On Return of the Jedi

The problem with Star Wars: Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, is an insurmountable one, and that is the Ewoks.

I remember going to see Jedi in a theater when I was 13. It was opening day and the crowd was huge. Everyone loved the movie. Hell, I loved it. They (we) especially loved the Ewoks. We’d never seen anything like them. They were cute, cuddly, living teddy bears — everything we’d ever wanted to see in a Star Wars movie, delivered, finally, after six long years.

This was exactly George Lucas’ idea behind the Ewoks: make toys that will sell big at Christmas. Lucas had originally planned to populate the planet of Endor with Wookies, so that Chewbacca could have a kind of homecoming, but no, he decided to create smaller, woodsier versions of Wookies that would make excellent (if inevitable) Christmas presents. He got them, and we, in turn, got the single worst thing to happen to Star Wars.

Yes, I mean to say that the Ewoks are worse, dumber, and more insulting than Jar Jar Binks from Episode I. Look, I don’t hate Jar Jar the way the rest of the known universe does, and, as I say, I was raised on the Original Trilogy. I don’t have time or space to defend Jar Jar, but I can say that, as a character, he is nowhere near as despicable as the Ewoks.

For one thing, there isn’t as much Jar Jar in Episode I as there is of the Ewoks in Jedi. They dominate roughly the last two acts of Jedi, so much so that you can’t shut them out or ignore them the way you sorta can ignore Jar Jar. There are also hundreds of Ewoks, portrayed by “little people” dressed in cute bear suits, and there is only one Jar Jar. (Well, okay, there’s that whole Gungan city thing, but … why split hairs.) Simply said, we’re forced to endure the Ewoks in larger numbers. They’re nothing but toys speaking unintelligible gibberish left over from the Jawas in A New Hope. There’s simply no there there.

I am revisiting Jedi ahead of the release of The Rise of Skywalker, and there are parts of the sixth episode that I enjoy. I will ignore any scene in which the Ewoks appear, but I come back to any scene having to do with the real meat of the story: Luke and Darth. My understanding is that a good portion of Skywalker will revolve around the physical aftermath of the climactic events in Jedi, with a trip to the remains of Death Star II in an ocean on Endor, and so forth. There’s even a hint of the Emperor’s heavily-damaged Throne Room, the site of the third and final lightsaber battle in Jedi. I can’t wait to see all this stuff on the big screen.

One thing the Sequel Trilogy has done well is incorporate scenic elements of the Original Trilogy into its ongoing story. It looks like Skywalker will continue that tradition. I’m rather pumped by the idea that Episode IX will revisit parts of Jedi — but without the Ewoks. There simply is no redeeming them.

Unfortunately, large swaths of Jedi are consumed with Ewoks. There isn’t enough of what counts: the interplay between Luke, Darth and the Emperor. Perhaps that’s to increase the dramatic value of their scenes, which are among the best in all of Star Wars. There are enough dangling plot threads among Darth, et al, to fuel the sequels and perhaps more. But Lucas and director Richard Marquand keep intercutting between the exciting stuff having to do with Skywalker family business, and the battle on Endor, which tragically requires us to sit through far more Ewok-ian antics than most adult stomachs can handle.

What Lucas has done is to turn the final film in his landmark science fiction trilogy into a movie for children — real little children. I laughed along with the Ewoks when I was 13, but even then I was more interested in what was happening on the Death Star. I think that if Jedi were rebooted, it would wisely do away with the Ewoks and focus more heavily on Luke and Darth. It would also explore the love triangle involving Luke, Han and Leia, which gets humorously short-changed by Marquand. The one scene dealing with their exceedingly fucked-up relationship is over-acted and then abandoned before any sense of resolution is reached.

Speaking of acting, it’s pretty bad in this film. Mark Hamill would go on to give an astonishing performance in 2017’s The Last Jedi; here, he’s given lead-footed direction by Marquand, who simply requires him to goggle his eyes and over-react to all the aliens and so forth. Harrison Ford goes way over the top as annoying good-guy Han, and Carrie Fisher is given little to do as Leia. However, Ian McDiarmid gives a sinister performance as the cackling, lightning-spouting Emperor. He’s great across the entire spectrum of Star Wars films.

As uneven as Jedi is, there’s still plenty to enjoy — chiefly, the spectacular outer space battles. Jedi concludes with the biggest and best starship fight in the entire Original Trilogy, with seemingly thousands of Rebel and Imperial ships engaging in combat. The film actually feels most at home in space, with the special effects crew creating all kinds of dazzling new sights. The battle above (and inside) the Death Star is tremendously exciting and even stands up well alongside anything in the Sequel Trilogy. (It’s actually better than a similar battle at the end of The Force Awakens.)

Also, the final showdown between Luke and Darth, and its famous resolution, is reason enough to sit through all the garbage involving the Ewoks. And, John Williams’ score is magnificent, topping even his work for the original film. I haven’t said anything about the opening half-hour in which Luke, et al, rescue Han from Jabba the Hutt. It isn’t very exciting, nor is it very interesting — it adds nothing but Leia’s bathing suit to the lore of the series.

Overall, Jedi is a good Star Wars movie, but not a great one. Lucas was more worried about selling millions of dollars worth of toys than honoring the darkness that came before in The Empire Strikes Back. Whole parts of the movie play like a joke, which is unfortunate, because there’s enough good dramatic juice here to enjoy. Of all the Star Wars movies I’d like to see remade — and rest assured, it will not be — this is it.

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