It is an axiomatic truth that if you try to describe Star Wars as a science fiction story, some nerd is going to crawl out of the woodwork and sneer, “actually, Star Wars is a work of science fantasy.” As insufferable as these dorks may be, they’re not exactly wrong. Star Wars borrows a lot of its narrative conceit from classical fairy tales and fantasy epics, but it frames those elements of fantasy storytelling around science fiction settings and imagery. Space ships and robots and laser blasters. It’s King Arthur by way of Buck Rodgers. But when it came time for the first Star Wars adventure to move from the silver screen to television (or, at least the first that George Lucas was willing to put his name on), the science fiction pretense is all but abandoned in favor of something that is fantasy through-and-through.
The pair of made-for-TV Ewoks movies (and the Ewoks cartoon – we’ll get to that) are obviously set in the Star Wars galaxy, but interestingly don’t bear the Star Wars name. From the outset, it feels like an effort to distance these from the movies and set the right level of expectation. Nothing about these movies really feels like Star Wars. Sure, there are a handful blasters and a couple starships (one of them even flies!), but outside of maybe ten total minutes spread between two movies, there’s nothing to indicate that this is meant to be taking place in a galaxy far, far away. Instead there are dragons, fairies, and castles; witches, goblins, and giant spiders.
The first film, The Ewok Adventure (later retitled Caravan of Courage) follows the Towani family after they crash land on the Endor moon. The Towani children (Mace, the teenage boy and Cindel, a young girl) are separated from their parents when mom and dad are abducted by the giant Gorax. Mace and Cindel end up crossing paths with the Ewoks, and though Cindel trusts them immediately, Mace is kind of a huge jackass and repeatedly attempts to kill them. The whole second act of the movie has the kids bumming around the Ewok village as Cindel teaches Wicket how to speak galactic basic (a/k/a English) while Mace is generally just a sourpuss. Eventually, they decide to embark on an expedition to rescue Mace and Cindel’s parents, forming the titular caravan to face a series of obstacles and dangers on the path to the Gorax’s lair.
In some ways this movie feels like what the Star Wars Holiday Special might have been had Lucas overseen the whole thing and had the network not imposed the variety show format. Like the un-subtitled Shyriiwook that makes up the bulk of the spoken dialogue in the Holiday Special, the early scenes of The Ewok Adventure are spoken entirely in Ewokese, though this time with a narrator stepping in to help make sense of it. It’s “better” in a traditional sense than the Holiday Special, but in some ways it’s just as odd.
The big problem with this first Ewok movie is that huge chunks of it are just deathly boring. Supposedly, Lucas had initially developed the story as a half-hour special, but ABC was only willing to air the thing if it could fill a two-hour movie-of-the-week slot. So what you’re left with is a decently compelling start and finish interrupted by a mind numbingly inert middle portion. This whole section of the movie is peppered with these one-off scenes where Mace mistrusts the Ewoks, the Ewoks save his dumb butt, he acts grateful, but then immediately goes back to mistrusting them because he’s not actually allowed to learn this lesson until the third act. It also doesn’t help that Mace is just an insufferable twerp.
I don’t like ragging on performances by child actors because outside of a few exceptional examples, there’s only so much you can reasonably expect a kid to be able to do. That being said, the performances from the kids in these movies are genuinely wretched. The young girl playing Cindel is sort of a blank nothing, imbuing her character with an almost Vulcan lack of emotion, but poor Eric Walker fares even worse. Fourteen years old, voice cracking with puberty, and forced to play a character who is perpetually angry and ungrateful because the screenplay won’t let him develop in earnest until the final 20 minutes of the film. And he’s effectively the lead of the movie. This would be a thankless role for any actor, and giving it to a barely teenaged kid feels almost cruel. Either way, the result is a deeply unlikable main character who has a stagnant character arc for two-thirds of the movie.
Ewoks: The Battle for Endor fares much better. Working again from a story by George Lucas, though presumably one that was fleshed out enough to actually fill a two-hour running time, the Ewok sequel hits the ground running. Taking place a short time after the first film, the Towani family has finally repaired their ship and are ready to depart Endor when a group of marauders raids the Ewok village and murders the lot of them with the exception of Cindel. Cindel and Wicket (who now speaks fluent English. It’s weird) manage to escape captivity and find their way to a cottage tucked away in the forest, home to none other than Wilford Brimley and his friend (pet?) Teek, a sort of mutant Ewok that can run extremely fast. Fun fact: Teek would later make an appearance in the safety video for the original version of Star Tours.
