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Willow has been cancelled, which I find at once totally unsurprising and deeply depressing. Don’t get me wrong, the Disney Plus sequel series to the classic 1988 Ron Howard fantasy film was absolutely terrible. It stunk like troll dung. It remains one of the worst shows I’ve ever had the displeasure of watching.
But I wanted so badly for it to be good. More than The Rings Of Power or any of the Star Wars shows, I wanted a sequel to Willow that the Warwick Davis / Val Kilmer film deserved. When I first heard about the Disney Plus live-action series I was thrilled. I had no idea what crushing disappointment lay in wait, but I wish I’d prepared myself better. Steeled myself for what was to come.
I guess I wanted to believe. Warick Davis was onboard and optimistic. Ron Howard was involved, though not as showrunner or director. Even Willow’s original screenplay scribe, Bob Dolman, was onboard.
Then, when I learned that Jonathan Kasdan was heading up the project, I thought for sure we’d get something true to the original. After all, Kasdan is the son of Lawrence Kasdan, one of the main writers of the original Star Wars trilogy. The father/son duo wrote Solo: A Star Wars Story together, which was better than it had any right to be.
And Kasdan is about my age, meaning that—like me—he grew up with Willow and would surely understand what made it so great. What could go wrong?
Everything, it turns out. Or very nearly everything.
Willow got off to a terrible start right out the gates. The show’s tone felt directed at a teenage demographic that doesn’t exist—but fits squarely outside the demographic most interested in this kind of fantasy: Kids and their parents. There’s a way to craft a story that appeals to younger kids and their parents and the blueprint is the Willow film. If you want to ignore both those crucial demographics and target teens with a CW-style romance, you have Willow the TV show. The problem? I’m not sure even most teenagers like shows that so badly misunderstand how teenagers think these days. It’s just too cheesy.
Here’s a list of everything Willow got wrong:
- The tone. A bizarre mix of very modern sounding dialogue with a cast that was primarily late teen / early 20s’ and—for all its diversity—extremely uniform. Did we need five characters in this age demographic when the original film was about a young father and a roguish swordfighter trying to protect a baby with the help of a pair of brownies?
- The music. James Horner’s terrific, unique fantasy score for the Willow movie remains one of the best film soundtracks of all time, but Kasdan and Lucasfilm replaced this with a soundtrack almost devoid of character—and then added in a bunch of modern rock songs—just to drive home the point that they had no idea who the target audience was for this show. Truly a mind-bogglingly awful creative decision.
- The production. While there were some cool magic effects later on in the show, and the special effects in general were fine, the costumes were so bad. In one scene, Elora Danan encounters two woods-women chopping wood in a magical forest. Despite taking place in a decidedly fantasy realm, they were wearing clothes better suited to the Australian outback. The show should have leaned into the blend of European fantasy and subtle Asian flavoring that made the movie distinct.
Between a boring cast of characters that took the focus away from Willow himself and didn’t focus on Elora nearly enough, Willow was doomed to fail.
There were some highlights, of course. Had the show leaned into its strengths it might have been decent. I liked the casting for Elora a lot. Ellie Bamber is the perfect aged-up Elora, and did a great job with what she had to work with. She’s also one of those rare beauties that even in star-studded Hollywood stands out. Amar Chadha-Patel was fantastic as Boorman, as well, but the show decided to make his character a running gag rather than give him the depth he deserved.
Even though I mostly despised this show, I find myself in mourning, wondering if maybe the creators of the show could have taken criticism to heart and crafted a better second season. By which I mean, could have not taken my criticisms personally and instead gleaned from them some honest advice on how to improve a lackluster story—and steer it away from the CW teen romance crap that defined the first season. They had a three season arc that we now will never get, largely because they tossed out what made Willow great in favor of . . . what they thought modern audiences would want to see.
Mostly, I’m sad that we never got the Willow that we deserved. That really bums me out. It was possible, especially with Davis on board.
If Disney would like to take a second crack at it, I’m available. I have a pretty good sense of what made Willow special and how to catch that lightning in a bottle one more time. Adventure! Heroism! Friendship! The little guy overcoming overwhelming odds. A sense of humor that’s not afraid to sound a bit more ‘modern’ than The Lord Of The Rings but one that doesn’t pepper dialogue with like, the word, like ya know, like all the time.
Oh well. Maybe it’s best we leave these old stories alone and write new ones instead. Just a thought.
Update 3/17/23: Not Cancelled, Creator Says
Jonathan Kasdan, the creator and showrunner of the Willow series on Disney Plus says that Deadline’s report was mistaken and that while the show is not in production currently, and won’t be for some time, it has not been cancelled. Disney and Lucasfilm have released the actors from their obligation to the show for the time being, which allows them to seek out other roles during the interim, but Kasdan claims they have every intention of producing the next season.
“The outpouring of kind words, support and passion for our shabby, idiosyncratic little show has been nothing short of mind-blowing and profoundly moving,” Kasdan wrote in a statement posted to Twitter Friday. “We’re all inexpressibly grateful and thrilled that you enjoy watching it (almost) as much as we enjoy making it. Even those of you who didn’t enjoy it, yet stuck with it for eight hours to critique each episode and let us know exactly which choices you weren’t a fan of. That too is its own . . . incredibly specific form of flattery, and we appreciate it!”
