Monday, September 21, 2009

In defense of Ewoks.

This weekend I completed the indoctrination of my children by showing them Return of the Jedi. I know, there are three other movies still to go, but I'm still ambivalent about the "newer older" movies. Perhaps in time I'll watch them again to see if they're any better than I remember. I mostly just remember being overwhelmed with special effects and underwhelmed with actual plot and acting.

But to get back to my children, Return of the Jedi for many Star Wars fans is the worst of the three, for one main reason: Ewoks. There are very few ambivalent fans where Ewoks are concerned. You either hate them or love them. Most hate them.

I'm one of the ambivalent ones. I thought they were fun the first few times. I don't dislike them now. I have no problem with a bunch of overgrown teddy-bears defeating an entire legion of the Emperor's best troops. With the Empire, that's not saying much. The Empire military doctrine always seemed to be "either build massive, intimidating weapon systems or throw more troops at them". They deserved to get beat by a band of teddy bears with teeth.

I have more of a problem with either the speed at which the Ewoks were able to prepare all their traps, or the fact that the Imperial troops basically ignored those traps for so long, depending on which premise you believe. I think the Ewoks had too easy of a time with it, but that was more a fault in the story-telling than anything else. Lucas dwelt more on the Ewoks beating up stormtroopers than on stormtroopers beating up Ewoks, yet also portray's Chewbacca's liberation of a scout walker as the turning point in the battle. I don't think it was meant to look like such a cake-walk for the Ewoks, yet that's how the battle came across.

But there was one aspect of the entire situation I hadn't considered until my kids showed me. Kids love Ewoks. At least mine do, and I now can see why. They'd sat through three movies of scary stuff. Scary bad people. Scary alien monsters (Jabba's Palace wins the competition for my six-year-old son's least-favorite part). Big people fighting big, uncertain fights. It's the sort of thing that caused great amounts of anxiety in even my bravest kid.

Then along come the Ewoks. They're cute, they're small, they're non-threatening. They obviously have to be good. And then the cute, small, non-threatening "silly-bears", as my kids call them, proceed to kick the scary people's butts in cute, amusing ways (unless you're the Imperial walker crew caught between those two logs). It's not just a triumph for the Rebellion. It's not just a triumph for the Ewoks. It's a triumph for small, repressed things everywhere, which includes children who have sat through three movies of scariness and never seen it completely defeated, merely escaped. Until the Ewoks do it.

In short, I think George Lucas, consciously or not, was tapping into the adolescent psyche. He'd been providing the coolness and wonder for three movies already, but he still needed to provide that empowering image that children could connect with. The Ewoks provided that. They are the one thing in the trilogy that kids can connect with whole-heartedly. They're the comic relief of the movies, and they save the day.

I think Jar Jar Binks and the Gungans played that role in the next three movies, though primarily in the first. I think Jar Jar was not there for the adults, but for the kids. But the adults hated him--much like many adults at least now hate the Ewoks.

Young Anakin was, I believe, intended for a similar function. He was a kid played for kids. Yes, to adults lines like "Let's try spinning, that's a good trick" sound corny and...well, childish. But I've heard similar things come from my own children's lips.

I don't think the adults were ready for a young Darth Vader that acted like a kid. I think we were expecting something more like the little girl from Poltergeist or something; creepy and vaguely menacing. Instead we got...Anakin. And many of the adults never forgave Lucas for that. Especially for that, coupled with Jar Jar.

Time and nostalgia tends to make all of us take things from our childhood more seriously than we should. The original Star Wars trilogy, for all its excitement and dark aspects, was meant to be fun. Let's face it, parts of Episode IV are just plain silly. Like the trash monster. Like the Jawas. Like the cantina band. Like C-3PO. We're not supposed to think too much, just enjoy.

Time ages us, however, and we somehow get the idea that our beloved Star Wars we remember from our youth was somehow better and more serious than it was. So when a new set of movies came out, we went expecting something more like Star Trek: Deep Space Nine or some of the other darker, more "adult" sci-fi we had been subsisting on in the mean time.

Lucas went the other direction. He made Episode I to out-Star Wars the originally Trilogy. He emphasized what he thought were the key ingredients in making it fun--and had we still been the children we had been when was first saw it, he would have been right. We told him on no uncertain terms that he'd gotten it wrong. We hated Anakin and Jar Jar.

He wasn't stupid. He made a quick attitude correction hoping that he'd done enough to bring in the kids in the Phantom Menace that they'd stick with him through the darker, more angst-filled remaining two films. It was the adults he had to convince now, and I'm not sure he really knew how. The result was two more films that, in my opinion, lacked the fun of the original trilogy while not ever quite figuring out what else to be instead.

I'm not so sure that Revenge of the Sith couldn't have been made better with a dash of Ewoks. My kids are clamoring for me to show them the next three, but I'm hesitant. After Phantom Menace there will be precious little pay-off for them. I'm not sure I want them getting the message that not all movies end well just yet. I'm pretty sure I don't want them getting that message from a set of movies that basically tell you "life sucks and then it gets worse, and there aren't even Ewoks to make you laugh along the way."

Because no matter what you may think, real life is not that way. Even if it sucks and just gets worse, there will always be Ewoks if you know where to look.

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