Thursday, September 26, 2013

Heath Holland On...The Ewoks Double Feature

They’re cute! They’re cuddly! They eat the flesh of the living!

In the months following the premiere of Return of the Jedi, many fans probably thought that Star Wars was over and the entire story had been told. After all, there didn’t seem to be much ground left to cover, even though it was clear that everybody wanted more. George Lucas, money-generating genius that he is, saw an opportunity to expand the Star Wars universe into television. After being burned by not having creative control of the Star Wars Holiday Special, he kept a tight reign on things for his second venture into small-screen entertainment and was very hands on with the making of his 1984 Ewok movie, making sure it was entirely faithful to his vision.

Now, thirty years after Return of the Jedi, with three prequels Disney swearing there will be new Star Wars adventures in theaters every year starting in 2015, we owe either our thanks or our blame to the TV movie that started it all.

Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure premiered on American television in November of 1984 and was released theatrically in Europe. Taking place chronologically between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, it tells the story of the Towani family who have crash-landed their star cruiser on the forest moon of Endor, home planet of the Ewoks.

Cindel, (a truly adorable five year old girl) and her older brother Mace (predating Samuel L. Jackson’s Mace by 15 years) have been separated from their parents and are trying to survive the Endor wilderness and reunite with their family. Accompanying the kids on their quest is a tribe of Ewoks, including Wicket (Warwick Davis), who was apparently no stranger to human beings by the time he met Princess Leia in Return of the Jedi. Thanks, retcon!

The film is an interesting snapshot of a moment in time. This particular snapshot captures what the Star Wars franchise was in the year immediately following the conclusion of the classic trilogy. Tonally, it’s an odd beast truly defies logical explanation.
First, the story is narrated by the folk singer Burl Ives (of Rankin/Bass Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer fame), which gives the movie a bit of a storybook quality. Also contributing to that quality is the fact that the movie is divided into separate adventures. Cindel needs medicine because she doesn’t feel good, so her brother and the Ewoks venture into the wild to find their healing tree which produces a substance that will restore the girl. There's another adventure which has Cindel and Mace fleeing from a giant wolf-like creature. Or yet another one, where they visit the Ewok mystic/witch doctor to find where their parents are. Here’s where they discover that their parents have been taken by a giant troll who lives way up on the side of a distant mountain. The Ewoks set out on a rescue mission and the caravan of courage is formed.

The movie plays like a children’s fantasy come to life. There are all sorts of animals populating the Endor forest (llamas, ponies, chickens, ferrets) and the Ewoks do fun things like go hang gliding and  swing on ropes for no apparent reason. They live in huts on the forest floor and have not yet taken to the trees, as we saw them in Return of the Jedi. The movie was filmed in the California Redwood Forest and has a very “safe” adventure feel. The final confrontation with the giant troll takes place in a big cave with a gigantic spider (and the strings holding him up are totally visible), then the heroes have to cross a chasm on the spider web. It’s fun and dangerous, but never too much for the target audience of young children to handle.

Joe Johnston (The Rocketeer, Jurassic Park III, Captain America) was the production designer for the film, which is great because he helped conceptualize much of the Star Wars universe in the three classic movies. So even though there are no Jedi or Sith or Star Destroyers or Death Stars, the whole thing does look and feel like it takes place in the world of Star Wars. Mace wears an orange flight suit that looks a lot like the one Luke wore. The ship that the family crashed in definitely shares the same “used universe” feel that the original trilogy of films had. George Lucas came up with the story, but there’s not much of a story to talk about, just Ewok shenanigans.
Speaking more about the production, I kept thinking that it looked and felt a lot like a Roger Corman movie now that I’m older. The sets are cheap, the monsters are a mix of puppets, rubber suits, and stop-motion creatures made of clay. It feels very, very low-budget but it totally works. There’s definitely a charm to the movie that makes it watchable and entertaining. I talk about how I like to see fingerprints sometimes, and this movie definitely has fingerprints. It’s crude, but it feels organic and approachable.

And I must not be the only one who thought so, because there was a sequel that was released exactly one year later called The Battle for Endor. And here’s where things get REALLY crazy.

You know the Towani family that Mace and Cindel were trying to find and rescue in the first movie? The MacGuffin used to justify all those adventures the kids got into? Well, within the first five minutes of The Battle for Endor, everyone except Cindel is killed off-screen during a raid on the Ewok village by outside invaders. That’s right! The mom dies. The dad (who has been replaced with Paul Gleason this time) dies. Even Mace, one of our child heroes from the first movie, is killed. The only one who makes it out alive is little six-year-old Cindel. WTF! There’s nothing left to do now but track down those invaders and the weird shape-shifting witch that works with them to extract cold, hard vengeance for the murder of her family!

