After launching Star Wars and Indiana Jones into the stratosphere, George Lucas was ready to do it again. In 1988, Lucas teamed up with close friend and collaborator Ron Howard with an eye on launching another franchise. The result? A funny, light, but densely mythological fantasy action film called Willow, starring Warwick Davis and Val Kilmer.
While the film did okay financially, it did not reach the cultural heights of Lucas’ previous mega-hits. So Willow mostly went away. In that time, though, two of its biggest fans, Howard and Lucas, always believed the world of Willow would rise again. And now it has, thanks to a new series on Disney+.
“The two people who have really wanted this all along are George and Ron,” Willow showrunner Jon Kasdan said at a press event last week. “To hear Ron tell it, George had always sort of imagined the TV space living as a place where Willow could continue. And I think for a good two decades, Ron sort of rolled his eyes at that notion because it just wasn’t a space where you told these kinds of stories.”
Kasdan was also one of those long-time Willow fans. The son of Star Wars and Indiana Jones writer Lawrence Kasdan, Jon made a name for himself over the years, writing on shows like Freaks and Geeks and directing several independent features. Then, a few years ago, he co-wrote Solo: A Star Wars Story with his father and was on set when a very special visitor dropped by: George Lucas.
“At that time, I said to him, you know, ‘I’d love to do something with Willow,’” Kasdan recalled. “And he said, ‘Yeah, I’ve always wanted that,’ and ‘That’s something we’ve got to do.’” Having sold Lucasfilm years prior though, Lucas really wasn’t in a position to make that happen. And so it didn’t. Until Disney made a huge announcement.
“It wasn’t until the moment that Disney+ was announced, and Mandalorian was in process at that very moment that Ron and I were in London working on Solo,” Kasdan said. “And he sort of came in that morning very excited and said, ‘This is how we could potentially convince Disney to let us do more Willow.’ And he was absolutely right.”
Fast-forward a few years and Willow returns as an eight-part series (which is potentially just season one) on November 30. Set decades after the original film, Warwick Davis is back in the title role, this time leading a quest that will get to the heart of some of the mysteries that remained unanswered at the end of the first film. What happened to the mythical child Elora Danon? How will she defeat the forces of evil? And what does that mean for the rest of the world?
First up, Kasdan knew there was no Willow without Davis. And Davis knew coming back to arguably his most signature role was a gamble, so he was extra careful. “One thing he had was a real seriousness of purpose,” Kasdan said. “He knew that if he was going to bring this character back, he wanted the fans to love it and feel like they were getting what they were expecting.” Together, the actor and producer would pour over every script to make sure the Willow on the page was the Willow that Davis could get behind.
But years had passed. Willow ended the first film with the desire to be a great sorcerer and, as trailers have teased, he looks to have accomplished that. But Davis had also changed during that time and his evolution as an actor also informed the performance. “What had happened in the years between 1988 and 2021 when we made the show, is he’d also become this brilliant improviser, having worked with Ricky Gervais and having done that part of his career,” Kasdan said, referring to the show Life’s Too Short. “So he had a kind of looseness to him that I don’t think the original movie had, where he’s just playful and can have fun and quickly developed a confidence that if it came out of his mouth and he believed it, it was a Willow line. We couldn’t have moved forward if he didn’t have that conviction in him from the get-go that he could make this character just as vivid as it was in 1988.”
In addition to Davis, Joanne Whalley reprises her role as Sorsha, a crucial character who ends up as Queen and romantically involved with the heroic Madmartigan played by Val Kilmer. Kilmer was asked to return for the show but the state of the world made circumstances impossible.
“Val has been a great ally of the show,” Kasdan said. “From the moment we got going, sort of the first conversation I had after we had some momentum was to go over and see Val and say, ‘We want to do this and we want you to be in it.’ And he wants wanted to be in. He wanted to participate. And it was really the reality of covid that prevented him from coming to Wales in that critical moment.”
Even if Kilmer had come back though, Kasdan said the role of the character would have been similar to what it is in the final show without him. In the first episode, we learn that Sorsha and Madmartigan had kids, Kit (Ruby Cruz) and Arik (Dempsey Bryk), who are dealing with the fact, at some point, their father left them to go off on some adventure but never returned.
“But even before [seeing Kilmer], what was always baked in and what remains completely consistent from its first incarnation was that Madmartigan was going to be absent at the start of the story,” Kasdan said. “And much of it was going to be about Kit’s journey to sort of reconcile what happened there.”
So Willow has Davis back. It has Whalley back. Kilmer is back, in spirit at least, and Howard is back producing. What’s missing from that original DNA? James Horner’s unforgettable score, of course. Sadly, Horner passed away in 2015, but in his place, Willow has James Newton Howard, himself a legend, who specifically asked to work on the show. “James Newton Howard ... threw his hat in saying ‘I want to step into this,’” Kasdan said. “And one of the reasons he said it is because he and Horner had a history together.”
As for the use of the theme, Kasdan and Howard agreed it needed to be used in the right way. “When we had our first conversation, I said, ‘You know, the movie is synonymous with this theme. People love it.’ And he said, ‘I want to use it, but I want the moments when it comes back to be impactful. I don’t want it to feel like we’ve cut together the score from the original movie and repurposed it every time we get into a sort of emotional jam,’” Kasdan recalled. “So you’ll find as you go through the [series], we use it very sparingly as an accent. And what James said to me is that as a friend of Horner’s, he’s confident that he handled it in exactly the way Horner would have handled a score that he had started out on. So I felt pretty good about that.”
Whether audiences feel good about Willow, we’ll have to wait a few weeks to find out. But having seen the first half of the season, we feel the show does an excellent job of building onto the existing mythology and while also developing and endearing the audience to the new characters. It’s a show that fans new and old alike can enjoy, with that same Princess Bride tone that made the original so beloved.
Willow debuts on Disney+ on November 30. We’ll have more soon.
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