Warwick Davis returns as Willow. Photo courtesy of Lucasfilm Ltd.
LOS ANGELES, Nov. 30 (UPI) — The good news is the need for streaming content means your favorite shows and movies from the past can return. The bad news is new creators, or even the same creators, have forgotten what made the original great, such as the case with Willow, premiering Wednesday on Disney+.
Sorsha (Joanne Whalley) recaps the 1988 movie for new audiences and refers to Val Kilmer’s character, Madmartigan, like a regretful ex. Kilmer’s health may have prohibited his return, but also if they cast his real-life ex, they probably had to choose one or the other.
That’s a fine way to address casting changes 34 years later, and it hasn’t even precluded a silent Madmartigan returning later. The narrative problem arises when Sorsha reveals that Willow (Warwick Davis) had a vision that a great evil would defeat Elora, the baby he rescued in the movie.
So, Willow and Sorsha hid baby Elora and never told her who she was. Now, she grows up and finds out she’s actually the chosen one who can save the land from the next great evil that’s coming.
This chosen one prophecy story should have absolutely been retired after The Lego Movie mocked the lazy story trope of “The Special.” It takes all the magic of Willow and whittles it down to a Harry Potter clone.
At least it’s a female protagonist who gets to be the prophesied one, but it suggests the creators of the show didn’t even like Willow, let alone understand it. Why use the Willow intellectual property if all you’ve got is the same story of a magic person who’s already destined to do the thing they’re going to do?
The new cast is great, including the one who will discover she is Elora (but it’s a surprise in the first episode). These are endearing characters to whom it would be fun to watch Willow pass the torch were all other things equal to the movie.
Kit (Ruby Cruz) is an independent spirit and would rather be a warrior than marry Prince Grayden (Tony Revolori). Her brother, Eric (Dempsey Bryk), is a ladies’ man, but seems sincerely interested in monogamy with baker Dove (Ellie Bamber).
Kit’s best friend, Jade (Erin Kellyman), is training to be the first female knight of Gallidor, and she looks like a real contender. Kit and Jade have a relationship that could be platonic or could be more, but they’re so supportive of each other, it’s worthwhile either way.
Unfortunately, none of the characters sound like they live in the same world as the movie Willow. Their dialogue is very modern and snarky.
Willow remarks about the short attention span of the new generation, which feels like a 20-year-old joke, but one of the 21st century, nonetheless. Irreverent humor about the quality of insults isn’t faithful to Willow, either.
Willow was earnest. It had comic relief fairies and antihero Madmartigan, but the Disney+ series is just more streaming content that Willow happens to be in.
Willow was not as dense as Tolkien or George R.R. Martin, but it at least felt like Dungeons & Dragons.
The kids all sound all American. Even the British actors are doing American accents, though it is endearing how awestruck they are by Willow and want to learn from him.
Some adult characters, the villain Ballentine (Ralph Ineson) and freed convict Boorman (Amar Chadha-Patel) add some gravitas. Davis still invests in Willow’s gravitas, too.
The timeframe is fuzzy. It clearly hasn’t been 34 years since the movie because the new characters, including the one who turns out to be Elora, are no more than in their early 20s, and perhaps intended to be teenagers.
Willow and Sorsha may be 34 years older, and there are flashbacks to events that occurred between the movie and the show. The relationship between Sorsha and Willow seems inconsistent after the adventure they shared in which Willow proved himself to her.
But, Willow’s daughter Mims (Davis’s real-life daughter, Annabelle), who was already a toddler in the movie, seems about 25, like the real-life Annabelle. There’s no reason for real time to pass in a fantasy realm, except the original actors’ ages, but it feels careless to leave it so vague.
The action is all dark sword fights in which you can’t really see who’s swinging at whom. They fight monsters in a dark fog, so you can’t see the creatures, either.
The first episode really builds up to the appearance of Willow, but it goes a bit too far waiting 47 minutes for him to appear. In Episode 2, he’s playing the hits from the movie, consulting the bones and giving the new characters the finger test he once took.
Willow is a prime example of the potential heartbreak of reviving IP. Disney has enough data to see that their Lucasfilm property has enough fans to warrant a revival, but not enough creativity to understand why.
Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001 and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012. Read more of his work in Entertainment.