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Willow's two-episode premiere takes a while to find its magic

Can our heroes defeat “the withered crone who dwells in the immemorial city beyond the Shattered Sea”?

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Willow
Willow
Photo: Lucasfilm Ltd.

It’s hard to say who exactly this new Willow series is made for. It taps into the nostalgia of the original 1988 film, yet it’s stacked with a cast of attractive young actors who give it a contemporary YA vibe. For older viewers, it may be difficult to connect to a story that so heavily centers the next generation—the namesake character doesn’t even show up until the end of episode one—but at least they have a connection to the franchise. Those who most closely identify with the characters are far less likely to have any frame of reference beyond major genre influences like The Lord of The Rings. The show so far attempts to span that generational divide with mixed success, not to say that these two episodes don’t have their charms.

In case you’re wondering: It’s not a prerequisite to have seen the film to understand what’s going on in the series. The opening of the first episode helpfully summarizes it to get you up to speed, picking up the story in real time “200 moons” later. I don’t know how many of our years that is, but judging by the age of certain characters it can’t be more than 20 or so (certainly less than the 34 years that have passed in real time). The realm is relatively peaceful for now, but darkness is stirring. Even so, it’s refreshing to watch a fantasy series that, like the film, aims to be light and fun, as opposed to the very serious and epic shows that came out earlier this fall.

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GRADE FOR SEASON 1, EPISODE 2: B+


With as wide an audience as it’s going for, you have to give the show credit for taking audience expectations into account. There’s a bit of a tease in the opening scene, which cuts directly from footage of baby Elora Danan with her bright red hair to two young women—one of them redheaded—fighting each other on a cliff. Neither of them turns out to be Elora, though. This is our introduction to Kit Tanthalos (Ruby Cruz) and Jade Claymore (Erin Kellyman, who made the most of her smaller roles in Solo: A Star Wars Story and The Falcon And The Winter Soldier and does the same with meatier material here). Kit is a “not like other girls” princess who likes fighting and riding and hates dresses and balls. Considering her parentage, it’s not all that surprising.

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That’s right: Following the end of the movie, Sorsha (Joanne Whalley, reprising her role) and Madmartigan (originally played by Val Kilmer, but so far absent from the series) got married, became the rulers of Tir Asleen, and had twins. At some point after that our Mads left on a mysterious quest and never returned, leaving Queen Sorsha to rule and raise the kids on her own. Now that Kit is grown, her mother plans to marry her off to the prince of Galladorn (Tony Revolori), uniting their kingdoms and combining their power against the forces of darkness. Kit hates the idea and never misses an opportunity to express her feelings about it to her mother, her brother, her girlfriend, and anyone else who happens to be within earshot.

Meanwhile, Kit’s twin brother Airk (Dempsey Bryk), named for Madmartigan’s old friend who died heroically in the film, is busy wooing a kitchen maid he calls “Dove” (Ellie Bamber). As the only male heir, he’s had to grow up under his father’s long shadow. It’s a lot to live up to and also a lot to live down. It probably doesn’t help that Bryk looks so much like a young Val Kilmer. Everyone expects him to be brave and a skilled fighter, but they also expect him not to take anything seriously and to bail when things get difficult, just like his dad (or, as we learn in the second episode, maybe not). When Kit calls him on this, he reassures her he isn’t going anywhere. Then he promptly gets kidnapped by some terrifying creatures (thanks to a major upgrade in digital FX, these guys are way more scary than anything the ’80s could conjure up).

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This is where the show really begins to pick up steam. There’s a quest afoot, and what’s a fantasy quest without a fellowship? Kit volunteers to go after her brother and, to her surprise, Sorsha immediately agrees. Jade isn’t about to let her girlfriend head into danger alone, so she’s in too. An older knight named Jorgen (Simon Armstrong) also offers his sword. (Don’t get too attached to Jorgen, he’s old and therefore easily dispensable.) And Prince Graydon gets roped in by his father to protect his bride-to-be on the journey. Finally, there’s Boorman (Amaer Chadha-Patel), a rogue who’s been biding his time in the castle’s dungeon up until now. Sorsha offers him a pardon in exchange for his services on the mission and then, for good measure, guilts him into it by mentioning a debt to an old friend.

Before I move on, I need to say a few things about Boorman, the best character on the show so far. The fact that he’s locked up when we first meet him should be the first clue that he’s going to be the Madmartigan surrogate here. Chadha-Patel has little in common with Val Kilmer physically, but he’s got the charisma, comic timing, and bravado (that’s possibly backed up with legitimate skills) that made Mardmartigan such a fun character. Willow isn’t the same without him, but I appreciate that they at least attempted to compensate for his absence, and Chadha-Patel is up for to the task.

