This review is based on the "Despecialized Edition" prepared by fan editor Harmy, something akin to the original 1983 release.

It is very nearly almost claimed that Return of the Jedi is the weakest film of the original Star Wars trilogy, and this is absolutely true. The specific reasons for this, and how many of them and how severe they are, depend on who's making the argument, but one thing that can be counted on: it's not going to take too long before somebody mentions the Ewoks as Problem No. 1. I think this is perhaps maybe less true. Don't worry, this isn't the overture to a "defending the Ewoks" review, simply pointing out that the hate directed their way is overblown - they are transparently toyetic and the most extreme symptom of the remarkably sudden downshift Return of the Jedi makes from The Empire Strikes Back, as the franchise's glummest and most adult-friendly entry (though "adult-friendly" is all relative; these are all boys' own adventure matinee epics at heart) explosively gives way to what is pretty unabashedly a kids' film for a very large percentage of its running time.

And that is one of the film's problems. Not that the Star Wars franchise is meant to be some kind of sacrosanct thing that must not be for children: this is the trilogy about people with laser swords, funny robots, and the big scary man with the shiny black mask. Where Return of the Jedi trips up is in trying to balance its most kiddie-friendly instincts with the relative maturity and gravity of Empire, resulting in a film with some astonishing tonal lurches - some of them right in the same frame, like when the big slug-beast Jabba the Hutt (just as obviously a sop to pre-adolescent audiences as the Ewoks, though perhaps a marginally older pre-adolescent audience) is all gross and sluggy right next to the notorious sight of Carrie Fisher wearing a metal space bikini that wouldn't feel out of place in Heavy Metal. To say nothing of the climax - since we will say much about it later on.

Back to the Ewoks. They're a symptom of the film's sometimes clumsy attempt to be a four-quadrant hit (a phrase that I do not think existed in 1983, when it was newly released), but not a cause, and they are not devoid of merit in and of themselves. There's a profound disjunction between what the Ewoks are (animate teddy bears) and what they Ewoks do (wear tribal costumes, wield stone-age weapons, attempt to cook and eat the protagonists, stage traps to destroy a vastly more technologically accomplished aggressor - George Lucas has claimed that they were inspired by the Viet Cong, and that seems entirely reasonable), and for my part, I think that the film benefits from it. One thing Return of the Jedi does persistently and quietly is to get weird: the cantina scene in Star Wars and the fleeting glimpses of bounty hunters and the layout of Cloud City in The Empire Strikes Back point in the direction of overheated pulp of the '30s or '50s style, where sci-fi world building could be at its most indulgent, but Jedi is where that kicks into overtridve. It has, for one thing, by far the largest number of non-human characters in the original trilogy (as well as the largest number of women with speaking roles: a whopping two, double that if you include aliens speaking made-up languages. But Star Wars-as-boys' club is not a new observation and I will not belabor it). The warrior plushies fit into this newly expansive sense of "what the hell, it's a big weird universe" nicely.

Mostly, though, I want to go to bat for the Ewoks because they're a key element of one the best and most easily-overlooked moments in Return of the Jedi: the storytelling scene. Newly-appointed primitive god C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) is eagerly recapping for his audience of rapt bearlings the plots of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, and we can't understand a word of it, of course, it's in one of this film's multiple invented languages (more of the pulpy universe-expanding - there's even a new alphabet introduced in this one). But between Daniels's enthusiastically stiff pantomime and the tinny reproductions of Ben Burtt's sound effects, we get all of it anyway. More to the point, the Ewoks very clearly get it: their puppety little faces are absolutely transfixed throughout. At one point, after the droid says "[gibberish] Han Solo [more gibberish]", a couple of the Ewoks sidle up to the smuggler-turned-general and hug him, and that's really the moment that crystallises the scene: intentionally or not, this is about the reason we love watching Star Wars. It's about big, bold characters for whom we feel intense (maybe unjustifably so) affection, and exaggerated adventures that are so simple that a droid can communicate them using arm movements. And also the creativity and perfection of the sound design is a key element of how the story is told. The audiences that made Star Wars an incomprehensibly big hit in 1977 and have kept it alive and important for most of the years ever since: we are those rapt Ewoks, and they are us. How can you hate the fuzzy little shits once you've realised that?

All that being said, and as I've implied already, Return of the Jedi is much less rapt-attention-inducing than what went before it. The expansive weirdness in the alien design and the flickers we see of how society works has to stand in contrast to how much smaller the film feels than Empire - smaller than Star Wars too, really, though Jedi has more locations than the first picture. Part of that, perhaps, is the bland mix of locations: the first film had a desert planet full of bizarre '70s space architecture and a giant, freakishly utilitarian space station, the second had an ice planet, a magical swamp, and a phenomenal gas giant mining colony, and what do we have here? Back to the same desert planet, two rooms in another space station, and the only wholly new location is a redwood forest that looks transparently like northern California right from its very first "postcard from Yosemite"-style establishing shot. We're not very far from the old '50s B-producers going to Bronson Canyon and putting absolutely no effort into disguising it: the budget is bigger and the ecology at least somewhat less familiar, but the aura of "find me a location we can drive to!" manages to come through loud and clear.

What really doesn't help is the team Lucas assembled to execute his vision this time around. There wasn't nearly as much turnover between Empire and Jedi as between Star Wars and Empire, but two of the replacements were critical: welcome to the franchise cinematographer Alan Hume and director Richard Marquand (given the job after David Lynch turned down Lucas's offer to take the film: best for everyone involved, of course, though I'd be hella curious to know what Lynch would have done with Jabba), both of them a pronounced step down.

