In the midst of their success with franchises like Star Wars and Indiana Jones, and just a few years after they collaborated with Jim Henson on the fantastical adventure Labyrinth, Lucasfilm took a dip headfirst into the world of magic and high fantasy with their 1988 film Willow. Starring Warwick Davis and Val Kilmer as an unlikely duo of adventurers tasked with saving a baby destined to be their kingdom’s salvation, the film is beloved by many for its fresh-faced take on the fantasy genre, as well as the performances of its charming leads.

Now, almost 35 years later, Lucasfilm is returning to the world of Willow with a series by the same name, picking up years after the sorcerer and Madmartigan defeated the evil Queen Bavmorda. The realm now lives in peace, ruled by Queen Sorsha (the returning and still-stunning Joanne Whalley), and all seems well in the world of Tir Asleen, which is just as beautiful as it was in the late ‘80s. But, when peace is threatened and Sorsha’s son Airk (Dempsey Bryk) is kidnapped by a mysterious force, Willow — now High Aldwin — must once again take up Cherlindrea’s wand to combat the forces of darkness, this time with a new band of adventurers by his side.

As with every reboot or continuation of a popular franchise that graces our screens — and good lord, there are many — re-entering the world of Willow came with some trepidation for me. As someone who grew up on the beloved cheese of ‘80s fantasy films, I find it tough for contemporary filmmakers to capture the gauzy, made-of-styrofoam-and-a-prayer magic that makes so many of those movies work, Willow included. Without the direction of Ron Howard or the star power of Kilmer as Madmartigan, I feared the series might flounder, passed over in favor of Lucasfilm’s Star Wars series that garner viewers on name recognition alone, and that it might lose the enchanting charm that made me fall in love with Tir Asleen in the first place.

Image via Disney+

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But Willow and friends are in good hands with Jonathan Kasdan, who serves as creator, executive producer, and writer for the series. While we are introduced to a slightly grittier version of the world we know and love, one with its edges worn down and characters who are older and more jaded, the Disney+ series captures the kingdom of Tir Asleen with the same beauty and epic scope as the original production, drawing you into a compelling and gorgeous world from the first episode. Mostly forgoing the Volume technology used for Lucasfilm’s many, many Star Wars projects, the series shot on location in Wales to create the massive scale of the lands Willow and company must journey through in order to save the life of Airk, as well as Elora Danan, the now-grown future empress of Tir Asleen, and you want to believe, as much as you did when you’re a child, that if you believe enough, you could go adventuring there too.

The show’s scope matches that of the high fantasy series that have taken television by storm this year, unafraid of expanding beyond the limits of the film to delve deeper into the people and things that live beyond the gates of Sorsha’s palace. It’s a lush, detailed love letter to fantasy storytelling with the distinct advantage of hope running through its core, the same kind that buoyed the original film and made it such a hit with audiences. Willow’s journey into the unknown is earmarked by a levity that is to be found lacking in shows like Rings of Power or House of the Dragon. It’s a children’s fairy tale on steroids, filled with all the kinds of characters they pretend to be on the playground at school: a princess, her loyal knight, a kitchen maid, a warrior, and a prince from a neighboring kingdom.

willow series warwick davis
Image via Disney+

It’s these characters that make up the heart of the series, along with Davis’s titular High Aldwin sorcerer, and for anyone worried that the new band of adventurers wouldn’t live up to the adventure and antics of Willow and Madmartigan, have no fear. From enchanted forests to Bavmorda’s abandoned Nockmaar Castle, viewers will want to follow the (sometimes not so) merry band wherever their quest takes them, and while they are many and varied — ranging from a pathetic but intelligent prince (Tony Revelori) to a knight in training with a mysterious past (Erin Kellyman) — each is compelling and complex, someone’s dream D&D party brought to life with all care and love I was hoping for.

While everyone has their disparate reasons for joining the quest, Willow manages to avoid the dreaded “too many cooks in the kitchen” problem by keeping its central characters together, weaving conflicts and motivations together into one chaotic, colorful tapestry. While romance blossoms for Sorsha’s daughter Kit (Ruby Cruz), she is also desperate to find answers about what happened to her father — whose absence is keenly felt — which may happen to be found in the mysterious warrior Boorman (Amar Chadha-Patel), or the kitchen maid Dove (Ellie Bamber), who joins the quest because she believes herself in love with Airk. Each is on their own journey of self-discovery, played out in unique (if life-threatening) ways, and tied together by their fervent determination not to give up, despite nothing quite being as it seems.

willow series warwick davis ruby cruz tony revolori ellie bamber erin kellyman amar chadha patel
Image via Disney+

It’s tough not to spend this entire review extolling the virtues of each of the wonderful characters Kasdan and company have created, as they shine above even the show’s immaculately crafted fight sequences and visual effects, and it’s too difficult for me to pick a favorite. As Jade, Kellyman continues her streak of playing badass, genius women, and Chadha-Patel stands out from the pack as this generation’s Madmartigan, a snarky, swoonworthy adventurer with a penchant for trouble. Cruz and Bamber will bring you to tears with their performances as Kit and Dove, Revolori is an utter sweetheart, and Davis is as unsurprisingly earnest, funny, and lovable as he was when he originally played the Nelwyn magician in 1988. He brings everything to the table for this sequel series, and his performance makes it feel as though no time has passed, even though Willow is now older and much more jaded — and not without reason.

Combined with the series’ willingness to venture into new territory, these characters make Willow a compulsively watchable series that gives one the same feeling of staying up too late reading books as a child, saying “just one more chapter” even though you’ve got school in the morning. While the original film has long been called a Lord of the Rings rip-off (which I feel is a load of troll bogeys), Willow takes its source material’s lore and expands on it tenfold, deepening its world into something more vibrant and fascinating, while never losing the humor or the heart that made the movie so lovable in the first place. Even though Willow and Sorsha are older, and the stakes are significantly higher than simply saving a baby, the throughline remains, and in a world of soulless remakes and reboots filling our screens in a seemingly never-ending loop, hope and positivity are as much as I could ask for.

willow series warwick davis
Image via Disney+

(Though it’s entertaining to see that the creatures in this series are equally as frightening — and practical! — as the Death Dogs and Eborsisk monsters of 1988. To quote Madmartigan: it’ll put hair on the kids’ chests.)

Willow is, ultimately, a rare treat, the fantasy answer to Top Gun: Maverick that gives fans everything they want and even more. The story unravels rather slowly, like a winding tale told by the great orators of a time long past, and even in just the pilot, one gets the sense that Tir Asleen and the kingdoms beyond hold greater magic than anyone — even the great Willow — could ever possibly understand, and that the show is just a small part of a larger lore passed down through the ages. It is a tapestry of love, loss, heartbreak, and healing, all wrapped up in the adventure of a lifetime that will undoubtedly keep you on the edge of your seat til the very end.

Rating: A

The first episode of Willow is streaming now on Disney+, with new episodes premiering every Wednesday.

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