“Willow,” the 1988 fantasy film costarring Warwick Davis and Val Kilmer, tells the tale of an aspiring wizard in a magical world who, despite his small stature and a treacherous journey, is destined for greatness. The plot might be an allegory for the movie itself, as well as its legacy, since some 35 years later, the relatively esoteric title is getting a brand new life by way of a big-budget fantasy series premiering this week on Disney+.
It’s a refreshing turn against recent trends that a cult classic without the sizable built-in fanbase of, say, a “Star Wars” or Marvel property would receive the fancy reboot treatment. But those who have loved the film, directed by Ron Howard, are eager for its arrival – even if they might not necessarily have strength in numbers.
The will for ‘Willow’
Alban Leloup, the administrator for the Willow Wiki page at Fandom, told CNN that “Willow” fans are somewhat “hard to pinpoint,” describing them as “small pockets” scattered among sites like Tumblr and Facebook.
“There hasn’t been, so far, a centralized community,” he said.
According to Fandom community partnership specialist (and “Willow” fan) Mike Delaney, there is also a fair amount of crossover with “Star Wars” – most likely because George Lucas provided the idea for the original film.
“Willow” loyalists, he said, “look upon ‘Willow’ as a very fun part of the LucasFilm family of films.”
Delaney likened “Willow” to the Jim Henson gem “Labyrinth” and other landmark movies of the period, saying it “was one of those films in the ’80s that introduced a lot of people to the idea of fantasy films in general and brought them into the mainstream.”
“There’s this great generational aspect to it,” he added. “In the same way that ‘Star Wars’ does, and other films from the ’80s era that have this nostalgic factor to it, people enjoy carrying it with them and passing it down to their own family and their own friends.”
Nonetheless, “Willow” remains a rather obscure reference next to “Star Wars” and countless other titles, with Delaney acknowledging that as a single film, there’s “not a lot to draw from,” pointing to the scant other “Willow” content that has arisen in the interim – a comic book, a role-playing game sourcebook and a trilogy of novels written by Chris Claremont (and outlined by Lucas).
A good indicator of how niche “Willow” is, both Leloup and Delaney agree, is observing just how rare it is to see the film celebrated at film or fantasy conventions.
“You could be walking around a convention floor, and in a sea of Harley Quinns, you’ll spot a Willow,” Delaney observed. “You have that little moment where you’re like, ‘I know who you are. I know that you’re playing as Willow!’ And there’s probably a load of people around who have no idea who they’re dressed as.”
Since the series was announced, “there has been a spike” in interest, Leloup said, which they’ve seen reflected in their web traffic and interactions on their site.
“There’s always a delicate balance between keeping the old fans in the fold, with familiar respects, familiar themes, familiar feel, but at the same time you’re wishing to attract a whole new group,” Leloup said of the growth.
The arrival of the new 8-episode series comes with high hopes from the small but mighty fanbase.
The pilot of the show was executive produced by Howard, along with LucasFilm president and super producer Kathleen Kennedy. Bob Dolman, who wrote the screenplay for the original film, also acted as supervising producer on the first episode.
In terms of what he’s most excited about in the new series, Leloup points to the lore presented in the original movie and where it might go next.
“There are many sorts of nerds, and I call myself a lore nerd. What I like first and foremost, almost on an equal footing with storytelling, is world-building,” he said. “I am just curious to see where they are going to take this world, and how much world-building they’ll be adding to it.”
Within that lore is central character Elora Danan in the original movie – a baby princess destined to defeat the evil queen Bavmorda and protected by Willow – and how she’ll figure in the new series.
The Elora character, who is only mentioned but not seen in the promotional materials for the show, is in fact credited as the reasoning behind why such a small property from the LucasFilm oeuvre was brought back in the first place.
“Willow” showrunner and creator Jonathan Kasdan told GamesRadar.com this month, “there are a million unanswered questions from the movie, but for me there’s only one, and it’s the reason we did this show at all: what happened to that baby? I think, more than anything George Lucas has done, ‘Willow’ was the one that said ‘sequel’ to me.”
He later added, “‘Willow’ ended with the most powerful person in the world as an eight-month-old infant, so it felt like there was story left to tell.”
As for that new story, not much has been revealed, other than the fact that it’s set decades after the events of the original film, with Willow being called upon for yet another perilous quest, this time to rescue the twin brother of Kit (Ruby Cruz), after he was abducted by mysterious evil forces.
Fandom director of community activations and “Willow” superfan Brian Linder also mentioned another recognizable name in the new cast. “It’ll be interesting to see what Christian Slater’s character is all about.” Slater is credited as part of the cast of the series, but no information on his character is available yet.
Original star Kilmer, who played the dashing swordsman Madmartigan in the original film, had to be written out of the series just ahead of filming due to Covid-19 restrictions, but Delaney point to fan theories that Slater will perhaps step in for the character in some way. Kilmer’s ex-wife Joanne Whalley, who he met on the original film, will be back in the series as warrior Sorsha.
Delaney is also looking forward to how the team behind the new series will incorporate more inclusive casting in the world of “Willow,” which in 1988 featured a predominantly White cast.
New additions to the series include “Raised By Wolves” and “Solo” star Erin Kellyman, Tony Revolori of “Spider-Man: Homecoming” fame, and Amar Chadha-Patel.
Delaney said nothing can be lost from bringing “fresh ideas into a 35-year-old franchise.”
“I think there’s a bit of excitement to see exactly what they can bring to that and to make ‘Willow’ more relevant for the current generation and the current entertainment landscape,” he said.
“Willow” the series premieres on Wednesday on Disney+.