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★★★★ | Fellowship of the Nelwyn
Willow is a sequel to Willow, but it rarely feels like it needs to be one.
At its best, Willow is a high-fantasy family show that works perfectly well as its own thing. The times it sags are when it feels beholden to a legacy few remember. There's a sense that, like its protagonists, the series places more emphasis on its own assumed expectations, rather than what others really want from it.
The original, directed by Ron Howard, was a perfectly serviceable and fun adventure film that didn't need an expanded universe. It wasn't hugely original, but it didn't need to be, either. Instead, it was charming and easily likable, carried by winning performances from Warwick Davis and Val Kilmer as a bickering duo of Dungeons and Dragons archetypes.
Twenty years later, our heroes are far from the happily ever after their original storybook ending left them. Willow, who once found his courage and self-worth, has slid back into doubt and self-loathing. His friend, Madmartigan, is missing and presumed dead, and his relationship with Sorsha (Joanne Whalley) is in tatters. With nothing left, Willow returns to the wilderness with his people.
But as darkness rises once again, Willow can't ignore the call of prophecy. As the next generation of heroes begins their journey, Willow must find it in himself to become the mentor and hero others see in him.
For the first three episodes, Willow treads the same ground as the original film. Some of that backtracking is essential to bring everyone up to speed, but other sojourns feel like nostalgic sightseeing without a particular audience. Willow is not Willow and pretending it is does a disservice to both series and the film.
It's especially grating when the show pauses for extended easter eggs. Granted, this is not exclusive to Willow. Most returns to childhood favorites can't seem to remember that when it comes to nostalgia, even the faintest recollection is plenty. Our memories are powerful creations on their own.
The series also spends a long time dwelling on the failures of our heroes. How their deeds fell short of their intentions, which in turn laid the unstable foundation the next generation cannot build upon. It's heavy stuff and not all of it gets the attention it deserves. Compared to the irreverent, pop-music-laden other half of the series, these solemn moments feel constrained and out of place. They are elements of another story that Willow could tell. I'm not sure they belong on the same journey as this one.
By episode four, the series finally finds its voice. It's not a perfect episode by any means, but it signals a clear turning point. Characters find their footing, the story picks up, and, frankly, it gets over itself. Everything that follows is joyous. The kind of old-school adventure filmmaking that warms the soul.
It's here that the cast gets to shine. Amar Chadha-Patel, as Boorman, will surely be the breakout star and fan-favorite. He arrives as a Madmartigan stand-in and leaves an icon, standing shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Jack Sparrow and Han Solo. The writers clearly love the character, and he certainly gets the most world-building around him. But it's Chadha-Patel who brings it to life. Like Kilmer, he makes the part his own as if he's always been there, just waiting for the rest of the world to notice.
Which is not a knock on the rest of the cast. Ruby Cruz, Erin Kellyman, Ellie Bamber, and Tony Revolori bring a wealth of talent and charm to the series in their own way.
The trio of Cruz, Kellyman, and Bamber have the hardest parts, balancing expectation in the face of legacy and finding their own identity in the process. The fact that their journeys, both inner and external, are believable and relatable is a testament to their talent.
Revolori's skittish Graydon suffers as the foil for much of the first half of the series, but it's thanks to Revolori's inherent charm and subtlety that it's never jarring. He's a man trapped in a cage of expectation, and Revolori communicates the moments where he tests the limit of that cage with immense skill and nuance.
Which leads us to Warwick Davis, returning to the titular role after a long time spent in supporting roles of every pop culture-defining franchise of the past half-century. It's a pleasure to see him get the big return he deserves. Even if it takes him a couple of episodes to loosen up and rediscover the warm naturalism that made Willow such a fantastic leading man.
As a sequel, Willow is a mixed bag. As a new beginning of its own thing, it's a far superior experience. Don't go expecting the same adventure, even as the series itself takes its time to figure out what it is first.
Like our heroes, Willow struggles to define that vast middle ground between who we want to be and who we are.
The series knows its capacity for greatness. It's tapping into it that proves most difficult. In turn, its lessons, some carried over from the past, feel more timeless than ever. We all struggle and feel lost. But when we're honest with ourselves and proudly proclaim who we are, that's when we can achieve great things.
All it takes is some courage.
Willow streams on Disney+ starting November 30th, 2022.