (to each other and their broader cinematic universes) can be creatively limiting and draining for a viewer. Meanwhile, “Willow” doesn’t want a deeper commitment, it’s just here to delight, and does it so effectively as to totally refurbish a previously junk-binned franchise.
Warwick Davis retains his top billing as the title character, the heroic sorcerer who rescued a baby marked for death by an evil queen who fears the baby will one day depose her. But there’s plenty of time for Willow Ufgood, who, when the pilot begins, is off-screen living his best magical life. Kasdan’s first task is briskly to run through a summary of the film, then establish the new characters who will soon collaborate with legacy characters like Willow. Twins Kit (Ruby Cruz) and Airk (Dempsey Bryk) are set to succeed their mother Sorsha (Joanne Whalley, reprising her role from the film) as the ruler of Tir Asleen, or at least follow in her royal footsteps.
The latter option is the only one available to Kit, who’s being forced to marry Graydon (Tony Revolori) to bring an uneasy detente between two warring kingdoms. For her part, Kit is more focused on keeping her more-than-friendship with Jade (Erin Kellyman) going after Jade decides to train to become a knight. Meanwhile, the rakish Airk is making time with Dove (Ellie Bamber), a chambermaid ensnared in a messy, upstairs-downstairs love affair, as television chambermaids so often are. Before Kit and Graydon can officially bring their kingdoms together, Airk is kidnapped, and Kit is sent on a mission to find him and return him home. Graydon and Jade join the search party, as does Dove, despite lacking the basic skills required for a dangerous quest. But first, they must find and recruit Willow, who has specialized knowledge in the area.
A couple more travelers join the search for Airk, including Boorman (Amar Chadha-Patel) as a wise-cracking, sword-happy mercenary who agrees to join the quest. If that sounds remarkably like the contours of a beloved character from the film, it’s because Boorman is clearly designed as a stand-in for Madmartigan (Val Kilmer). Madmartigan still exists in the world of “Willow” and factors into the story, but without Kilmer, whose participation was precluded by his battle with throat cancer. That makes it all the more impressive that Chadha-Patel works so well as a character, never managing to come across as a pale imitation of Madmartigan.
The performances are the chief strengths of “Willow,” which certainly wallows in genre conventions (as the unkindest critics of the film pointed out) and relies on a forceful execution to elevate it beyond fantasy-by-numbers. Davis is naturally terrific in a role he’s longed to revisit since the film, as is Whalley, who slips easily back into Sorsha’s mannerisms and opaque motives. But “Willow” wouldn’t be what it is without Cruz, Kellyman and Bamber, a trio of young actors who form a sturdier foundation for the show than any of the mythology ungirding it. Kellyman is particularly mesmerizing, as much the livest wire here as she was in “Captain America and the Winter Soldier.”
“Willow” amplifies romance from its earliest moments, and is so focused on rapturous young love that the first half of the pilot feels almost like the salacious teen storytelling of “Riverdale’s” Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, or like “Gossip Girl” with magic and swordplay. While the show later leans into its genre trappings, Kasdan keeps the romantic entanglements going like spinning plates constantly threatening to shatter as love connections become love triangles and trapezoids. The most noteworthy of those relationships is between Kit and Jade, who are being touted as Disney’s first proper queer love story. And it’s written beautifully, and in such a way that transcends gender and explores how hard it is to figure yourself and someone else out simultaneously.
The first three episodes are briskly plotted and generous with action setpieces, but something doesn’t work about the early character moments, which individually can feel too compressed and rushed. But all the table setting pays handsomely in the fourth episode, a bottle episode inasmuch as a massive haunted mansion can be considered a bottle. The episode is where the show truly jells, successfully weaving together its romantic instincts with the scariest elements of the world. It evokes “Evil Dead” as told by J.R.R. Tolkien, and is an absolute blast. By the time the fifth episode starts with a chase sequence set to Swedish punk band Alle! Alle!, whatever resistance remains to this genre gem melts away. “Willow” is the real deal, almost good enough to warrant blowing off Mother’s Day.