I fucking love Ewoks. I don’t really understand why so many people don’t….
But we’ll get to that in a minute.
Star Wars has had as profound an impact on me as any work of art can. In fact, it has on all of us. It changed the culture of blockbuster films and the way they’d be marketed, with its action figures, memorabilia, and women in gold metallic bikinis. Movies would never be the same after the original trilogy. Star Wars is so ingrained in our culture that it has its own holiday. May 4th is known around the world as Star Wars Day (as in, May the fourth be with you). As much as I grew up and worshiped the series, I never really celebrated this day. But this year I decided I would embrace my inner child (and geek) and take part in what was sure to be the biggest May 4th event: The 30th anniversary screening of Return of the Jedi.
Entertainment Weekly recently put on a festival called the Cape Town Film Fest. It was a collection of great sci-fi and fantasy films screened with special guests introducing the films or conducting Q&A’s afterwards. All this took place at the legendary Egyptian Theater in Los Angeles. The crown jewel of the festival would be three Return of the Jedi screenings on May 4th at the Egyptian, where the film had its premiere thirty years ago. It sounded like attending was a must for any true Star Wars fan, so the day the tickets went on sale I snatched a pair.
I grew up on Star Wars, but really I grew up on Jedi. I think most of my friends did. I’m 33 years old, so the first of the Star Wars films I would have had an opportunity to really see in the theater would have been Jedi. In fact it’s the first film I have a vivid memory of going to. I must have only been four or five but I recall everything about the experience. Going to the old one screen theater in my home town. Knowing I was seeing something special, important. What I remember most was Jabba the Hutt. I was obsessed with Jabba. He was an amazingly grotesque creation. My young mind understood he wasn’t real but that only made me more infatuated. “He’s a puppet? But he looks so real? You mean there are guys inside him? How many people control Jabba?” I had the Jabba’s Palace play set and every night went to bed on Jabba sheets. To this day I still feel a child like giddiness when I see him.
In 1997, I saw Jedi again on the big screen when the special editions came out. Sure, we missed the Ewok song and hated some of the CGI used in Jabba’s Palace, but this was still Star Wars! It was the first time, as we neared adulthood, that my friends and I could experience the trilogy on the big screen together. These special editions were huge events that we were thrilled to be part of.
This May the 4th I saw Jedi for the third time on a big screen (although I’ve seen it dozens overall). They screened a 35 millimeter print of the special edition. Sure, we wanted the 1983 cut, but at least we were going to be spared Hayden Christensen as a ghost. As I sat in the balcony of the Egyptian Theater, I felt like a child again. To me, the scenes in Jabba’s Palace would capture the imagination of even the most cynical youngster of the internet age. The puppets like Salacious Crumb are inspired and have a visceral quality about them that CGI can’t duplicate. They occupy a space on the screen. When Leia chokes Jabba to death, you feel it. CGI wouldn’t cut it. And seeing Jabba on the big screen reminded me just how gross he really is. Every speck of mucus dripping down his slimy face was clear as day. I used to sleep on an image of this guy?!
But here is the thing about Jedi. Some people who say they’re Star Wars fans claim to not like it all that much. Blasphemy! All of a sudden as the kids I grew up watching Star Wars with got older they turned their backs on the film they loved. The film that in many cases they saw first. When they were six or seven they would have said Jedi was their favorite. Being of the mindset that Jedi is the perfect ending to a perfect trilogy, I never understood their problem. They would say “Jedi’s got problems. Empire is the best one.” Yes, on paper Empire is the best. It’s the most cerebral. It has the amazing twist. But Jedi is a hell of a fun time from start to finish. I don’t think it is a good film…it is a great film!
Nonstop action and imagination. It has a killer high stakes space battle, the redemption of Vader and Luke’s soul is literally on the line. What wasn’t to like? These so called Star Wars fans would answer with one word – Ewoks.
They say Ewoks are just overgrown teddy bears. They say it makes no sense, that after years of war, Ewoks just come in and save the galaxy. Somewhere along the way these fans who grew up with Wicket the Ewok dolls decided Ewoks weren’t cool. Apparently I missed that memo. I still love Ewoks and here’s why. Ewoks come off as real. In part, it’s because they are men in suits and it goes back to the whole visceral thing, but it’s more than that. They make sense. We see an Ewok culture. They have ceremonies and build communities in the trees. We see Ewok families that react in fear of strangers and to the stories they are told about the Empire. They are not one dimensionally good or bad. Remember that when we first meet them, they pose a real threat to our heroes… they were going to cook and eat Han! They clearly have some sort of religion, since they worship C3PO. They make an active choice to go into battle. They aren’t pressured into the fight. They are the brave inhabitants of a moon and choose to take part in the war. Ewoks know how to smartly utilize nature and the tools at hand to defeat their enemies. They’re creative in that way. And most of all, Ewoks die. One of the saddest sights in all of Star Wars is when the two Ewoks are blasted. One gets up and goes to grab his friend until, to his horror, he realizes his friend is dead. It’s upsetting, and the sold out theater I was in reacted accordingly.
Now compare this to say a Gungan. We never see Gungan families. They only choose to fight once they have no real choice at all. And did you ever get upset watching a CGI Gungan die? In fact I don’t know if any are ever shown dying. Ewoks are the only race in the Star Wars universe that makes an active decision to fight in a war because it’s what’s right. Not because they were forced to.
The audience I saw Return of the Jedi with this May the 4th loved Ewoks too. They cheered wildly when Wicket appeared. This was a crowd of true Star Wars fans. Yes, they also cheered when the Death Star blew up, and when Admiral Ackbar shouted “It’s a trap.” (The Ackbar line wasn’t cheered when I saw the film in 1997. He is a character that truly came to popularity in geek culture because of the internet.) The loudest cheers came when Mark Hamill showed up for a surprise Q&A because he said to the fans “I feel like I owe you.” Return of the Jedi holds up extremely well, and in my opinion it’s because of Ewoks, not in spite of them.