Thursday, March 14, 2013

Attack of the Super-Duper Cute Bears!: Watching Return of the Jedi with Lily

Lily was looking forward to this one, because she had heard that it had Jabba the Hutt. I asked her why she was interested in seeing him, and she said it was because she knew he was "blobby" and that she likes "blobby" people, which also explains why we're so close. 

Someone I used to know had an uncharacteristically cogent observation about Return of the Jedi. "George Lucas could have given us anything, and he gave us Ewoks."

I think that really sums it up. It's fairly well-known among Star Wars fans that Ewoks were originally supposed to be Wookiees, and making them babbling arboreal midgets is the very definition of missed opportunity. (Though speaking of Wookiees, "Wookieepedia" is an awesome name for the Star Wars wiki). Only slightly less well known is the fact that the word "Ewok" is never spoken once in the series and yet it's a household word. Jen, hardly the biggest Star Wars fan in the world, knows what they are.

Now, mind the Ewoks are not an inherently bad concept. I mean savage, man-eating pygmies almost invisible in their natural habitat? They could have been terrifying if they were presented in the right way, like furry versions of the Predator. But they weren't and we got a bunch of yub-yubbing Teddy bears. The gulf between how cool they could have been could have been and how lame is they are is so vast that the difference in scale becomes a difference in kind.

Yub Yub

Also, Wicket the Ewok has a middle and last name. It makes me wonder if his mom took his dad's last name when they got married.  What the Fuck, Lucas?! Way to sell the myth of a galaxy far, far away.

As an aside, does anyone else remember the blacked out images on the back of the Jedi action figures? On the back of the packaging for the figures, they used to have a lineup of all the figures available for that set, and the Ewoks were so super sekrit that the images were blacked out. As a kid I assumed it was a printing error, but now I see that it must have been they were trying to keep a lid on what an Ewok was.

Okay, enough about the fucking Ewoks.

I was listening to the Return of the Jedi radio play a couple days before I saw the movie and it's really pretty good. The dialogue is generally improved over the the movie. I'll include a little commentary on the play as it relates to the movie throughout this review.

Radio Play: The radio play begins with Luke narrating the creation of his new lightsaber. I think it was a bit better than the movie opening, with its incongruous Wizard of Oz homage. This page says that someone named Joshua Fardon played Luke Skywalker and he really sounded like Mark Hamill.

I like radio plays. Because everything is done without visuals, the format lead to awesome lines like C3PO "Yes, Jabba the Hutt would be the huge, sluglike individual on the dais" or a cackling Palpatine on the Death Star exulting "Splendid! The son has struck off the father's hand!" The temporarily blind Han works, because he, like the audience, needs someone to explain to him what's happening. It was a pretty interesting cast, with Anthony Daniels reprising his role, Yeardley Smith (Lisa Simpson!) as a random droid in Jabba's palace, Ed Asner as Jabba and John Lithgow as Yoda.

Oh, here's an interesting bit of trivia:&nbspAlso introduced in the storyline is a brief appearance of a dancer named Arica in the palace of Jabba the Hutt... a character whose true identity is that of popular Star Wars Expanded Universe character Mara Jade, established to have been present there in the Timothy Zahn-penned novel trilogy starting with "Heir to the Empire". Yay for continuity porn!

The scene in the movie where Vader goes to oversee construction of the Death Star really works well. It has a zillion stormtroopers in the docking bay and "The Emperor is not as forgiving as I am" really sets up the Emperor as a figure to be feared. It's this scene that makes me think of Vader as the Imperial version of Harvey Keitel's character from Pulp Fiction. He's the guy they send in to clean things up when the situation is messed up beyond repair. And if you're the officer in charge, the last thing you want is this hyperventilating asshole showing up and bossing your troops around and probably strangling a bunch of people. (From the abridged script: Commander: "Greetings Anni. I’m so glad you could come here and kill those of us who fail you.")

I love it that Wikipedia has a List of Star Wars superweapons.

