These days it can seem like there’s a Disney Plus TV show for every property from which the Disney company can wring an ounce of nostalgia. From the big, like Star Wars and Marvel, to the small, like Doogie Howser and even Turner & Hooch. But the most unlikely one might be Willow, Lucasfilm’s sequel TV series based on the 1988 fantasy blockbuster of the same name.
No shade to Willow, but who exactly was clamoring for a continuation in the 2020s? (Other than the folks who made the Willow sequel series, of course.) The film itself is a wonderfully inexplicable experience, but its cultural impact is relatively muted. Ron Howard and George Lucas’ movie lacks the smartly self-aware metatext of The Princess Bride or The Neverending Story, and the significant creativity it displays is overshadowed by the full-on hallucinatory settings of Labyrinth or Legend. It was expected to do for fantasy what Star Wars did for sci-fi, but its legacy lies in providing an early showcase for actor/comedian Warwick Davis and achieving cult-classic status.
So, who is 2022’s Willow series for? The surprising answer is that it’s for anybody who loves fantasy adventure, good dang television, and teens figuring themselves out. Series creator Jonathan Kasdan (Solo: A Star Wars Story, Freaks and Geeks) and company have made Willow must-watch programming by slamming oddball 1980s fantasy into modern YA fantasy.
This should not be particularly surprising for devotees of both genres — there isn’t that much difference between the hero’s journey and a coming-of-age story, and high fantasy has wombo-combo’d the two innumerable times. With the expanded run time of an eight-episode TV series (of which we’ve seen seven), Willow has time to do it for a whole ensemble of teenagers. And what teenagers! It’s a smorgasbord of archetypes, reflecting both the 1988 Willow’s core character lineup and the greatest hits of modern YA high fantasy.
There’s the daughter of a queen, in black armor with a quiver of arrows on her back. A disreputable thief who begins the story behind bars. A grumpy wizard, a prince who’d rather be a scholar, lowly laborer called to greatness, and a girl who wants to be the first female knight in the kingdom. Our heroes are thrown together by fate when Prince Airk, son of heroes Sorsha and Madmartigan, is kidnapped by evil forces. While Davis’ Willow takes the mentor role, the real lodestones of the show are two young women determined to bring Airk’s flouncy, shirt-wearing ass back home. They are Dove, a kitchen maid with whom he shares a new and mutual pining, and Kit, his twin sister and the show’s obligatory tomboy princess who’ll be shootin’ fer her own hand.
What sets Kit apart from the Not-Like-Other-Girls mode is her relationship with her best friend Jade, the aforementioned Girl Who Wants To Be a Knight, another classic of the form. In general, Kit must learn to untangle rebelliousness from selfishness, but in specific, she must stop taking her friend for granted and start listening to her girlfriend’s needs — with the help and hindrance of various absurd magical contrivances, a trope mashup between YA romance and the 1988 Willow’s running love potion gag.
The spirit of fully vibes-based 1980s fantasy world-building is preserved as characters argue and smooch, talk out their emotions and have kick-ass fights, flee horrors and crack jokes, vacillating between wonderful silliness and childhood-defining nightmares. It’s a peanut-butter-and-chocolate combination, an old genre that was in large part about unpretentious ideas played loud and earnestly — true love and true fellowship, light versus dark, the joy of adventure beyond the familiar — retooled for a modern audience primed to grasp at earnest feelings.
Maybe even, dare I say, starved for big, earnest feelings in big-budget media. Willow (2022) doesn’t skimp on the wide green vistas, horse chases, daring escapes, or dark castles. Nor does it forget to just toss in some weird stuff now and again. Legendary magical armor? Sure! Skull-faced warriors? Hell yeah. A quest to cross the Endless Sea and find the Immemorial City by Mudmander-drawn sledge? Yes, yes! More ridiculous proper nouns! More!
And if I were to inch myself even further out on this rhetorical limb, it might be to point out that Willow (2022) does not forget how often the heroes of oddball 1980s fantasy epics are ultimately fighting the concept of existential despair given form and force. That this is a genre where salvation of a natural resource (usually unicorns, for some reason) is often considered an ultimate good. And I might point out that there could be some useful resonances there for the youth of today.
There is an obvious value to a beautifully crafted cinematic masterpiece with underpinnings of radical hope in the face of relentless evil. But there is also value in something where a character just says, out loud, that mostly dead is slightly alive.
It turns out Willow (1988) was only mostly dead, after all. Willow (2022) is very much alive.