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Can Willow fulfil Disney’s fantasy?

The studio has long quested for a swords and sorcery show with mass-market appeal and it is betting big on reviving a 1980s movie dud

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New Disney+ fantasy epic Willow

New Disney+ fantasy epic Willow

Elijah Wood in The Lord of The Rings: The Fellowship of The Ring (2001)

Elijah Wood in The Lord of The Rings: The Fellowship of The Ring (2001)

Kit Harington and Emilia Clarke in the final season of Game of Thrones

Kit Harington and Emilia Clarke in the final season of Game of Thrones

Lucrative: Daniel Radcliffe in 2002’s Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Lucrative: Daniel Radcliffe in 2002’s Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Yoda in 1983 Star Wars film Return of the Jedi

Yoda in 1983 Star Wars film Return of the Jedi

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New Disney+ fantasy epic Willow

There is a lot resting on the shoulders of Willow, the latest marquee streaming release by Disney+.

The show is a “legacyquel” to Ron Howard’s 1988 film of the same name, to borrow a term from the critic Matt Singer. The legacyquel is an increasingly common kind of sequel — one often separated from the original property by decades and one that passes the torch from one generation of characters to another. Think of Creed to the Rocky films or The Force Awakens to the original Star Wars. The appeal of the form is obvious, drawing in older fans and hopefully their younger families too.

The Disney+ series takes over the Wednesday release slot vacated by the season finale of Andor, giving it a place in the winter schedule comparable to the service’s Marvel or Star Wars offerings. The series was announced with film-maker Jon M Chu attached, the director of films such as Crazy Rich Asians and In the Heights.

Willow seems like an odd choice for this sort of treatment. The original film was an old-fashioned fantasy epic set in a magical medieval world. Farmer and sorcerer Willow Ufgood (Warwick Davis) is tasked with protecting a baby named Elora Danan, foretold as the Princess of Tir Asleen. Elora is pursued by the evil Queen Bavmorda, and Willow must ally with Bavmorda’s daughter Sorsha (Joanne Whalley) and the rogue Madmortigan to keep the baby safe.

Although the film reportedly grossed over $110m worldwide on a $35m budget, it did not set the box office alight. It wasn’t as though it was a critical darling either. Reviews were mixed, at best. “Willow is a fearsomely ambitious movie, but it is not fearsome, and it is not wondrous,” wrote Roger Ebert. His frequent sparring partner Gene Siskel opined that the film was “too violent for small children and too babyish for teenagers”. In an otherwise positive review in The Los Angeles Times, Sheila Benson conceded that the film “evaporates from memory with the airiness of a bubble bath”.

That said, the fact that Willow managed to eke its way into profitability puts it head and shoulders above many of the other epic fantasy movies of the 1980s. It is a roll call that is enough to give any Hollywood executive nightmares: Legend, Krull, Dragonslayer, Labyrinth, The Princess Bride, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Highlander. The curse arguably even extended to more fantastical science fiction bombs such as Flash Gordon, Masters of the Universe and David Lynch’s Dune.

Of course, these films seemed to be chasing the runaway success of George Lucas’s Star Wars, which was effectively a high fantasy tale of wizards and knights dressed up in the trappings of science fiction. Willow stands out as part of this trend because it was, along with the infamous misfire Howard the Duck, one of Lucas’ first big projects in the wake of completing his original Star Wars trilogy. It seemed like even Lucas himself couldn’t recapture the magic Hollywood was chasing.  

During press for Willow, Lucas himself had to concede that “the fantasy genre has been spectacularly unsuccessful”. This wave of high-profile fantasy flops might explain why Hollywood shied away from the genre in the 1990s. It became accepted wisdom that audiences were not enthused about magic. The only wizardry that was accepted was of the technical variety and took place behind the scenes.

Things would take a dramatic twist at the turn of the millennium. Winter 2001 saw of the launch of two game-changing franchises in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Both were perceived as huge gambles within Hollywood. Even announcing his ambitious multi-film plan to adapt the Lord of the Rings books, director Peter Jackson acknowledged: “It’s true that fantasy is the one cinematic genre that’s never been done especially well.” Both franchises were fighting the odds.

Of course, the two films were massively successful. More than that, they were also designed to be franchised. The Harry Potter series stretched seven books over eight films. The Lord of the Rings was adapted into three films, each of which was later repackaged as an extended edition. Both series led to sub-franchises; the Harry Potter films begat Fantastic Beasts and The Lord of the Rings paved the way for three more films adapting The Hobbit, a much shorter book.

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Elijah Wood in The Lord of The Rings: The Fellowship of The Ring (2001)

Elijah Wood in The Lord of The Rings: The Fellowship of The Ring (2001)

Elijah Wood in The Lord of The Rings: The Fellowship of The Ring (2001)

The 17 films across the two franchises and spin-offs have already grossed over $15bn for Warner Bros and its subsidiary New Line Cinema. This doesn’t include other revenue streams. Harry Potter merchandise has reportedly raked in another $15bn. The addition of the Harry Potter themed “Wizarding World” to Universal theme parks boosted attendance by 20pc.

