Against my better judgment, I was actually excited for Disney’s new Willow show. As long as we’re stuck in the cycle of remaking ’80s and ’90s properties, this movie could be a fun one. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, plus Warwick Davis is only 52,* so he can easily reprise his role.
I’ve now watched the first half of the season, and, so far, the show is a total disaster. These early entries aren’t just terrible; they’re especially terrible as a sequel. The show is both clashing with its source material while also including a bunch of stuff the writers clearly don’t care about out of obligation to the original. This show would be bad on its own, but as a follow up to the movie, it’s even worse.
Spoiler Notice: Willow episodes one through four.
The Previous Ending Is Retconned
At the film’s end, we’re told that Sorsha and Madmartigan will raise baby Elora Danan to be empress. Empress of what isn’t entirely clear, since the movie isn’t big on political worldbuilding, but presumably she’ll get a crown and a fancy chair. It’s also not clear why this is even necessary, because Elora’s big claim to fame was a prophecy that she’d defeat the evil Bavmorda, and Bavmorda was already taken care of by then. But, hey, Willow did a whole quest over it, so they might as well make Elora empress once she’s out of diapers.
Also, Willow is on his way to becoming a great sorcerer. By the end of the movie, he can even do magic without the assistance of a wand, which is a big deal for him. It’s pretty clear where the story is going from here.
As soon as the show opens, it changes all that. Somehow, Willow’s no longer a great sorcerer… maybe. To start, Sorsha simply claims that he isn’t, and Willow has no rebuttal. Then Willow simply doesn’t use magic for two episodes, despite teaching it to Elora. Can he do magic at all? In episode three, it finally becomes clear that this is intended as a mystery, but it’s not a fun one. After Willow spent the entirety of the original movie learning magic, the idea that he can’t cast a single spell is deeply unsatisfying.
Finally, Willow uses magic at the end of the third episode. He collapses immediately afterward. While putting some limits on his magic is reasonable, this never happened to the experienced sorceresses in the movie. After questioning if he can do magic at all, it doesn’t look great.
Adding insult to injury, when Team Good learns how Willow defeated Bavmorda in episode four, they treat it like something shameful. While Willow didn’t use magic to triumph at the movie’s climax, it was a great moment for him. His disappearing pig trick was not only clever, but also demonstrated how he’d grown in confidence, finishing his character arc. The show wants us to remember this happy victory as a defeat.
The show’s follow-up on Elora and Sorsha isn’t any better. Naturally, the show opens with an exposition dump about how five minutes after the movie ended, everything changed because Willow had a vision. In his vision, some vague evil would destroy the “future empress.” In response, Sorsha put Elora back into hiding, giving the baby a new name, so not even Elora knows who she is. Sorsha’s reasoning isn’t explained, but I think she’s trying to dodge the vision via semantics, hoping that nothing can destroy the “future empress” if she isn’t the empress yet.
It’s also unclear how Sorsha stayed on as queen since her main claim to power is being the daughter of Bavmorda, the evil queen that everyone banded together to overthrow. Honestly, this all sounds like a sinister plot on Sorsha’s part: “Yes, I will definitely ensure the true empress takes the throne someday. Eventually. When I feel like it. In the meantime, I’m still queen, and my daughter will be queen after me. Stop asking where Elora is, I promise she’s secretly safe in a place where only I can get to her!”
If that were the intent, I might even respect it, because Sorsha’s about-face in the movie was super contrived. But we’re clearly supposed to believe that Sorsha is making these bizarre choices in good faith, regardless of the damage it does to her character.
More fundamentally, you should never start a sequel by explaining how everything’s changed offscreen. This violates what we call the expected trend rule. If things go the way it was stated or implied they would, fine, that can happen offscreen. But if there’s going to be a major change, we need to see that occur. That’s why The Empire Strikes Back doesn’t start off with Luke having quit the rebellion to become a hermit. Stories that break this rule are frustrating because it feels like they’re breaking their promises to us.
Storytellers are especially likely to forget about expected trends when making sequels after a long time has gone by, which is why The Force Awakens starts off with Luke having quit the rebellion to become a hermit. But it’s still a problem even after several decades, especially since the sequel always depends on nostalgia for the original to get people interested.
In Willow’s case, this offscreen retcon is all in service of justifying why Elora isn’t the empress she’s supposed to be, because it would be harder for her to go on an adventure if she were. I don’t understand why the writers went to all this trouble. The show is called “Willow,” not “Elora.” There’s no reason she has to be the main character. As empress, she could send Willow on an adventure if that’s what the creators wanted to write about. Instead, they’ve messed up their beginning to shoehorn in a plot point they didn’t even need!
The World Is Unrecognizable
The original Willow didn’t do much in the way of cultural or political worldbuilding. We learned that the Nelwyn live largely isolated from Daikini society, but that’s about it. We don’t know if Bavmorda is a queen in the traditional sense or if she’s just a powerful enough sorceress that no one can argue with her. We don’t know if the forces resisting her are an internal rebellion or the army of another monarch.* We don’t even know what Bavmorda is queen of, or whether Willow’s village is the only Nelwyn settlement.
