Willow, review: huzzah for a fantasy series that remembers that the genre can be fun

Warwick Davis plays the title role in Willow - Lucasfilm Ltd.
Warwick Davis plays the title role in Willow - Lucasfilm Ltd.

After the terribly serious House of the Dragon and the seriously terrible The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, fantasy fans could be forgiven for concluding all fun had been banished from the genre. Galloping to the rescue, and restoring some crucial zing to this mystical milieu, is Willow (Disney +), a delightful teen-oriented sequel to the 1988 George Lucas-produced romp of the same name.

The original Willow was a capering adventure brimming with plucky heroes, ghastly villains and whip-cracking dialogue. That derring-do is meticulously recreated by showrunner Jonathan Kasdan, son of Empire Strikes Back/Raiders of the Last Ark writer Lawrence Kasdan.

As the title promises, Kasdan brings back a supremely wry Warwick Davis in the title role of plucky wizard Willow Ufgood. He’s part of a charming ensemble that also includes headstrong princess Kit (Ruby Cruz), a wilful royal appalled to find herself strong-armed into an arranged marriage with nerdy noble Graydon (Tony Revolori).

Their wedding is interrupted when monstrous raiders kidnap Kit’s idiotic twin brother, Airk (Dempsey Bryk). Among other inconveniences this forces Airk to cut short his flirtation with Dove (Ellie Bamber), a servant to whom there is more than meets the eye.

Joanne Whalley returns from the original as Kit’s mother, Sorsha. She sends her daughter on a quest to find Airk – which necessitates tracking down a mystical saviour figure, the Elora Danan (introduced as a baby in the 1988 movie).

Stunning scenery: Willow - Lucasfilm Ltd.
Stunning scenery: Willow - Lucasfilm Ltd.

Kit is accompanied by love interest Jade (Erin Kellyman) – a same-sex romance which Disney depicts matter-of-factly, without pausing to slap itself on the back. Completing the fellowship are Willow, the geeky Graydon and idiotic warrior-rogue Boorman (a show-stealing Amar Chadha-Patel).

There is also a hilarious cameo by Christian Slater, who doesn’t so much chew the scenery as wolf it down in meaty gulps. The return of Willow’s original side-kick Madmartigan (Val Kilmer) is teased, too. Kilmer seemingly communicates with us in voiceover through an inter-dimensional portal: I can’t help but suspect we’ll be getting the full Val valedictory in the January finale.

Royal twins, arranged marriages, monstrous invaders – on paper Willow reads like Disney Does Westeros. The essential distinction is the show’s cheery bravado. With its yeasty blend of American and British accents, Willow taps into the cheesy spirit of The Princess Bride, Neil Gaiman’s Stardust and the 1980s Dungeons & Dragons cartoon.

Throw in a string of stunning location shoots across Wales – including the haunting Pendine Sands at Carmarthen Bay – and the package is complete. Roguish and ribald, this fantasy never forgets it’s supposed to be fun.