That last bit is for me, I suppose, and I do appreciate the spirit of the statement. We critics are here to help, not to destroy. I want the next season of Willow to be much, much better than the first season and some very simple changes—like taking out the godawful modern pop music—can go a long ways toward achieving that goal. Reducing the amount of modern aphorisms present in the dialogue and putting a little more effort into costumes would also help. I’m fine with all the representation and diversity—critiques that the show is “too woke” are silly—but I’d appreciate a bit more depth for a lot of these characters, and more realistic struggles.
The show has not been cancelled, Kasdan notes. “The truth is less splashy, but here it is: A decision was made last week to release our main cast for other series opportunities that may arise for them in the coming year.” He also notes that Mims will appear in every single episode of Season 2, which is a curious spoiler.
Kasdan describes the second season he has in mind as ‘brain-meltingly fun, richer, darker and better” adding:
“Volume II is all about courage, desire, acceptance and the comedy and beauty to be found in even the darkest places and moments. It’s about the enemies we must inevitably confront, both without and, often far more insidiously, from within. But, above all, it’s about the ineffable and enduring magic of friendship.”
The one thing that kind of suggests that while the show may not be officially cancelled, it’s not officially not cancelled either is this passage:
“Perhaps the one thing Hollywood has consistently been great at, over its entire history, is servicing the appetites, no matter how obscure, of its consumers. And I have total confidence that, if an appetite for more Willow persists, Disney, Lucasfilm and this amazing cast and crew will satisfy it.”
That does not sound like a slam-dunk to me. At all. He says that he feels “fairly confident that, if asked, neither I, nor the folks at Lucasfilm, would or have actually characterized” the news as cancellation. But then what is it? I’m still not sure. Limbo, I guess? The Immemorial City?
Kasdan also makes a crack about how anachronistic it is to put a Soundgarden cover in a fantasy show and I will just say this: Please stop doing that. It could work, absolutely, in a brand new fantasy show where that type of thing is established as part of the tone from the outset. But Willow the film didn’t have this (thank god) and neither should a show based on the movie. That doesn’t mean the show can’t do its own thing—it should! It should absolutely be the story of Elora Danan and her companions and explore new realms and villains and take us on new adventures. But let’s at least stick to the tone and spirit of the film, even as we delve into new, unexplored territory. This is the way.
So as I’ve thought about this more, I think the question really is this: What exactly are we supposed to believe? What’s really going on here?
I think the best we can do is speculate based on the evidence at hand. A few things are happening at once here.
- Season 1 of Willow scored deceptively high on Rotten Tomatoes but faced a lot of criticism from both critics and, more importantly, fans. I don’t know what the numbers were but that’s also because Disney isn’t telling. They couldn’t have been great. Partly that’s because Willow is just not that big of an IP and partly that’s because, as I’ve noted, the show couldn’t make up its mind about who its target audience was. I think it aimed for the wrong demographic and ended up not as widely appealing as it could have been—if it had been directed at kids and parents rather than teens.
- On top of this, you have Disney taking a more sober approach to Star Wars right now, and while Willow isn’t Star Wars it is Lucasfilm and that matters. The disappointing box office numbers for Solo: A Star Wars Story have led CEO Bob Iger to say recently that “maybe the cadence [of the release of Star Wars films] was a little too aggressive” and while the company is still “developing Star Wars films . . . we’re going to make sure when we make one, it’s the right one. So we’re being very careful there.” It’s not unreasonable to extrapolate from that a general sense of caution and feet on the brakes for non-Marvel projects going forward.
- There are many unsubstantiated rumors swirling that Lucasfilm boss Kathleen Kennedy may be retiring soon and if so this could lend even more credence to the idea that many projects at the studio could be on hiatus until a clear path forward and new leadership is established. This is hearsay, however, and I don’t want to lend it any credence beyond noting that it’s certainly possible. Executives move on all the time. Bob Iger left Disney and then came back!
- Some have argued that Kasdan is saving face here, casting the current circumstances around the show in as positive a light as possible. It’s a cancellation in all but name. I think that may be true, but I also think it’s an important distinction. Disney could easily just cancel the show. This happens all the time. Keeping the door open to a potential second and third season has to be purposeful and until we hear otherwise, I think fans of the show should hold out a small sliver of hope.
If it is brought back, my hope is that the show’s writers and producers take all the very valid criticisms to heart and give us a stronger, more mature story that still hews toward the adventurous and a more lighthearted tone than the popular grimdark stuff we get most of the time these days. I genuinely don’t think the show’s failures have anything to do with it being “too woke” but I also don’t think criticisms of Willow are based only in ‘bigotry’ as some have suggested. There are many, many things that can be done to make this a better show, but all of them come back to settling on A) a tone that fits the original film better and B) a target audience that is not simply the teenage romance demographic. I still believe this show can be fixed with the right TLC.
And, as always, I am available for consultation if Disney and Lucasfilm would like to hear from a Willow superfan who has built a career on offering up feedback for this very sort of thing. Your people get in touch with my people. After all, the power to change the world exists in our own fingers.
For more of my thoughts on Willow and the way that appealing to ‘modern audiences’ have ruined it, check out my video below:
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