Instead, most of the movie’s worldbuilding is focused on creating a sense of magical wackiness. Magical creatures abound, with woods full of brownies, fairies, and trolls. We meet three powerful sorceresses in the space of just two hours, and even lower tier wizards can hand out acorns of petrification. I wouldn’t normally recommend this kind of haphazard setting design, but it works okay in Willow because it’s a campy story.
For the TV show, it makes sense to make the world a little more robust, since we’ll be staying in the world for more than two hours this time. We start with basic politics about how Sorsha now rules Tir Asleen* as part of a confederation with several other kingdoms, most of which even have names! Decent so far.
But then we learn that all the magic is gone, for reasons. The show is pretty vague on why. Maybe because it just naturally left, or maybe because Sorsha outlawed it? Who knows. So this is going to be another low magic fantasy show, like a (presumably) less sexually explicit Game of Thrones? That’s disappointing.
Just as we’ve settled into the new mundanity, the show changes gears again. Now, there’s a giant supernatural forcefield somewhere that’s supposed to keep magic out. Then, a bunch of evil magic monsters attack, so the barrier obviously doesn’t work. Later, we find out there’s a big gap in the barrier that’s guarded by one small outpost, which makes you wonder what the point even was.
I have a question: is this supposed to be a grounded world of political intrigue, or is it supposed to be a whimsical place you don’t think about too much? The writers are trying to do both. At first, I assumed that it would be serious and grounded inside the barrier, and weird and wacky outside of it, but that doesn’t seem to be the case either. When the heroes finally leave through the obviously insufficient guard post, there aren’t any more magical creatures than before. There are some auto-hostile bandits called “bonereavers” though, which I suppose is technically something.
The Show Adds Too Many Characters
Wow, there are a lot of characters in these episodes. In just the main party we have a whopping seven: Willow, Elora, Kit, Jade, Graydon, Boorman, and Silas. These are the characters we spend most of the time following. It doesn’t even consider important side characters like Queen Sorsha or Kidnapped Boy Arik, let alone any villains.
While it’s possible for a story to handle that many main characters, it’s a task this show hasn’t been up to so far. After four episodes, the characters feel one note at best and completely undefined at worst. While this is still early in the show, it’s more screen time than the original movie had, so we should have gotten at least some development by now.
The main culprit for this problem is how haphazardly the characters are added. Each one only seems to serve a single minor purpose.
- Jade: Kit and Jade originally appear to be the show’s protagonists, but then Jade turns out to be nothing more than a red herring to obscure which character is secretly Elora. Once the real Elora is revealed, Jade is left awkwardly hanging.
- Kit: Kit is only here because someone decided that Sorsha and Madmartigan’s kid should be in the story.
- Elora: She appears to be partway through an arc about gaining the confidence she needs to save the world. This arc has little to recommend it because Bavmorda, the big threat Elora was supposed to defeat, is already dead.
- Boorman: An extremely obvious Madmartigan substitute.
- Graydon: I think Graydon’s main purpose is to create a love triangle with Elora and her initial boyfriend. His secondary purpose is stealing Willow’s thunder by being the most knowledgeable character.
- Silas: At first, it seems like Silas was there because someone realized it’s okay to have more than one little person in the story. Then he gets unceremoniously killed off, so I guess not.
It would be easy to consolidate these roles down to a more manageable number of characters. At the very least, Jade and Elora should be the same character, as the brief mystery over Elora’s identity adds nothing to the story. I’d then combine the Kit and Boorman role, giving Madmartigan a literal and figurative heir. This is what it looked like they were doing in the first episode, with Jade playing the straight* to Kit’s carefree joker, but then it turned out that Kit was a huge jerk instead.
Dropping the main characters down from seven to five would make things a lot more manageable and remove the need to kill off Silas like some kind of redshirt. Graydon is probably not strictly necessary either, but at least there would be more room for whatever love triangle the writers want him entangled in.
I’m sure that as the show goes on, we’ll learn more about the writers’ plans for each character, and my proposed combinations won’t work as smoothly. But as I’m fond of saying to my editing clients, it isn’t worth damaging your story early to get some payoff later. Even if the payoff is good, it can’t go back in time and erase the bad time your audience had before.
Willow Is Made Useless
You’ll notice that I didn’t talk much about Willow himself in the previous section, and that’s because these early episodes mishandle him so badly that I need a whole new section to work through my feelings on the matter.
The first thing our hero does is delay the group from continuing their quest. The mission is to rescue a prince who’s just been kidnapped, so time is of the essence. Instead of hurrying, Willow has them hang out in his village for a while so everyone can make a big deal about Elora. When he finally decides to join the quest, he insists on using a slow wagon that’s constantly getting stuck. Did the writers forget that Willow knows how to ride a horse? He does that in the movie!
