Every movie website worth its stuff needs a ranking of Star Wars films. As The Force Awakens approaches, I, like many other bloggers across the vast internet, am doing mine.
Today: Return of the Jedi.
I like Jabba and his palace. The old slug was my favorite part of the Star Wars universe during my childhood and even the Special Edition films did little to affect how much I enjoyed his slovenly, gluttonous appeal. The opening of Return of the Jedi was a call back to the cantina scene in A New Hope, but it was a giant, super-sized version of that with better villains and a story arc of its own. Even with a newly-CGI band, more banthas and turning the Sarlaac into a sand kraken of a creature, the beginning of Return of the Jedi is a high point in the Star Wars canon.
But Return of the Jedi, overall, isn’t a fabulous film.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fine film. It’s serviceable, wraps up the story cleanly, and has all of our favorite characters. But there are also Ewoks and George Lucasian-levels of terrible banter between Han and Leia (that guy *cannot* write romance). Boba Fett dies too easily. And Ewoks.
George Lucas is better at writing themes than he is dialogue. He is better at storytelling than plotting. Return of the Jedi is the perfect example of this. The Ewoks make sense from an ideological, storytelling standpoint. They represent nature against machines, the uprising of indigenous peoples against oppressors. Their story stands in a long line of similar tales, from Disney’s Pocahontas to James Cameron’s Avatar. Heck, Lucas liked it so much, he told the same tale in The Phantom Menace. It’s a story we know well. Yet it’s also one that’s shoe-horned into Return of the Jedi. The Ewoks are silly protagonists and their victory over the Imperials, with somehow-already-prepared traps throughout the jungles defy a critical examination. I’m not sure if it’s been established as a fact, but I’ve read that the Ewoks were originally supposed to be Wookiees, but Lucas backed off and made them shorter and cuter for marketing purposes. The point being, the Ewoks don’t serve the story of Return of the Jedi, they serve marketing purposes. Take the Ewoks out and have the rebels raid the Imperials on Endor directly and nothing else changes about Return of the Jedi.
If we had viewed the Star Wars prequels as continuations of the direction Return of the Jedi was taking us, perhaps we wouldn’t have been so surprised at the wooden acting, terrible dialogue and Jar Jar. Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher, already experienced in their roles, are able to overcome much of the terrible script they are given in Return. When Han asks Leia if she loves Luke, then vows to back off? It’s terrible. It defies everything that came before between the two of them. Earlier in just that film, Leia told Han she loved him as she risked her life to rescue him. But there he is on Endor, questioning her feelings and going as limp as a wet noodle. The Han we see in that scene isn’t anything like the brash hero we’d come to adore. Lucas would pay just as little attention to the consistency of his characters when, in Attack of the Clones, Amidala suddenly betrays all of her values to declare her love – suddenly deeply felt – for Anakin. That scene is just a little worse than the one between Han and Leia, and I contend that Jar Jar is just a little worse than the Ewoks.
Return of the Jedi isn’t a bad movie, though. I like it. It’s better than two of the prequels. But my sense is that, by the third film of the classic trilogy, George Lucas had run out of inspiration and his faults as a storyteller began to creep through, just as they were visibly present in the prequels.
What It Gets Right: Jabba is a capable villain in his own right. Various story arcs come to a close and there is a good sense of closure to the movies. The space battle and creature fights, hallmarks of Star Wars films, are the best the classic trilogy has to offer.
Where It Goes Wrong: Ewoks. The death of Boba Fett. Terrible dialogue at times. If this were a review comparing the original trilogy to its updates, the addition of young Anakin in the end scene is pretty awful.
Our Score: B
Rotten Tomatoes: 79% | IMDB: 8.4 | Metacritic: 52