The first two movies were these epic adventures, this just seemed like someone's game session gone awry, the rescue attempt in the beginning in particular. Contrived way to get everyone in the party in the mix? Check! Needlessly complex plan that implodes almost immediately? Check! Chucking the plan and just killing everybody when that happens? Check plus!

Radio Play: I thought the radio version of Jabba's Palace was better than the movie. There was a quick scene with Han and Boba Fett after Han is thawed out with Han taunting Fett that he didn't really do all that much to capture him ("All you did was fetch and carry me") and Fett kind of shrugging it off "Tomorrow I'll collect another bounty and you'll be dead." I really liked that. He seems scarier because it's all business to him.

Leia as the Mighty Boushh is a gimmick that was surprising to an eight-year old Josh, but not something that holds up on subsequent viewings.

Lily liked it, though.

(I know the image is oriented the wrong way. Just tilt either your head or your computer.)

The Rancor looks like it came from the Land of the Lost, and I still feel bad for the Rancor Keeper when it dies. 

Lily was unimpressed with the Sarlaac. "It's just a mouth in the sand."

Radio Play: When Boba Fett falls into the Sarlaac, somebody yells "No one could have survived that!" which is a phrase that always makes me smile, because it's so awesomely corny and it means of course he survived it. The EU tells us that he blasted his way out almost immediately. (It also tells us that some 20 to 30 aliens survive the exploding sail barge, so take that for what it's worth.)

Radio Play: Flying away from Tattooine, Leia says "I'm going to find some clothes that don't require a cabaret permit," and Han is like "Hey, you're not going to throw those away, are you?!" *smile* "We'll see." I thought that was kind of cute.

As the Millenium Falcon was departing, Lily asked "Is the movie over already?" In doing a little research for this piece, I've found that this is not an uncommon question among kids, and it kind of highlights some of the structural problems with the movie. It's really almost three movies, one on Tattooine, one on Endor and the other on and around the Death Star. 

Lily asked "Why is Leia naked?" when we first see her in her metal bikini, and that element just doesn't seem to belong in the same movie as the Ewoks.

The scene on Dagobah

Yoda: Your father he is. Told you, did he?
Luke: Yes.
Yoda: Unexpected this is, and unfortunate.
Luke: Unfortunate that I know the truth?
Yoda: No! Unfortunate, that you rushed to face him! That, incomplete was your training! That, not ready for the burden were you.

I'm going to be as generous as possible here and accept Yoda's claims that to he was going to tell Luke that Vader was his father after his training was done. Doing it when he abruptly quit his training and ran off to confront Vader would have been the wrong time, so it's not so much "I'm sorry that you know" as much as "I'm sorry you had to find out like this."

That's overshadowed by the scene immediately following it, where Obi Wan tries to weasel his way out of the whole thing, "I didn't tell you an outright lie when I was trying to set you up to murder your father, so why are you getting so bent out of shape about this?" He should have just accepted that he was wrong, said he was going to tell Luke when he was ready and left it there. Trying to skate by an extremely dubious technicality is douchery of the highest order.

None of this occurred to Lily, however. Her first thought on hearing that Luke and Leia were siblings was to ask, "Does that mean Luke is a prince?"

What I didn't say: "No, actually the throne of Naboo is an elected position, not a hereditary one. Leia is considered a princess because she was adopted by Breha Organa, Queen of, and Minister of Education to Alderaan, and wife of Bail Organa, Alderaan's representative to the Senate," 

What I did say: "You bet!"

Lily liked seeing Mon Mothma, exclaiming, "A girl. Finally!"

Endor: I can almost imagine Chewbacca's player, when he gets the party snared in the net, saying, "But I was just role-playing my character!" 

"It is against my programming to impersonate a deity," (Radio Play: "Let me open you up and fix that.") This has been the source for countless jokes. Is this really a problem with protocol droids? I'm sure that my friends and I can't be the only one to observe that's an awfully specific prohibition. (It's possible that this falls under the umbrella of some broader behavioral guidelines, but the way it was phrased doesn't suggest that.) I'm sure the EU explains this somewhere.

Luke: Leia, do you remember your mother? Your real mother?