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Amar Chadha-Patel, Ellie Bamber, Ruby Cruz, Warwick Davis, and Erin Kellyman
Amar Chadha-Patel, Ellie Bamber, Ruby Cruz, Warwick Davis, and Erin Kellyman
Photo: Lucasfilm

So now our little party of adventurers is nearly complete—we just need a sorcerer. All the really powerful sorcerers are gone, but there is one who may be able to help. Sorsha sends them to find Willow (you know, the guy the show is named for, who still hasn’t shown up yet) and invite him to join the search for Airk. She’s been hearing ominous whispers and having bad dreams herself, so she has a feeling he’ll be expecting them. On the way, they add one more unexpected member to the party. Dove the kitchen maid—a.k.a. Muffin Girl, since she has a way with buttered muffins—has been following them and wants to help find Airk too. By the time she catches up to them in some really fabulous knitwear, it’s too late to send her back. At least she can cook though.

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Finally, in the waning moments of the first episode, the title character appears. Warwick Davis is in the house, at last. Or the forest, actually. He has one more surprising revelation to deliver. Elora Danan has been with them all along. It’s Muffin Girl! Even she is shocked when Willow magically uncovers the rune birthmark on her arm. The episode ends on her cheeky, one-syllable response to this news: “What?”

The ripples of Elora’s secret identity carry over into the beginning of episode two, which keeps the story humming along now that Willow is officially a part of it. Not everyone is fully on board with Dove being the prophesied empress who will one day save the world from the forces of evil. Kit is anxious and feels like they’re wasting precious time not going after her brother. Dove, whose given name is really Brunhilda (we’ll stick with Dove, or Elora, or Muffin Girl, thanks), doesn’t feel like she has any magic inside her at all, and even Willow starts to doubt it. In a flashback, we see him try to convince Sorsha that Elora must be trained or she’ll lose her ability to do magic for good. Sorsha is perfectly fine letting magic die out from the world, and considering her mother was an evil sorceress, who can blame her?

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It’s in the second episode that the full arc of their journey becomes clear. They must pass through the magic barrier that keeps the kingdom safe from darkness in order to save Airk from “the withered crone, who dwells in the immemorial city beyond the Shattered Sea.” Boorman, looking a little peaked, notes that that’s where all the maps end. No one seems particularly excited about going there, except maybe Kit, who has always wanted to see the world and is too naive to know how dangerous it really is.

Meanwhile, Sorsha discovers Elora has gone missing and sends Commander Ballantine, captain of the guard, after her. She knows all the details of her daughter’s carefully orchestrated love life, but if she’d been paying attention to her son’s interests, she might have seen this coming. Unfortunately, Ballantine was infected by some dark magic during the raid in which Airk was taken and is slowly turning into a monster. He’s after Elora, all right, but not in the way the queen hopes. With black veins running across his face and some creepy modulation effects on his already deep voice, he’s pretty chilling. We end the second episode with Ballantine sneaking up on Elora and snatching her from the camp, just as evidence of the spell she was trying so hard to perform begins to sprout. Finally, some real magic.

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Stray observations

  • Like I mentioned, you don’t have to have seen Willow the movie before watching the series, but it helps. If it’s been a while since you’ve seen it, you might catch some things you might have otherwise missed. The only potential drawback is that you might become attached to Madmartigan. Nothing against Boorman, who I already adore, but after watching the movie you can’t help but feel his absence from the show even more keenly.
  • I know this isn’t the Madmartigan show, and there are extenuating circumstances behind the scenes, but the fact that they didn’t write him off as dead in the first episode gives me hope that we might somehow see him again before the end. Please?
  • I love how every time Joanne Whalley picks up a sword we’re treated to a little snippet of James Horner’s triumphant original Willow theme, reminding us of what a badass Sorsha was and still is.
  • According to the credits, the creatures who attack the castle and kidnap Airk are called The Lich, The Scourge, The Doom, and The Hag.
  • Shoutout to Graham Hughes as Silas, the fake Willow at the end of episode one who eventually joins the group on their quest. Hughes makes the most of his few lines and moments of screen time. The way he says, “Yep. That’s me. Willowww,” is delightful.
  • I do wonder what happened to Meegosh, though. And Kiaya and Ranon. The fact that the Nelwyns have moved underground and have become extremely suspicious of outsiders doesn’t bode well.
  • Willow’s grown daughter Mims, who is still around, is played by Warwick Davis’ real-life daughter Annabelle. Knowing that gives a whole other layer of meaning to the sweet goodbye scene where she hugs him and tells him he’s her hero.
  • My favorite bit of trivia about the original Willow is that the two-headed beast that appears in the Tir Asleen fight scene was dubbed The Eborsisk by legendary creature designer Phil Tippett, in honor of film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. I have no idea whether it will be relevant to the new show; I just think everyone should know this.