The ‘80s were a prime time for esoteric fantasy films, a cinema-smashing genre that included Labyrinth, The NeverEnding Story, and The Princess Bride. But there was one story of an evil queen, a Nelwyn sorcerer, and a foundling baby that really captured the imaginations and hearts of many: Willow.
Starring Warwick Davis as the eponymous hero, it followed the dwarven sorceror and his merry band of friends as they set out to return a baby called Elora Danan – found in a nearby river – to a Daikini family. Also starring Val Kilmer as the long-locked swordsman Madmartigan and Joanne Whalley as the queen’s warrior daughter Sorsha, the fantasy adventure movie was given that extra layer of Hollywood magic and sparkle by the fact it was written and produced by George Lucas, and directed by Ron Howard.
Nominated for two Oscars, it pulled in $137 million in the box office, with Empire lauding it as "one of the most eye-catching fantasy films around". For more than three decades, it’s remained a cult classic, but the franchise is now finally being revived with Willow, a 10-part sequel series on Disney Plus, picking up on the fantastical action once again.
Speaking to TechRadar, Davis explains why the sequel has taken so long to appear. "I’m not sure if there was anything official or if it just was fans demanding more Willow," he muses. "But their voice has been quite loud over the past 35 years."
Back to the future
Davis reunited with Lucas and Howard while he was filming 2018’s Solo: A Star Wars Story, saying it led to a conversation about a potential follow up: "Everything seemed to align perfectly. I was on Solo and I had long hair. It reminded them of an older Willow, and [we thought] it would be a really cool thing to do.
"I feel really good about coming back to the character again, but the main challenge for me is that firstly I’m quite a bit older. At 17 all the action and physicality was of no bother to me at all but when you’re 52 all those things become a bit more difficult!"
Joining Davis is a new generation of characters – literally, in that Davis’ real life daughter Annabelle Davis plays Willow's daughter Mims, and we meet Madmartigan and Sorsha’s twins – Princess Kit and Prince Arik, played by Ruby Cruz and Dempsey Bryk. Also joining the gang are kitchen maid Dove (Ellie Bamber), scholar Graydon (Tony Revolori), knight-in-training Jade (Erin Kellyman), and wisecracking thief Borrman (Amar Chadha-Patel).
While most of Willow's actors are too young to have seen the 1988 film during its original theatrical run, Chadha-Patel says that the casting was a once-in-a-lifetime role: "I’m a huge fan of the movie, I grew up with it, so this was a dream come true for me."
Revolori adds: "I watched it with my parents when I was a kid. The new series goes deep into the magic, it expands on it and fleshes it out, so it was fun to be part of that, but also putting my own input into it, and talking about it with Jon [Jonathan Kasdan, who developed the story]. When I got the opportunity to audition, I went full force."
As with all LucasFilm productions, the whole process was cloak and dagger from the start. "I didn’t really know what it was until a few weeks after my first tape, as all the scripts we had to audition with were made up and fake scenes," Chadha-Patel explains. "Some of them were in the present day in the real world so what I think Jon was really looking for was dynamics.”
The series might be steeped in history, but feels fresh and modern in its approach, turning the idea of pretty princesses and brave princes on its head. The cinematography is up there with any of Lucas’ other movies, making excellent use of the lush, mountainous backdrops in Wales, where the show was primarily filmed. Meanwhile, the rich interiors of the castles and magical villages lean deeply into fully immersing the viewer into a fantasy world.
The show's humor is also a key part of its appeal. While other fantasy series may get bogged down in po-faced explanations of epic tales, Willow takes a knowing wink at these productions with its snappy, witty dialogue instead.
Chadha-Patel – who, as Boorman, gets a lot of the funniest lines – says he ended up corpsing a few times: "I broke a lot. I find comedy really fun to do but it’s really hard to nail it. Also keeping it alive after you’ve done it 45 times in a day is difficult. But people forget that Willow laid the groundwork for that type of humor. The film is bonkers and funny, and slapstick and silly, so what we’re doing is honouring that tone and bringing it back to the old days."