Leia: Just a little bit. She died when I was very young.

Yeah, like when you were seven minutes old. Come on! Yes, I know the prequels weren't yet written, but I wish they would have made at least a token effort to explain this part. 

Lily, unfortunately, loved the Ewoks.

Lily: I think the bear has a crush on her.
Me: It's called an Ewok.
Lily: Awww....the Ewok is cute.
Me: *Twitch*
Lily: It looks like a little Koala!

Later on, when an Ewok was tackling a stormtrooper, she pretended the stormtrooper was saying, "Ah! Get those super-duper cute bears away from me!"

And while I'm bitching about Endor, let's talk about the Tarzan yell. What the fuck was that about? I do have to respect Lucas, who must have been getting crap from fans like me for years and instead of giving the fans what they want, instead doubles down and gives us TWO Tarzan-warbling wookiees in the prequels.

I like Nien Nunb. He's Lando's goofy little alien sidekick. Admiral Ackbar ("It's a trap!") sounds more like Grover than Yoda ever did in the radio play, but the designs for both of them were top notch in the movie. (Speaking of Nien Nunb, I always think of this account of one of our Star Wars games when someone mentions Sullustans. "Well, the rebel base was compromised, so I went to a club and got lots of lap dances, while the Wookies hung out at the bar and killed Sullustans." The ideas our group came up with make Luke's plan for rescuing Han look like the heist from Ocean's 11.) Jen asked "Who's that?" when she saw him, and then cried a little when I said, "Do you you mean his species or his name?"

Speaking of Admiral Ackbar, Lily and I came up with a joke. (Though we came up with this independently, I can't imagine we're the first or only ones to make this particular joke.)

Knock Knock.

Who's there?

Admiral Ackbar.

Admiral Ack-

It's a trap!

Jedi's kind of crappy in a lot of ways, but the assault on the Death Star is really spectacular and off the top of my head, I can't think of a better space battle before or since. The music that accompanies it is my very favorite piece of work in a series distinguished by its excellent music. Wikipedia has a really good 
article on the subject. And there's Wedge as Red Leader! Hi, Wedge!

I kind of recall Lucas saying that arc of the movies was always about the fall and redemption of Anakin Skywalker. Sure, George, and they were always brother and sister. That said, I do think that is the element that works best in this movie. I like the scene where Luke and Vader are riding the elevator (In the special editions, the Girl from Ipanema is playing) up to Palpatine's throne room. 

Mark Hamill is certainly not the best actor in the series, but he has matured over the course of the trilogy, and he sells Luke's quiet conviction that his father can be redeemed. I didn't appreciate it as a kid, but he's on the Death Star as distraction, and he's there to redeem his father. He has no reason to believe either of them are going to live through this.

Radio Play: Palpatine was hamming it up. He was like Raul Julia in Street Fighter. It made Ian McDiarmid's performance in the movie look positively restrained. I could imagine him in the studio, milking the giant cow when he was delivering lines like "So the Jedi SUMMONS his lightsaber and it FLIES to his hand!" I thought he was going to break into song.

The prequels were an even greater missed opportunity than Jedi itself, but there is one element that adds to the appreciation of original trilogy. When Luke is being electrocuted by the Emperor, it parallels the scene when Anakin had to choose between helping Palpatine or helping Mace. He made the wrong choice then and it damned him. He makes the right one now and it redeems him.

Vader is played by Sebastian Shaw, but his power to absorb kinetic energy does him no good here.

Uh oh. I got your X-Men in my Star Wars. Wow, this is getting geeky even by my standards. Time to wrap it up.

I asked Jen what she thought and she said "Luke seems less whiny." It's an okay movie with a couple brilliant parts, but resent it for not delivering on the promises of Empire. Was it good? Sure. It was good. Was it great? No. And I was looking for a clever way to end this post and I couldn't think of one, but that's the perfect metaphor for Jedi. Sure, it ends the series and wraps up most of the loose ends. But it doesn't do so in an interesting or meaningful way. "First it started to fall over, then it fell over."

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