TV Show ReviewsJosh Reviews Willow

Josh Reviews Willow

I’ve always had a soft spot for the 1988 film Willow.  Even as a kid, though, I knew that the film didn’t altogether work.  It had a lot of great elements, but it felt like its reach somewhat outstretched its grasp.  The visual effects, the characters… nothing quite reached the epic level I think the filmmakers (Ron Howard, George Lucas, and Bob Dolman) were hoping for.  But I’ve always enjoyed it, just the same.  It’s a fun film to rewatch once a decade or so.

I was thrilled when I heard that there would be a Willow TV series on Disney+!  I thought there was a lot of potential in this fantasy world.  I was excited to see what could be done with another go at a Willow story, one brought to life utilizing modern visual effects.

I wish I could say I liked the eight-episode Willow series more than I did.  I feel very much like I did after seeing the original film.  I loved the show’s characters, and there were lots of bits and moments that I enjoyed.  But I also found it to be continually frustrating, and I never felt the disparate pieces clicked together into a whole that worked for me.

Showrunner Jonathan Kasdan (who wrote for Freaks and Geeks in addition to writing Solo as well as the upcoming Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny) has made an interesting choice to adjust the tone of Willow from one of “epic fantasy” to one that’s a little sillier, a little off-kilter.  The characters all speak in very modern ways; different from what you’d expect in a fantasy story.  I was surprised at first by this choice; it took a little getting used to.  But I like that Mr. Kasdan and his team tried to take some big swings, and tried to make their Willow show feel surprising and unique.

(By the way, it’s weird to me that both the movie and this new show are just called Willow!  It’s a little confusing.  I wouldn’t have minded a subtitle for the show.)

I’m going to dive into the show now.  Beware some slight SPOILERS ahead.

It’s an absolute pleasure to see Warwick Davis given a leading role.  He was great as Willow back in 1988, and he’s just as great reprising the character so many decades later.  I just wish Willow was more central to the story.  I was expecting Willow to be the Obi-Wan figure to the new young heroes, and he sort of is.  But he doesn’t actually have that much to do on the show.  He doesn’t do that much to help the young heroes on their quest.  When he’s re-introduced, I was surprised that they depicted him as not being such a great leader for his people.  (He seems to have failed them, resulting in the Nelwyns having been forced to live underground, for reasons the show never adequately explains.  When our new young heroes briefly take refuge with him and his people, Willow its portrayed as trying to fake his way through a magical ceremony with them; it doesn’t seem like he actually knows what he’s doing or has any real magical abilities.  He feels like a sham as a leader.)  Speaking of which, the show is weirdly inconsistent with whether Willow actually has any magical skills.  I’d expected that Willow would have developed into a skilled sorcerer at this point in his life.  But for much of the run of the show, it seems like he has little to no actual magical abilities.  Now, I could roll with that unexpected development… except that every now and again Willow suddenly DOES seem to have real magical powers, such as when he uses his staff to zap away a bunch of bad-guys (Ballantine’s infected soldiers) at the end of episode three, “The Battle of the Slaughtered Lamb”.  Then he seems to be back to little to no powers again (he admits in episode five, “Wildwood”, after drinking the truth potion in the Bone Reavers’ celebration, that he never had much real magic)… until the sequences of him training Elora Danan in episode seven, “Beyond the Shattered Sea,” and we see the two of them engaged in a series of elaborate magical duels, zapping one another with power.  Suddenly Willow seems to be full of magic!  I wish the show better explained where Willow was at when the series began, and that they’d more smoothly crafted his arc across these eight episodes.

I really enjoyed the cast of young actors assembled to play the motley crew that accompanies Willow on his latest quest.  (Actually, it’s more like Willow accompanies them on THEIR quest.)  Ruby Cruz is charismatic and fun as Kit; I like that this princess character is a tough go-getter.  I enjoyed that the show allowed her to be somewhat selfish and unlikable at the beginning; so that she can learn and grow a little over the course of the quest.  The Disney team sure seem to love Erin Kellyman, who had a major role in Solo (as Enfys Nest) and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier (as the villain Karli Morgenthau).  She’s great here as the knight-in-training Jade, who has a thing with Kit.  I quite liked the dynamic of the two of them together.  Ellie Bamber also does good work as the young kitchen maid who is revealed to be Elora Danan.  (The show never adequately explained for me why it was deemed necessary for Elora to be hidden away.  But I’m glad they didn’t make us wait through many episodes before it was revealed who she actually was.)  This was not who I’d expected Elora to have grown up to be; but I liked this unexpected depiction of Elora.  Ms. Bamber was able to give Elora a cluelessness and innocence without making her look weak or stupid.  I liked seeing her grow into herself and her magical skills as the series progressed.  Dempsey Bryk was a likeable buffoon as the pretty-boy Prince Airk.

