Disney+ and Lucasfilm’s “Willow,” like Amazon Prime Video’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Power of the Ring” and HBO’s “House of the Dragon,” is a big-budget fantasy adventure steeped in a preexisting property. There’s magic and creatures and a mythic quest embarked upon by a group of unlikely heroes. But unlike these other projects, “Willow” isn’t crushed by the weight of expectations.
“There was nobody at Lucasfilm slamming their fist on a table and saying, ‘We need a ‘Willow’ series!’” Jonathan Kasdan, the creator of the new show, told TheWrap during a recent visit to the show’s editing bay. This creative freedom allowed the team to discover what “Willow” could be, free from external (or internal) pressures.
George Lucas conceived of “Willow” (originally with the unfortunate title “Munchkins”) before he began production on “Star Wars,” with the idea that he would create a suite of films that would play on classic mythology but for a modern audience. While making “Willow” in 1987, Lucas told The New York Times: “I’ve had the idea for 15 years.” He was unable to make it until then because he needed the technology (supplied by his own effects house Industrial Light & Magic) to properly advance. The idea for “Willow” was “not a caveman movie or a knight-in-shining-armor movie but a movie that takes place on earth way in BC.” To direct the movie Lucas approached Ron Howard, who had starred in Lucas’ “American Graffiti” and had become an accomplished filmmaker in the years since and had recently worked with ILM on “Cocoon.” (Later Howard would say that he was trying to direct the movie like Lucas.) To star in “Willow,” Lucas turned to Warwick Davis, a performer who had memorably appeared as one of the Ewoks in “Return of the Jedi.”
When “Willow” opened in 1988, it was a modest success, earning a tidy profit, two Oscar nominations (both eventually won by “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”) and some nice critical notices (Siskel and Ebert famously gave it two thumbs down), although it was far from the all-consuming juggernaut that “Star Wars” was. Still, there was something there – three spin-off novels, co-written by George Lucas, were released beginning in 1995. And occasionally Lucas would mention something about a proper sequel.
But discussions didn’t start, in earnest (at least according to Kasdan), until production of Lucasfilm’s “Solo: A Star Wars Story.” Howard had been recruited to retool the project after original filmmakers Phil Lord and Chris Miller departed, and Kasdan wrote the script with his father, Lawrence Kasdan (who previously wrote “The Empire Strikes Back” and co-wrote “The Force Awakens”). For Jon, “Willow” represented for him what “Harry Potter” did to a generation of children many years later – there were outcasts, magic, a spirit of adventure and a chosen figure plucked from the unlikeliest circumstances. “I was at exactly the age,” Kasdan said, to fall under “Willow’s” spell.
Jon Kasdan said that he got Howard so excited by idea for the project that by the end of making “Solo,” a new “Willow” was well on its way.
But another curveball hit Kasdan when he started talking with Lucasfilm and Disney about the shape a proper “Willow” follow-up would take; initially conceived as a standalone movie, Disney had a new direct-to-consumer streaming platform that was about to launch. “Willow” was reconceived as a series and officially greenlit in 2020. Kasdan had to ask himself what that meant besides, he said, that he “was going to have to write a lot more pages.”
Soon a story coalesced: we would follow the baby Elora Danan, now a spritely young woman (played by English actress Ellie Bamber, who Kasdan said “somehow embodied the spirit of that baby from the original”) and a fellowship of misfits as they travel outside of the safety of their kingdom to face down evil and retrieve one of their own (a puckish prince played by Dempsey Bryk). They are, of course, mentored by an older Willow (Davis, with years of dramatic and comedy performance under his belt) and occasionally encounter ghosts from the past (sometimes quite literally).
There are a few things that set “Willow” apart from its predecessor – the diversity of its cast (which also includes Erin Kellyman, Tony Revolori and Amar Chadha-Patel), the fact that it isn’t beholden to some pre-established lore, and its emphasis on characters hanging out and getting to know each other (something that harkens back to “American Graffiti”). It’s also, amazingly, very queer – like from the very first episode.
This was something that Kasdan and his producer Michelle Rejwan want to emphasize was always part of the show and something they always wanted to lean into. It was baked into the “coming-of-age” DNA of the show, Kasdan said, that messiness of a time in your life when you’re trying to figure out what and who you are. What makes the scene in the first episode so refreshing and so undeniably real is that a young knight (played by Kellyman) and a princess (amazing newcomer Ruby Cruz) seem taken aback by their chemistry and attraction. Like everything else in the show, it’s an absolute delight.
Kasdan and Rejwan cued up a scene from a later episode for me to watch: it’s a “kick-ass training montage,” one that Kasdan had written into the script as being something that “everybody came here to watch.” And it features Willow training Elora but also princess Kit and knight Jade training (“And this time I don’t want you to hold back”). The sequence is fun and exciting, with the training of Kit and Jade having a flirtatious edge that is still dangerous. And the best part? It’s set to a modern-day pop song. (There is terrific music throughout the series, including some great covers and a new score by James Newton Howard that incorporates the late James Horner’s original themes and instrumentation.)
Of course, the biggest question for “Willow,” especially for fans of the original movie: would Val Kilmer return?
The answer is a little bit more complicated than you would expect, as Kasdan explained. They had every intention to bring Kilmer back, as he had been brought back in “Top Gun: Maverick” earlier this year, but the shooting conditions in Wales and Kilmer’s health issues made that an impossibility. Instead, they cast Christian Slater as a stand-in for Kilmer’s rascally character Madmartigan. “We got the go-ahead from Val,” Kasdan told me. This new character “embodies that spirit,” he said. Should the series continue, they’d love to have Kilmer return. “We kept him alive, he’s out there,” Kasdan said.
Sounds like it could be a very good quest for the crew from “Willow” to go on in a second season. We even have a perfect subtitle – “The Search for Madmartigan.”