Alongside its amusing moments, fans can also expect swashbuckling fight scenes, as the gang travel across kingdoms on a quest to save Kit's twin. "I don’t know why I didn’t expect it, but it was so physically challenging!" Bamber explains. "I went into it not really thinking about it. I’m so glad I did four weeks of personal training before so I felt it built my stamina but it was so good to be physically challenged each day."
Erin Kellyman (Top Boy, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier) adds her past training for Marvel films helped her to a certain degree: "Marvel was very stunt heavy, but it was very different in that I’ve never picked up a sword before. Like, I know the distance between my fist and his face, but it’s a whole different thing to get used to doing it with a sword."
Visualizing a fan favorite film in new ways
Of course, in the three decades since the original was released, technological advancements allow for even more fantastical and creative scenes, especially with the terrifying big demon known as The Crone. Davis notes that there was just one use of CGI in the film – the morphing sequence of when Fin Raziel turns from a goat into a human again – and was apparently the first use of that technique in a motion picture.
"Everything else was all optical, paintings, models, animatronics, that kind of thing," he says. "With the series, we’ve got the full arsenal of CGI to use for effects work. There are so many advances in that area now that whatever Jon could write they could pretty much put on the screen now. It becomes more magical and really lends itself to that kind of work, spells and lightning bolts and all that stuff you need for a sorcery film."
One person whose presence is very much missed in the film is Val Kilmer, who was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2015 and has undergone chemotherapy and a tracheotomy since. In 2020, he declared he'd been cancer free for four years but, despite the fact his voice was used and digitally altered for 2022's Top Gun: Maverick, he was unable to be a part of Willow.
While the reason for his character’s absence is explained in the first few episodes, Davis says: "Not a day went by on set where I didn’t think about Val and remember him for his good humor and energy.
"When I think about the original, he’s the reason I got through the whole project. I was physically exhausted, I was over it at the time as it was so physically exhausting, but he was there with his good humor and energy and it would get me through the day. Working with Joanne [Whalley, who plays Sorsha], we talked about how we missed him. We couldn’t have him there in person, but his spirit definitely lives on through the series, which was lovely."
Cruz and Bryk agree, revealing they studied Kilmer’s performance to incorporate it into their own roles. "There are some sword moves that I remember watching on my iPhone to get a perfect recreation," Bryk says. "So there are some moments like that that were fun,” says Bryk.
"Oh we definitely [had a nod back to Kilmer]," Cruz adds. "It was really cool to be able to go back and study both Joanne and Val’s performances and see how those characters would affect our characters as parents, aspects we rejected or admired."
This dedication to the legacy of the previous characters shines through in Willow's Disney Plus show, and although the people they portray are set in a medieval-esque fantasy world, their depiction of young people finding their way in the world is inherently modern.
"That’s what I liked about our characters," Cruz says. "We’re messy, we make a lot of mistakes. It’s not like we’re perfect people in fun times, we’re learning and growing, and I think a lot of young people will be able to relate to that."
"That’s the mark of a hero to me," Bryk adds. "It’s not a hero who knows exactly the right thing to do and does it, but a hero who’s struggling through the grey areas."
As Davis sums up, though much time has passed since the original film, both it and the new series messages are timeless: "There’s lots of heart and there’s new lessons in there as well, as the idea of if you believe in something strongly enough you can achieve it. That’s a great lesson for the world we live in now."
Willow launches on Disney Plus on Wednesday, November 30.
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Laura Martin is an entertainment journalist who covers TV, film, and music. She's written for numerous big publications, including TechRadar, Esquire, BBC Culture, The Guardian, and The i newspaper. Her favourite stories usually involve prestige TV drama, reality TV, or true-life documentaries. Basically, the more obscure, the better!