Hollywood likes to chase trends. In the years following the success of Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings, other studios tried to recapture that magic. While there was a handful of successes, such as the Twilight franchise, the decade that followed featured its fair share of fantastical follies: The Mortal Instruments, City of Ember, The Golden Compass, Mortal Engines, Immortals. The only reason these films might not give executives nightmares is because they have been completely forgotten.

The genre’s greatest success in the years since has arguably been on television, with HBO’s Game of Thrones launching in April 2011. Like The Lord of the Rings a decade earlier, a television adaptation of an epic fantasy series was seen as risky proposition that could alienate audiences.

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Game of Thrones became a cultural juggernaut. It surpassed The Sopranos as the most popular show that HBO ever produced. Its final season scored 32 Emmy nominations, the highest total ever for a single season of television. Very quickly, the future of television came to be defined by the search for “the next Game of Thrones”.

Much like every studio wanted their Lord of the Rings franchise, every streaming service wanted their Game of Thrones, to the point that Jeff Bezos, the Amazon chief executive and occasional richest man alive, reportedly instructed his subordinates: “Bring me Game of Thrones.” Television quickly got caught in an arms race. HBO commissioned His Dark Materials while Amazon snatched up Wheel of Time, two shows yet to come close to matching the cultural impact of Game of Thrones.

Disney seems particularly frustrated by these breakout fantasy hits from its rivals. To be fair, it enjoyed a modicum of success with its trilogy of adaptations of CS Lewis’ classic Narnia books. Still, those films hardly broke box office records and had no real cultural staying power. Disney was also responsible for the two Percy Jackson films, and refused to allow their underwhelming box office performance and critical reception to prevent the commissioning of an expensive upcoming streaming series. The studio’s other recent young adult fantasy offerings include the box-office bomb A Wrinkle in Time and the streaming release Artemis Fowl, a film foul by both name and nature.

It is easy to understand why Disney would commit so completely to this genre arms race. There is a convincing argument to be made that Disney has historically been the most successful and ubiquitous provider of fantasy entertainment in the American marketplace. They are “the Magic Kingdom”, after all. The studio’s animated classics are populated by witches and wizards, swords and sorcery. Many children first encounter the tropes of fantasy through Disney’s animated classics.

There may be some corporate ego involved in this, and a desire to assert dominance in a space that has an obvious appeal to the brand. It is appropriate that Willow releases at the end of a blockbuster cycle for streaming fantasy shows. HBO Max enjoyed great success with House of the Dragon, their first broadcast spin-off from Game of Thrones. Amazon laid its cards on the table with The Rings of Power, a prequel to The Lord of the Rings, which is reportedly the most expensive show ever made.

Willow finds Disney operating within its comfort zone. Like a lot of the studio’s recent output, especially on streaming, it is an extension of an existing brand with a target audience that is now old enough to pay for a family subscription. Disney bought Willow as part of their purchase of Lucasfilm, and have applied their Star Wars playbook to the show. It brings back original cast members including Warwick Davis and Joanne Whalley, but also adds a diverse group of younger actors around them.

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Kit Harington and Emilia Clarke in the final season of Game of Thrones

Kit Harington and Emilia Clarke in the final season of Game of Thrones

Kit Harington and Emilia Clarke in the final season of Game of Thrones

The series was developed by Jonathan Kasdan, who worked on Solo: A Star Wars Story with his father Lawrence. That older Kasdan in turn has writing credits on Lucasfilm projects such as The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Return of the Jedi, along with the more recent Disney relaunch The Force Awakens. It is clearly very important to Disney that this show succeeds, but also that it maintains a continuity with the original George Lucas-produced film. Willow embraces its high fantasy trappings. The dialogue is peppered with world-building references. There are superb practical effects. Character designs feel lifted from the covers of pulpy paperbacks. There are grand old castles, lovable rogues, evil crones and faithful knights.

With its bright colours and fine design, the world of Willow seems polished compared to the more grounded and dirty aesthetic of something like the Lord of the Rings movies or the Game of Thrones franchise.

However, there is an obvious tension within Willow. The show is wary of being too fantastical. There is plenty of snarky and self-aware banter, lest the audience assume the series is taking itself too seriously. The soundtrack includes a lot of contemporary pop, including covers of songs such as Hurdy Gurdy Man, Enter Sandman and Black Hole Sun, along with a slow dance to Crimson and Clover. There are plenty of references to other Lucasfilm properties that audiences already know they love.

There’s no doubt that Disney is chasing its own fantasy here, hoping to craft an old-fashioned tale of swords and sorcery that will appeal to an audience that has traditionally been wary of the genre. Only time will tell whether Willow is suitably enchanting.

‘Willow’ is out now on Disney+


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