Then it’s time for Willow to teach Elora magic as the group travels, and he’s immediately terrible at it. His only instruction is for her to repeat the same spell words over and over again, even though it’s clearly not working. This is a common problem with magical training sequences, as it’s difficult for writers to create tangible steps in supernatural learning, but it’s still frustrating.
When it’s time to fight, Willow first throws a smoke bomb that allows the villains to grab Elora and escape. Then he tries to help with some explosive powder, but it’s set off early and nearly kills everyone. These kinds of fumbles might work as spinach for a character who was shown to be badass in other ways, but Willow hasn’t done a single useful thing yet.
This is why, in the original movie, Madmartigan messes up in comedic ways far more often than Willow. Madmartigan can wreck face in a fight, so he can also bungle things now and then without being a hindrance. Willow doesn’t have that kind of skill, so the writers went out of their way to make him more useful rather than less.
It’s possible the show’s writers thought it would be fine for Willow to fall on his face a few times because he’s now a great and powerful sorcerer, and they’d have been right… if Willow were a great and powerful sorcerer. But he can’t be since that would disrupt the “can he use magic mystery” that the writers included for some reason.
Eventually Willow claims that he has to “save” his magic for the big bad, as if it’s a fixed resource he can run out of. That isn’t how magic works in the movie. Then again, the way he says it sounds like he’s making excuses, so I have no idea if he’s telling the truth or not.
Once he finally uses his magic at the end of episode three, it proves to be super overpowered, eliminating an entire group of previously unkillable bad guys with one spell. I can see why the writers didn’t want him tossing out spells like that on a regular basis, but, believe it or not, there are other options! He could have had magic that was a bit less story-breaking, but that he could use more than once every three episodes.
Then Willow begins episode four by sitting around doing nothing while Graydon is dying of a magical ailment. Willow finally volunteers a way to save Graydon only after the other protagonists discuss killing him, leading them to ask Willow for a cure out of desperation. Naturally, Willow’s solution fails. Then Willow tries to stop Elora from using her own magic, which is wildly successful.
If Graydon weren’t around, Willow would at least offer lots of knowledge and guidance to the other characters. But because Graydon needs that to be useful, Willow is left with only the magic he’s not allowed to use.
Tone Changes Give You Whiplash
A lot of the show’s problems can be traced back to a single source: When asked whether they wanted the story to be light and whimsical or dark and gritty, the writers said “yes.”
In some scenes, Willow is a serious fantasy drama that might compete with Rings of Power, Wheel of Time, or even House of the Dragon. While the violence is never quite as graphic as what happens in Westeros, the fight scenes are brutal, characters die, and there’s a lot of crying. There’s also a lot of talk of political marriages and alliances, though that mostly fades after the first episode.
In other scenes, the characters crack questionable jokes, make light of their situation, and generally bumble around. Willow’s aforementioned incompetence does feature a lot here, but other characters pitch in as well. Even Kit, who seems to have a perpetually sour mood, gets in a quip here and there.
The most blatant example in this clash comes in episode three. Elora is running through the dark and spooky woods, getting caught in branches and undergrowth as she flees from the bad guys. Then, with no transition at all, the forest is well lit and neatly kept so she can walk through it unobstructed. The change is so dramatic that I thought Elora had stepped into a fairy glade, but apparently not.
Instead, she meets Hubert and Anne, a couple who live in the woods for some reason. These two resemble no one so much as Rool and Franjean, the movie’s comic relief brownies. Both duos refuse to take threats seriously, are irrationally brave, and have dialogue so over the top that it can easily cross the line into annoying.
In the movie, Rool and Franjean’s antics mean they have several brushes with death, but they’re always okay because the story is light and campy. In the show, Hubert and Anne are brutally killed, with Hubert stabbed in battle while Anne is cut down as she runs away screaming.
Maybe someone thought this would make the show seem grown-up and serious, but all it does is shine an unpleasant light on how badly constructed everything is. If this is a serious world where people can be brutally murdered, why are Hubert and Anne so blasé about the approaching threat? For that matter, why do they live by themselves in the woods if it’s so dangerous, and why is their cottage surrounded by perpetual sunlight? While I’m asking questions that the show can’t answer, did anyone consider the implications of introducing a lesbian couple and then immediately killing them off?
It is possible for stories to change tone and still feel consistent, but not with the drastic swings that this show employs. The overall impression is that someone had a dark fantasy show they wanted to make, but was forced to stamp a Willow label on it for funding. I suppose that’s not surprising in light of Hollywood’s obsession with preexisting properties, but that doesn’t make the results any less bitter.
To be clear, the original Willow movie is not without problems. Sorsha completely switches from evil to good because she met a hot guy, and Madmartigan’s crossdressing comedy routine is outdated at best. In spite of those flaws, the film holds up quite well because it’s consistently light and silly, which is why we can accept Willow and Madmartigan using Home Alone tactics to defend a castle.* When it’s time to get more serious in the finale, the tone changes only as much as it absolutely has to. In the Willow show, these lessons seem to have been lost to history.
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