Wilford Brimley (henceforth known as Noa) was apparently stranded many years ago when his ship crash landed on the moon. The crystal oscillator that powers the ship was damaged and Noa’s partner, Salak, went out looking for it but never returned. It turns out the reason Salak never returned was because he was imprisoned by the same marauders who attacked the Ewok village and killed Cindel’s family, looking for a power source prophesied by the witch Charal. The marauders retrieved a power cell from the Towanis’ ship, but they don’t know how to use it, so they send Charal to lure Cindel into a trap in the hopes that she’ll be able to tell them how to harness its power. Borrowing a page straight from Sleeping Beauty, Charal, disguised as a raven, finds Cindel in the forest cottage and spirits her back to the marauders’ castle. Noa, Wicket, and Teek go after her, staging a daring rescue of Cindel and the other captive Ewoks culminating in a fight for the stolen power cell at Noa’s ship.
This one is actually a fair bit of fun in the way that a lot of 1980s fantasy films were (including several that were produced by Lucasfilm). None of them were good, exactly, and they’ve all got pretty glaring flaws, but they’re weird and goofy and a good time in spite of – and sometimes because of – their flaws. It’s cruel, but killing off most of the Towani family right off the bat establishes stakes and momentum that the first movie lacked and unburdens the sequel of characters that were kind of dead weight to begin with. It also doubles down on the fantasy elements with magic rings, a witch who can disguise her appearance and change into animals, and a raid on a castle. Not even a space castle like Jabba’s Palace or Vader’s Castle in Rogue One, but a real, high fantasy-ass castle.
This movie also just moves in a way the first one doesn’t. It doesn’t stall out for the entirety of the second act, and even though the story is thin, there’s enough of it to fill the running time. These two movies are identical in length (y’know, because TV), but Battle for Endor feels about half as long as The Ewok Adventure does.
Watching these movies and knowing that Lucas would later be involved with Labyrinth, Willow, and (much later) Strange Magic, it seems clear that Lucas was looking for a fantasy story that would resonate the way Star Wars did and perhaps even release him from the creative prison created by its success. He’s even sort of said as much – years later, Lucas described the impetus behind Strange Magic by saying “Star Wars was for 12-year-old boys; I figured I’d make one for 12-year-old girls.” That’s reductive, sure, but there’s a sincerity there that goes beyond that simple statement. Lucas has three daughters, and in the decades since he made Star Wars he’s long wanted to make something that would resonate with young women the way he saw Star Wars resonate with boys. These Ewok movies, which were directly inspired by the way the Ewok characters connected with his oldest daughter, Amanda, were a sort of back door into pursuing that goal. They don’t feel like Star Wars, but that’s sort of the point – they’re explicitly aimed at a different audience.
And that’s part of why, in a weird way, I feel like these movies might work better following their removal from the official Star Wars canon. You don’t have to jump through hoops to tie these into the established continuity (the pre-2014 canon says they happened between Empire and Jedi which is just absolute hooey), they can just exist as weird side stories that are only connected to Star Wars by the most tangential of threads. These movies aren’t great, or even really that good, but they’re interesting and unique and occasionally fun. Over all I’ve really enjoyed the post-acquisition films, but it’s clear that there’s some unsure hesitation when it comes to doing stuff that’s too far from the primary “saga” of films. Lucasfilm obviously wants to push the storytelling in new directions, but then even Solo has to have at least one gratuitous lightsaber to reassure people that, yes, this is a Star War. God bless Lucas for not being even a tiny bit concerned about that and saying, “my follow-up to Return of the Jedi is going to be a pair of weirdo TV fantasy movies starring the Ewoks.”
Starting in 2019, I’m going to be watching every canonical Star Wars movie and TV episode in chronological order leading up to the release of Episode IX. As a bonus, I’m also watching some of the non-canon pieces of Star Wars apocrypha in the waning weeks of 2018. Follow along with…