The Force is strong with… Star Wars: Episode VI’s Ewoks
Ivan Radford | On 15, Dec 2015
We take a look back at each episode in the Star Wars saga – and where you can watch them online.
“Yub nub!” That’s the sound of the most hated characters in the Star Wars universe. No, not Jar-Jar Binks: the Ewoks. Those tiny, furry critters on the forest moon of Endor marked for a swathe of fans the turning point in George Lucas’ franchise: the point at which the saga moved from fantastical myth to merchandising. Those fans, though, are wrong.
The Ewoks represent some of the best things about Star Wars. Their teddy bear-like appearance alienated some die-hard grown-ups, but won over a new generation of young fans. They were cute, kid-friendly and exactly the kind of creation that has made the saga suitable for children of all ages for decades. In a world where The Dark Knight and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 scrape past the requirements for 12A certificates, Return of the Jedi was a genuine family movie.
There is, of course, a limit to how far looking like a rejected Paddington sidekick can get you – which is why the Ewoks have their darker side to balance out any toy shop sickliness. Don’t forget that we first meet the Ewoks as they kidnap our heroes and plan to eat them for supper. Make no mistake: beneath their soft, cuddly exterior lies the beating heart of a carnivorous animal prepared to tie up a human twice their size so they can have their din-dins. (Look at an Ewok at any time in the film. In the original cut, they never blink. That says everything you need to know.)
At the end of Episode VI, they celebrate their victory with a happy party. There are nibbles, fireworks, music. It’s the perfect family occasion. Until you notice that the local musicians are drumming along with the helmets of Stormtroopers. Did those Imperial soldiers willingly donate their head-wear for the event? Given the forest moon of Endor is strewn with the corpses of dead troopers, we know what we’d bet our Cambylictus berries on. Were the helmets stripped from their still-warm carcasses? Now that’s the Ewok way. Seeing how well they play the drums – and have had the time to arrange them in a descending musical scale – those helmets have probably been in Bright Tree Village for months. They might even have their rotting, decapitated skulls still in them.
That hint of darkness is what marks Return of the Jedi out as such an accomplished finale. It’s easy to write Episode VI off as a pale repeat of Episode IV, but it’s closer to a hybrid of Episodes IV and V: it inherits the gung-ho thrill of A New Hope, even opening with a similar shot of a Star Destroyer, but also the shadowy, sinister quality of Empire Strikes Back. In A New Hope, Darth Vader, with his long pauses and hand movements, was intimidating, but in a camp, movie matinee way. Here, he’s backed up by the might of a more sinister Sith: Ian McDiarmid’s Emperor Palpatine, making his franchise debut.
“The Emperor is not as forgiving as I am…” warns Vader, which is enough to creep anyone out before we’ve even met him, but McDiarmid’s latex-laden face, combined with his cackling voice, is really quite creepy. His talk of the Dark Side and complete disregard for morality is even more so. “Your over-confidence is your weakness,” says Luke, in his Throne Room. “Your faith in your friends is yours,” Palpatine snaps back with an unnerving certainty. Even the introductory set piece involving the Luke escaping Jabba’s Rancor is deceptively menacing – a mood echoed by the new Death Star lingering in the background, ghostly and half-finished. (John Williams’ score is similarly more layered and complex than any Star Wars music before it.)
The Ewoks also prove once again the sheer versatility of the Star Wars creative team. The film was originally going to see the gang head to the Wookie home planet of Kashyyk, but Ewoks (hint: rearrange the syllables) emerged as a smart piece of juxtaposition: the opposite of Chewie’s walking carpet.
They’re just one of many bravura creature designs on display in Return of the Jedi, from Jabba the Hutt’s one-ton puppet, one of the most expensive ever made and operated by three of Jim Henson’s Muppet crew, to Admiral Ackbar (“It’s a trap!”) and everyone’s favourite keyboard-playing-non-blue-elephant Max Rebo. In fact, the whole of Jabba’s palace is a smorgasbord of ingenuity: George Lucas’ equivalent of Hellboy II’s Troll market, the Mos Eisley Cantina writ large. (To give you an idea of how elaborate that scene is, for every monster on set, they had one person with a hairdryer set to cold to blow in their mouths between takes.)
Even the location of the Ewok race is a refreshing contrast. After the clever choice of ice planet Hoth to follow the deserts of Tattoine, the Ewoks’ home is a first for the saga: a pleasant serving of shubbery to counter the black space battles above.
That lush sense of world-building is accompanied by an equally in-depth construction of mythology: the language of the Ewoks, created by sound designer Ben Burtt, was partly inspired by the Russian language of Kalmyk, the kind of attention to detail that you’d associate more with Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings than Lucas’ Star Wars. Add in performers such as Warwick Davis and names such as Wicket W. Warrick and you’ve got a recipe for a species as engaging as A New Hope’s Tusken Raiders or Jawa traders.
The Ewoks, though, also represent the worst of Star Wars: their music at the end – complete with the words “Yub nub” – was dubbed over as part of Lucas’ rewordings, just as the ghosts of Jedis past overlooking the festivities were altered to include Hayden Christensen’s Anakin. But in a film where Lucas’ tinkering is more evident than ever (the magic of Jabba’s palace is almost ruined by a new, shouty CGI singer), it’s telling that the Ewoks themselves have not been replaced. The bike chase on Endor, likewise, is untouched, thrilling in its own right and as technically advanced as you could hope for a set piece that takes place on a planet where teddy bears are capable of taking out a trained army.
Which brings us to the most divisive aspect of the Ewoks: their ability to unite and overthrow the soldiers invading their moon. But that rebellious spirit is just the thing that made people fall in love with Star Wars in the first place: the notion that a normal farmboy could become a planet-hopping hero is as uplifting as the spectacle of the Ewoks crushing an AT-ST between two logs. Likewise, the sight of Romba weeping over Nanta, who is shot by a laser during the battle of Endor, is unexpectedly moving: a glimpse of death that, again tellingly, hasn’t been edited out. Amid the space opera frolics, the Ewoks are the cinematic equivalent of a pet goldfish: fun for kids and also teaching them a traumatic lesson about mortality. As the whole saga finishes with the passing of Darth Vader, the ability of the Ewoks to bring both light and dark to the table make them one of Star Wars’ greatest assets – emotionally as well as financially. They’re the cutest, cuddliest carnivores in the galaxy. Yub nub, baby. Yub nub.
Star Wars: Episode VI: Return of the Jedi is available on Disney+, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription or a £59.99 yearly subscription. It is also available on Sky Cinema. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW TV, as part of an £11.99 Sky Cinema Month Pass subscription.
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