My favorite of the new young heroes was Tony Revolori as Prince Graydon.  I’ve always enjoyed Mr. Revolori’s work (he’s great as Flash in the MCU Spider-Man films, and he’s done terrific work in a variety of Wes Anderson films such as The Grand Budapest Hotel).  He’s spectacular here.  I love how the show positions Graydon to be unlikable at first — the wimpy, spoiled dude who Kit is supposed to marry — but then develops him into a sweet, wise, and very smart young man.  (I was pissed that the show did this character wrong in the final episode… though the ending thankfully reveals that there can be more for him to do in the next season, if there is one.)

As good if not better than Mr. Revolori was Amar Chadha-Patel as Thraxus Boorman, the tough, seen-it-all swordsman who is released from prison in order to help the gang on their quest.  Mr. Chadha-Patel is tremendous on the show; so funny and so charismatic.  He commands the screen whenever he appears, and he can steal any scene with his killer comedic delivery.  I loved this character.  I just wish the show had done a better job at explaining to us who he was, and what his motivations were.  I never understood why he was in prison in the first place, or why Queen Sorsha trusted him enough to go on this quest, or what he himself thought about the quest or the kids on it.  I can understand the desire to have a character on the show whose loyalties are uncertain; the better to keep the other characters (and the audience) on their toes.  But I think the show undermined Boorman by not giving us enough information about his set-up; what his deal was and why he was originally in prison.  Without that, I never quite understood who this guy was and why he was doing anything he was doing.

As you can already see in my comments, I think the show had a lot of problems with some of its basic storytelling.  Too many times, I didn’t quite understand what was happening, who characters were and why they were doing what they were doing.  And so, again and again, this would pull me out of the show.  When I’m watching a fantasy adventure like this, I want to be sucked into the world and the characters.  I don’t want to have to keep stopping to ask myself, wait a second, what is happening here?  Why isn’t the show being clear enough about what is going on?  I’ve already mentioned above how the show was too unclear about whether Willow did or didn’t have actual magical abilities, and about who Boorman was and why he was in prison and why Sorsha let him out.  But there are so many more examples of these sorts of storytelling problems!  Every episode was affected by this.  Here are just a few more examples (and please beware that I’m going to delve into some deeper SPOILERS ahead):

  • The show’s first episode establishes a lot of questions and mysteries about the status-quo of Willow’s world that the show then never bothers to explain.  What happened to drive the Nelwyns underground?  Who put the mystical border around the kingdom of Tir Asleen?  What was the purpose of that barrier (which characters seem to be able to go through)?  What enemies was Sorsha afraid of?  (Just the unseen Crone?)
  • Speaking of which… the show tells us that there are worse villains in this word than Bavmorda.  This makes sense; we need new enemies.  All through the show characters talk about this new bigger baddie “the Crone,” but until the end of the season we don’t get to see her or really know anything about who she is, where she lives, or what she wants.  This feels like a big mistake for me, because it robs the Crone of any real stakes or weight as a villain.  (The show clearly did this so we’d be surprised that the woman who Airk meets at the end of the season is actually the Crone, but I think that was a dumb move.  It was immediately obvious to me that woman was the Crone — come on, they’d been talking about a woman we’d never seen, and now here is a new mysterious woman character.  It’d have been much better had the show allowed us to see and get to know the Crone as a villain and a threat right from the beginning.)
  • I never understood the whole side-quest of Boorman (and Madmartigan’s?) search for the ” Kymerian Cuirass”.  It sort of comes out of nowhere in episode three, when Boorman goes into the crypt to look for the “Lux Arcana”, the key to the apparently superpowered Cuirass.  But I never understood why he and Madmartigan were looking for that in the first place, or what happened at the end of that previous quest.  Boorman seems to know exactly where both the Lux Arcana and the Kymerian Cuirass are hidden, so what prevented him or others from getting those things before now?  Christian Slater is a delight as Allagash in episode six, but my head was spinning watching him and Boorman each accuse the other of betraying Madmartigan.  They both seem to be liars.  I wish the show had actually taken the time to more clearly establish who was who and who did what.
  • In episode three, “The Battle of the Slaughtered Lamb”, Elora runs into a spooky, dark woods to escape the bad guys who are chasing her… then suddenly she’s in a place where the sun is shining and everything seems peaceful and idyllic… and she meets two very strange, cheerful woodcutters, Hubert and Anne.  It’s such an abrupt change in look and tone from where we just saw Elora, that I assumed that she was in a dream or some other special, enchanted place.  But, no, I guess not — both woodcutters are murdered, and when Elora leaves she’s back in the same creepy woods we’d seen before.  I don’t understand this at all.  Was it a mistake that the woodcutter sequence looked and seemed so different from the rest of the show??  This had to have been intentional — but if so, why??  (I was thrilled to see Ted Lassos Hannah Waddingham as Hubert.  She was terrific in her short appearance.  I was bummed they immediately killed her off!)
  • In episode five, “Wildwood,” all the characters make a big deal about how dangerous it is to go into the mysterious forest, and how people go in and then forget their lives and never return.  One, that’s a total rip-off of Mirkwood from The Hobbit, and two, nothing like that actually happens in the forest!  No one gets enchanted with forgetfulness or anything like that!  So why set that up?
  • How did Airk get from the castle in Tir Asleen in episode one to that far-away Immemorial City?  How did Airk and Kit see one another when he dived into the fountain in the Immemorial City, while she was trapped under the weird lava-looking stuff at the bottom of the troll caves at Skellin?  Why wasn’t Airk wet when he came out of that fountain?  What connected the evil goo the Trolls were making at Skellin with the evil goo that the Crone used to twist Airk’s mind in the Immemorial City?  Why did the Crone want Airk in the first place?  Was it just to lure Elora Danan to her?  Ugh.  I have so many questions!!

