How potent is the spell of nostalgic glory? My childhood in Scotland dates back beyond the mists of there-be-dragon times, when the auld faerie magic was strong and tape contained the secret ways of both music on the go (via cassettes played on Walkmans, or cheap knockoffs thereof) and movies at home (via VHS, or, if someone stuffed up in the local video store, an incompatible Betamax accidentally rented to much despair and swearing). It was in the dying days of this era of heroes and monsters – AKA the 80s – that I first encountered the enthralling adventure that is fantasy epic Willow.
Dreamt up by George Lucas in the years before Star Wars would blast his name into the stratosphere, it was a 15-year gestation before the idea crystalised in his mind. A young Warwick Davis caught his eye while the former was portraying brave Ewok warrior Wicket during the unfairly maligned Ewok scenes of Return of the Jedi (seriously, what do you twisted folks have against the little guys bringing the fight to the malicious might of the Empire?).
Davis epitomised Lucas’ all-for-one and everyone-can-do attitude. There was also the small matter of technology catching up with Lucas’ visual ambition. Industrial Light & Magic finally figured out the precise incantations required to conjure up convincing shapeshifting on the big screen.
And lo, this Tolkien-lite adventure began, with future Far and Away collaborators Bob Dolman on screenplay duties and Ron Howard in the director’s chair. Warwick would play the title character, a would-be magician’s apprentice whose idyllic Hobbit in the Shire-like existence was interrupted when his kids discover a babe in a bassinet floating downriver.
As is the way with such grim fables, the child, Elora, is hunted by the evil witch Queen Bavmorda (a fabulously withering Jean Marsh) after a prophecy predicting her downfall.
All of which compels Willow to set off on a foolhardy mission to deliver the kid into kindly arms. Assembling a rag-tag fellowship along the way, it includes a game for it Val Kilmer as the rascally mercenary Madmartigan – basically Han Solo in Leia’s slave girl outfit. There’s also the deliriously silly comic duo of Kevin Pollak and Rick Overton as inches-high Brownies, straight out of Scottish folklore, with Pictish-like painted faces to prove it.
Patricia Hayes plays a good witch temporarily stuck in possum form, thereby requiring the aforementioned CGI assistance. As Bavmorda’s conflicted warrior daughter, Sorsha, Joanne Walley sets the screen alight in her smouldering scenes with Kilmer.
It was heaps of fun and lush to look at, too, with bucolic shoots in the Welsh, English and Irish countryside, and even New Zealand long before Peter Jackson made it the go-to destination for fantasy epics. But while far from a flop, it did not set the box office alight, and the critics were cruel.
The latter fact was predicted in the screenplay, no less, with monstrous characters joshingly named after reviewers Roger Ebert, Gene Siskel and Pauline Kael, who promptly responded in kind. It was a lot more fashionable to hate on such fare back in those days. It’s hard to see what’s so offensive about a really rather lovely family affair, but hoped-for sequels did not eventuate.
Until now, that is. With nostalgia in high demand and fantasy all the rage now, thanks to the somewhat more parental guidance-suggested Game of Thrones, it was perhaps inevitable that the might of Lucasfilm would one day reanimate Willow. But has the story of delightful derring-do ossified like Bavmorda’s hand after clutching one of Willow’s magic acorns?
Thankfully not. Showrunner Jonathan Kasdan, son of The Empire Strikes Back scribe Lawrence, ushers in a new era. Of course he brings back a wand-swinging Davis and a swashbuckling Walley, plus Dolman pens two of the eight episodes. But Kasdan hands the heroic reins of the story to a new generation.
Sorsha and Madmartigan may have hidden Elora away, but the kids they had together are in play, as depicted by Ruby Cruz from Mare of Easttown and a floral-shirted Dempsey Bryk. Spider-Man sidekick Tony Revolori is recruited, as are Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’ Lydia Bennet, Ellie Bamber, Solo breakout Erin Kellyman, and Amar Chadha-Patel, fresh from popping up another expensive fantasy franchise hopeful, The Wheel of Time.
As with the new look at Thrones, House of the Dragon, and the latest Tolkien instalment The Rings of Power, the effort to populate fantasy worlds with a cast less glaringly white than a resurrected Gandalf’s laundry goes a long way. While the show meanders a little in the way of most prestige TV these days, that’s not necessarily a bad thing when building magic worlds from the ground up. Nostalgia gets a bad rap.
There’s joy galore to be had in this story of trolls and wizards reborn, where drippy princes and kitchen maids alike can prove their mettle in battle. Arriving on Disney+ just in time for Christmas, it’s pure magic.
Willow debuts on Disney+ on December 1. You can catch up on the original movie there too.