Who is this for? Is it for the little children in the audience who think that Ewoks are cute and that we can do anything if we put our mind to it? That love and determination overcome all obstacles? Hey, kids! Your entire family could die! You could be all alone forever!
Another insane decision is the addition of Wilford Brimley (apparently playing himself) to the cast. I think Wilford Brimley is great. I like him here, too, but I don’t understand. He’s mean. He yells at Cindel a lot. He’s always eating Quaker Oats and scowling. I think the intention was to have him go on some sort of a character journey from gruff old man to loving caretaker of Cindel, but I’m not convinced it works at all. Wilford Brimley, while awesome, does not convey or project “family man.”

Yet another thing that I can’t understand is that Wicket the Ewok is now fairly proficient (one might almost say fluent) in English. Wait, this is Star Wars, so it’s not English, it’s “Basic.” So by the time Leia wondered into his path in Return of the Jedi, he should have been able to speak her language just fine instead of those cute little sounds he makes. The writers throw in a little more slapstick this time, too, like when Wicket sits on a campfire. Yeow! Roasted Ewok hiney! It’s so funny I almost forgot about all the dead people in this movie.

But look. Even with all those conflicting tones, odd choices, and messy storytelling methods, it still kind of works. It’s charming. I was born at just the right time that I still think the Ewoks are cute. I have no malice toward them whatsoever, and I think the world that exists in these two films captures my imagination.
Personal story: I think the main reason these movies have been on my mind has to do with the documentary Rewind This! that Patrick wrote about recently. That movie takes a loving, nostalgic look at the VHS era and it got me thinking about all the VHS tapes I’d hunted long and hard for over the years that I no longer have. After watching Rewind This!, my memory was jogged and I remembered desperately looking for these two movies on VHS in 1995. These films, as far as I know, weren’t marketed to the public in those days and existed mainly as rentals, not as products for sale to the general public. I eventually found a small, independently-owned video store about an hour outside of the city that had the two movies and was selling them. Finally adding them to my collection was like finding a Star Wars holy grail. I miss them and I wish I still had those VHS tapes.

The movies were released on DVD on the 20th anniversary of the first film, though they are now out of print. If you are interested, though, you should be able to find them for a fairly reasonable price. It looks like used copies are going for about thirty dollars on Amazon Marketplace. New copies will cost a lot more. I definitely think that the DVD is a worthy addition to any Star Wars fan’s library and anyone curious of these mostly forgotten mid-Eighties gems would probably enjoy them too. There’s certainly nothing else quite like them.

On behalf of Wicket, Mace, Cindel, and Wilford Brimley, I can give this Ewok double feature no less than an enthusiastic and heart-felt Yub Nub!


  1. Though I remember I liking them as a kid, when I tried to revisit them a few years ago I found myself unable to sit through "Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure" and "The Battle for Endor". I guess the nostalgia is just not strong enough for me on these films.

  2. Caravan of Courage got a lot of play on Australian TV during the late 80s. In the pre-VCR-with-strict-bedtime years of my youth this was one of those movies where I became very familiar with the first 30-45 minutes. I think Ive only seen it all the way through once, while that first half hour is ingrained in my mind.

    I have never revisited it though. I learned my lesson with The Neverending Story, when I watched in as a teenager. A little piece of me died that day.

    I was surprised when I found out that Battle for Endor even existed later on in life. Never saw it. Dont think it ever played on TV here...unless it was always shown as a double feature with CoC (teehee). The mysteries of the post-8:30pm world in the 80s. Ill never know.

    1. It's strange to me that Australian television showed these movies late at night. That doesn't seem like the best time for kids/family movies AT ALL. But then again, you guys have a cold July and a warm Christmas season, so maybe that's the perfect time. Watershed is before 2 pm and Sesame Street comes on at 9 pm.

      This is all part of my upcoming half hour routine on regional differences. It plays huge in Norway.

    2. Yeah, I suppose I never really thought of that. Adult movies started at 8:30 (rated AO for Adults Only), while kids movies I think started at 8:00...or maybe 7:30. But still, when you bedtime is 8:30, then Your Bedtime Is 8:30! Doesn't matter if the Millennium Falcon is stranded on a meteor, Arteyu is only just beginning his journey, or some crazy stuff is going on with fireflies in CoC (teehee). Go To Bed Bradley, I Won't Ask You Again!...oh, sorry. flashback. >_<

      But now I think about it, it was kinda weird that on Sunday's Benji Come Home would be shown straight after Porkys 3.

      Also, a routine on cultural differences made me think of this:

  3. You know what I mainly remember from these movies? I don't know how many markets did this, but in Detroit, a local radio station played the audio in a simulcast. As a result, we were able to get the movie in stereo during a time when stereo on TV was just not a thing.

    This meant that we had three speakers giving out the sound (why didn't we turn down the tv?) and it went out of phase at one point, but it was still an interesting experiment.

  4. Great walk down memory lane, Heath - I loved these movies as a youngster but, unlike the rest of the old Star Wars movies, never revisited them in my older years. I'll have to track them down - not sure how well they'll hold up for me but just looking at your screencaps gave me pangs of nostalgia so I'm sure they're worth it for that at the very least!

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