OK, those are a lot of complaints.  These story problems really bugged me.  Again and again they jolted me out of the show.

But there are certainly plenty of other things I enjoyed.

Visually, the show was spectacular.  It was nice to see the world of Willow fleshed out on a larger scale than we’d ever seen before, with lots of new places and creatures.  It was fun to see them recreate some familiar locations from the movie (such as Bavmorda’s castle, Nockmaar), and I was happy to see lots of interesting new locations.  The Immemorial City, where Airk was held captive, looked particularly cool and epic-in-scale.

I loved the look of the “Gales”, the monsters serving the Crone, who attack Tir Asleen in the first episode and menace our heroes throughout.  They all looked really cool and scary, especially the one with the cage around his head.  I do wish the show had given these great-looking characters more distinct personalities and more clear motivations.

I loved the practical creatures on the show, from the were-rats in episode three to the mudmander in episode seven.

Other thoughts on the series:

  • Because Val Kilmer has had such serious health problems, I did not expect him to be on the show.  But I don’t think the show did a good job in handling his absence.  They clearly wanted to hold out the possibility that Madmartigan could somehow be involved in the future.  I can understand that.  But that left the show stuck in an unsatisfying middle ground, in which Madmartigan is gone, but we’re not given a clear answer about what happened to him and why he’d leave his family.  The few times we see Kit hearing his voice only muddied the waters for me, because I didn’t at all understand what we were supposed to think was happening in those moments.
  • When we finally get to see Willow and Elora using some real magic in episode seven, I loved the look of their magic duels.  Those scenes were beautiful.
  • It was interesting to see the Elora’s hair change from blonde to red as she got more comfortable with magic over the course of the season.
  • I really liked the character of Scorpio (Adwoa Aboah) and the revelation in episode five that the Bone Reavers aren’t the fierce villains we’d expected them to be.  The show does this a lot; setting up an expectation for things to go one way, and then turning the tables on the audience.  In general I like that, though I don’t quite understand why these people wear skulls on their faces if they’re really just freedom fighters.  I wish Scorpio had been more involved in the story.  Why didn’t she join the quest for the second half of the season?  She and Boorman had great chemistry together.  (By the way, one of my favorite sequences of the season was the funny bit where we hear Boorman telling Scorpio how he escaped from the underground city of Skellin, while we watch the very different events that actually happened.  That was great.)
  • I wasn’t expecting to see the Trolls on the show, so it was fun to see a bit of their city (Skellin).  Here too, the show played with expectations by having the mute, fierce Trolls from the movie turn out to be erudite, well-spoken folks (albeit still villainous) here.
  • I was thrilled to see Joanne Whalley reprise her role from the movie as Sorsha.  She was great.  I wish she had more to do on the show.
  • Ralph Ineson (Finch on the original British version of The Office; Dagmer Cleftjaw on Game of Thrones, Amycus Carrow in the Harry Potter films) was great as Jade’s mentor and adoptive father, Commander Ballantine.  I also wish he had more to do!  I was sad they wrote him off in episode three.
  • I also was sad the show wrote-off Willow’s wife Kaiya (played by Julie Peters in the film).
  • Annabelle Davis was terrific as Mims, Willow’s warrior daughter.  I wish she’d had more to do on the show!  (Are you detecting a trend, here, in my comments?)
  • I was happy to see Kevin Pollak back as the Brownie Rool… but I wish he’d been back for more than just a cameo.  And I wish that cameo had made a lick of sense.  The Brownie village is inside the prison cell of the Bone Reavers??  That makes zero sense to me.

Will there be more Willow?  The final shot of the season finale, in which we see the “book” of this season put next to two other volumes, suggests that they’re hoping to make two more seasons.  I’d like to see them be able to make those seasons, but I hope they can look with clear eyes at what worked and what didn’t work in this first season, and make improvements.  This cast is great and they clearly have the budget and abilities to bring this world to life with the scope and scale of visual effects that I want to see.  I hope that, if the show continues, the stories are more clear and the character arcs are more clearly defined.  I do want to see where this story goes from here!

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