As with the other two entries in the original trilogy, there’s so much information on the creation of Return of the Jedi that it’s not worth talking about. That said, opinions on this movie, while generally positive, are more polarizing than the other two. That actually makes it worth talking about the movie itself. It’s worth talking about the movie’s strengths, weaknesses and some of its strange choices.
Released in 1983, Return of the Jedi was, at the time, thought to be the last Star Wars movie by a lot of people. Yet even back then, George Lucas talked about a 9-movie epic. Even Mark Hamill mentioned in an interview that he was asked if he’d be willing to do another three movies.
As a kid, Return of the Jedi was my favourite of the three. I loved the battle of Endor, also known as the Second Death Star Battle by some. I loved the ewoks; in fact even my mom, who normally doesn’t like action movies and finds epic sagas confusing, enjoyed what she called the “teddy bears”. She also liked Han Solo, but that’s mostly because he’s played by Harrison Ford. I can’t think of one part of this movie I didn’t like as a kid.
But now that I’ve developed a more critical mind, my thoughts on the movie have changed a lot. I still love this movie. It’s glorious on every level, from the most epic sounding soundtrack in the franchise to the large scale battles. It’s incredible to think they accomplished the Battle of Endor in the early 80’s. The emotional conclusion of the Luke/Vader conflict is satisfying. There’s a real sense of finality to the way the Empire is defeated at the end of the movie. It really does feel like, while the Empire isn’t completely gone, it’s suffered a major defeat that it can’t recover from.
As with the other movies, I started off with the Special Edition released in 1997 after my father received it for Christmas that year. Although I’ve seen the Yub Dub celebration, and I can understand why some people prefer it, I much prefer the Celebration Theme used in every version since the Special Edition. That’s one aspect of the movie that’s split right down the middle though. Unlike “Han shoots first”, there is no truly correct answer on that debate.
But with all that praise thrown at this movie, Return of the Jedi is not without its problems. The most glaring problem is the movie’s pacing. You spend more than half an hour in Jabba’s palace, leading up to the sail barge. The creepy atmosphere in this part of the movie is great and all, but it’s both too long and too short at the same time.
In a lot of ways it feels more like an hour long episode of a Star Wars TV show than an actual movie. After the sail barge fight, we get a couple of exposition themes and the brilliantly done Yoda death scene, and then the characters land on Endor. There’s the speeder bike chase, a bunch of comedy with the ewoks (some of it slapstick), and then the Battle of Endor takes up the last 45 minutes or so of the movie.
As much as the trilogy feels like it’s earned a 45 minute battle at this point, and there is downtime within the battle that stops it from being exhausting, that really doesn’t leave much room for story. That also leads to Return of the Jedi’s second major problem. The story is paper thin. It takes 30 minutes of screen time for the characters to rescue Han Solo from the carbonite freeze, then you’re told everything you need to know about the Second Death Star in a 3 minute Rebel Alliance meeting scene. They land on Endor, meet the ewoks, and then the battle commences. That’s about all there is to it. The movie is so paper thin on story that there’s even a scene that’s just C-3P0 telling the story of the first two movies to the ewoks. It’s kind of cute, sure, but it’s sad when you need filler material for what is supposed to be the epic finale for an epic space opera trilogy.
And it’s good to have a simple core story you can explain in one or two sentences, but you need to have more going on in the background when your movie is 2 or more hours long. Here are a couple things they could have added. Give Leia a moment where she figures out that Darth Vader is her father. Show some of the other rebel troops fighting storm troopers in the forest, only for the ewoks to ambush them from behind with a barrage of rocks. Actually show us more of the ewoks struggling against the empire, to show why they’re angry and are so willing to fight. That would add drama to the situation that otherwise just feels like a joke. I’m sure there are plenty more, but those are a couple minor suggestions.
The movie also limits Princess Leia’s role in an odd way. In the first movie, she takes charge of the group minutes after being rescued, showing a lot of composure and leadership. In the second movie, despite how she’s on Han Solo’s ship the whole time, she’s still feisty and freely offering her opinion. She’s still just as strong. And before that, you get the impression that she’s very high up in the chain of command in the Alliance. Here, she just kind of goes along for the ride and doesn’t take on much leadership at all.
The third major problem is that this movie is tonally inconsistent. As I said earlier, Jabba’s palace has this great creepy atmosphere that fits quite well with Luke’s journey in this movie. But then you get the ewoks, who are all about cuteness and comedy. In fact the parts of the battle on the forest moon of Endor focus almost entirely on the ewoks. These scenes clash with the more serious battle in space, and the very dramatic confrontation between Luke, Darth Vader and the Emperor. And sure, it can be nice to get a break from the more serious moments, but the ewoks take it a bit too far.
So while I do still love this movie, it’s hard to defend this as a great movie. The other two entries in the original trilogy are objectively better. They’re more tonally consistent. They’re better paced. Their stories are deeper. And at times, it kind of looks like Harrison Ford doesn’t really care in Return of the Jedi. It’s been learned since that he actually wanted Han Solo to die in the movie, feeling that’s the only direction for the character to go at this point. Instead, he’s randomly a Rebellion General after being frozen in carbonite for a year or so.
It almost feels like Return of the Jedi should have been two movies. The first could focus on Jabba’s palace, with Luke spending some time with Yoda, training further, while Lando and Chewie search for Han. It eventually leads to the Jabba’s palace scene as it is (except maybe without the pointless Jedi Rocks number), and the movie ends with the Sail Barge fight. And then you get Return of the Jedi, with a deeper story and perhaps even the Darth Vader castle scene that was initially planned for the movie.
Anyway, next up will be the two made for TV ewok movies. We’ll see how I feel about the “teddy bears” after them. Then we’ll look at what is often the most hated entry in the Star Wars saga, Episode 1, followed by the other two prequels. This is going to be the hardest part of this blogathon to get through – 5 mediocre to bad movies in a row.