Is there a place for Willow in the current fantasy TV landscape?
In the midst of a fall packed with fantasy series, Willow sets itself apart chiefly by being fun.
When it comes to fantasy series, we are currently living with an embarrassment of riches. This fall, both House of the Dragon, the long-awaited spinoff/prequel to HBO's massively-popular Game of Thrones, and Rings of Power, the Lord of the Rings spinoff touted as the most expensive TV show of all time, debuted within weeks of each other. Shortly thereafter, Andor, the latest Star Wars streaming series on Disney+ (Star Wars having been long considered more 'space fantasy' than hard science fiction) debuted to critical acclaim, with many citing it as one of the best Star Wars stories ever.
Into this mix steps Willow, a follow-up series to the 1988 fantasy film of the same name. The movie did well for itself financially, but wasn't the massive hit it was expected to be, considering it was the brainchild of Star Wars maestro George Lucas, and it inspired no sequels and scant few spinoffs. Until now. But in a media environment flush with seemingly-similar fantasy series, is there room for Willow, or will it get largely brushed aside like its theatrical forebear? Time will tell, of course, but Willow the streaming series does have one thing that sets it apart from its streaming brethren: it's fun.
Inside the magic of Willow
Willow the film is, at its core, a rearrangement of some reliable narrative elements. Like most modern fantasy stories, it is at least partially inspired by JRR Tolkien' Lord of the Rings, with its tale of a disparate group coming together and going on a quest to defeat a great evil.
If Star Wars is George Lucas applying the Joseph Campbell monomyth to sci-fi, Willow is him doing it to the fantasy story, with most of its characters paralleling ones from the original Star Wars films (the earnest would-sorcerer Willow is the burgeoning Jedi Knight Luke, the roguish Madmartigan is Han Solo, the Brownies serve a similar 'greek chorus/comic relief' role as R2D2 and C-3PO, etc.). It tells a simple and familiar tale, and in doing so, is well-suited to serve as a fantasy story for children, helped along by the relative youth of its central character (actor Warwick Davis was just 17 when filming Willow), its straightforward 'protect the baby, defeat the evil witch' conflict, and the comedic antics of the Brownies.
Willow the film isn't mocking or self-deprecating, but its tongue is firmly planted in its cheek, and it never takes itself too seriously. The end result, from the straightforward plot points, the familiar archetypal characters, and the willingness to appeal directly to children, makes the film fun in a way a lot of its contemporaries were not. It is, simply, a swashbuckling adventure. Willow the spinoff streaming series exists in a similar environment, and endeavors to make a name for itself in a similar way.
How Willow compares to House of the Dragon, Rings of Power, and Andor
The world of author George RR Martin in which House of Dragon resides is intentionally one which strives to depict its fantastic settings and plot beats in the most realistic way possible. Martin somewhat famously described his inspiration for that world as coming from the question 'what is Aragorn's tax policy?', a reference to the straightforward ending of the foundational Lord of the Rings, a story largely disinterested in grappling with the politics of its fantasy world. In addition to his desire to explore the realpolitik elements of a fantasy setting, Martin's world, especially in its TV iterations, is also defined in large part by its violence and sexuality, something which is certainly true of House of the Dragon.
Rings of Power, meanwhile, is set in that foundational world of Lord of the Rings. As such, it traffics much more in fantasy tropes presented in traditional ways, and unlike House of the Dragon, is remarkably chaste, with action beats presented in a far more family-friendly manner. Yet for all that, Rings of Power comes burdened with the baggage of lore and fan expectations. Much of the discussion surrounding the series has involved questions of how a given plot beat or character fits with the details previously-established by Tolkien in the various fictional histories and appendices from which its story is derived. Simply put, a Lord of the Rings series comes with certain expectations, even beyond those of other prequel/sequel stories, and those expectations can be off-putting and/or overbearing at times.
Even Andor, set within the same world that inspired the original Willow film, is pointedly stripped of its more fantastical elements. It is a series without Jedi Knights, laser swords, or mystical powers. Much of its acclaim comes from its searing examination of the importance of rebellion in the face of systemic, bureaucratically banal oppression. It is captivating, exciting, at times stirring and inspiring, but not necessarily fun. Iit succeeds in part because it exists in the world of Star Wars while rejecting those more fantastical elements that bring the swashbuckling air to the original films.
Into this crowded landscape of fantasy series steps Willow. Like its cinematic predecessor, it is presenting itself as a fun swashbuckling adventure story that doesn't take itself too seriously. Its plot is straightforward, a quest narrative running alongside a Campbellian Hero's Journey. Its characters fit broadly into established fantasy archetypes, with some modern tweaks; within the core cast, there's a paladin, a mage, a rogue, a bard, etc. Outside of the original film, it is unencumbered by preexisting backstory and lore (if anyone even remembers the trilogy of sequel novels written by George Lucas and Chris Claremont in the early '90s in an attempt to give Willow the Star Wars Expanded Universe treatment, well, they've been thrown out, and no one much seems to mind).
The fantastical, from the use of magic to the series' creepy, monstrous villains, is front and center. And the creators seem to be leaning into the more carefree, fun, and family-friendly vibes. We can see this in the way the dialogue is occasionally peppered with more colloquial, modern-day words or phrasing, or the way it uses more contemporary and/or lyrical music in places (notably in the closing credits) over more traditional orchestral scores.
Willow works by not taking itself too seriously
Whether these creative decisions are good ones is a debate for another article; just because a story is fun and tends towards swashbuckling doesn't automatically make it good, of course (just as a series eschewing those things doesn't make it bad). The key piece is that the lighter tone, the embrace of traditional fantasy tropes, and the ability to not take itself too seriously make the series distinct from its streaming brethren.
Willow, House of the Dragon, Rings of Power, even Andor, these are all series with fantasy elements at their core. Yet each has a different flavor, from the 'realpolitiks with sex-and-dragons' of House of Dragon to the reimagining of bedrock fantasy lore in Rings of Power, to the gritty examination of rebellion in Andor, and to the more traditional swashbuckling fantasy of Willow. Despite their shared elements that puts them all under the broad umbrella of 'fantasy series', each is, in its own way, doing its own thing, and thus, there is a place in the streaming landscape for each, a place even for Willow.
Willow is streaming now on Disney+.