Let's not pussyfoot: Return of the Jedi is astonishingly poorly-shot. The 2nd unit work is as good as ever; the visual effects are a sizable leap even over the state-of-the-art work in Star Wars; the jagged edges of the half-made Death Star hanging in space is as beautiful as any visual effects in the series. But most of the scenes filmed on sets with actors are frightfully over-lit. Or not even over-lit - just badly lit. The interiors of Jabba's palace are certainly dim enough, and the vast depth of the entry hallway, terminating in a crescent of bright desert light, is a great achievement, responsible for two of the film's best images. But those aliens, boy do they look like props: the little monkey-beast Salacious Crumb (who was, like an astonishing number of characters in this film and the Ewoks as a species, only given a proper name in the merchandising for the movie, not its dialogue) looks exactly like a puppet, and if I were to see him popping up in a crowd scene in Fraggle Rock, I wouldn't bat an eye. Jabba himself is so clearly a rubbery suit - in one shot, you can see what looks suspiciously like a molding seam under his left arm - that it takes a huge amount of commitment from Fisher and Mark Hamill to make it seem like the gangster is a threat at all. More generally, the film has a bad tendency to make sets look like sets and props like props and matte paintings like (beautiful, detailed, rich) matte paintings: for what was assuredly not a cheap production, Return of the Jedi surely doesn't look like it cost much.

Beyond its stylistic limitations, the film's screenplay (Lawrence Kasdan came back from The Empire Strikes Back, now to share a script credit with Lucas, who takes sole story credit) is much the weakest in the trilogy as well. Most apparently, the film has a protracted false first act, in which all of the main protagonists and nobody else go to rescue Han, and it has no connection at all to the rest of the movie, which starts only when all of the main protagonists and nobody else with a name or line of dialogue gets to head to the forest to have adventures. This is clumsy, and the rumored original notion that the third Star Wars film would consist of the quest to find Han with an unrealised fourth involving the final assault against the Empire would have been, I suppose, unambiguously better. But it's not just the clunkiness of having to entirely re-start a feature film after it's nearly a third of the way over. There's a smallness to this: a sense that nothing matters outside of this handful of characters, and that the universe literally doesn't exist without them. This is most appallingly evident in the mid-film twist, the discovery that Luke and Leia are brothers: the rumored original notion had a totally different Skywalker sister, which would have maybe been less "cool", but would have made more sense, and freed the series from the horrifying intimations of incest that now retroactively enter the first two movies, especially Star Wars's sketched-in romantic triangle.

But then, fucking with the series' established continuity is something Jedi does disappointingly well. Empire, of course, got to cheat: it let the reveal that Darth Vader was Anakin Skywalker hit us in the gut and then it ended without dealing with the ramifications of that. Jedi is the one that has to do the clean-up work, dragging in poor blue-tinged Alec Guinness to deliver a speech that even his extraordinary gifts can't redeem, with Obi-Wan Kenobi's attempt to paper over a pretty glaring plot hole making him sound like even more of an idiot than an asshole - and he sounds like quite an asshole. "Luke, I lied, because you needed to hear that lie" would have been no less unethical and quite a bit less convoluted than the dismal monologue that not only screws with Star Wars but gave an entire trilogy of prequels a task to fulfill that they are not remotely prepared for.

There's plenty of sloppy writing that's much smaller: the eyebrow-raising development that untrustworthy rogue Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams, given much less interesting to do in this film than the last) is now a general in the Rebellion, and using a joke to call attention to that fact doesn't help. Worse yet is everything to do with Han Solo: I don't know if it was an attempt to punish Harrison Ford for wanting to be largely written out of the movie and killed off at the end (this was back in the "Search for Solo" draft), but his character has been written into a more fumbling, inconsequential comic relief idiot than the prissy C-3PO ever was. Han does nothing well, overreacts, and gets some of the wobbliest dialogue, and has only one mournful look at at his beloved Millennium Falcon to make up for all of it. No more of the great space pirate of Star Wars here.

All of that is a tremendous amount of complaining about a movie I largely enjoy. The truth is, what doesn't work in Return of the Jedi mostly happens at the margins - and it happens at most of the margins. But the meat of the film is generally good: as the major showpiece film for Lucas's new effects house ILM, there was an impetus to include as many visual effects and as many different kinds of effects as possible, and it is immodestly satisfying as a work of spectacle as a result, whether something as elaborate as the final space battle or as quiet as the Death Star in the Endor night sky. It has the benefit also of getting better and better as it goes along. The film's climax is, to my mind, the best-assembled setpiece in the Star Wars franchise, combining a tremendously inventive and well made as that space battle with its astonishing number of moving parts, a hectic ground battle, and the relatively small and coiled-up battle of wits between Luke, Vader, and the cackling Emperor (Ian McDiarmid). The editing flawlessly matches the mood in each location to give the whole piece of cross-cutting a single fluid narrative line, and John Williams stitches it all together with an exemplary piece of scoring that juggles themes from across the franchise and culminates in an impressively soaring piece of choral music as Luke hammers on his father with a lightsaber.

Williams's score is, once again, the best thing going on here: we're back to the more insistent "music as storytelling" aspect of Star Wars, after Empire mostly used score as especially omnipresent mood setting. His woodwind-driven theme for the Ewoks goes a long way to making those toys-in-waiting seem otherworldly and also gives the impression they have some kind of real culture, which is part of why I'm so content to tolerate them; his new theme for Luke and Leia has a dour tenderness that's subdued in all the ways that the rest of the score is not, and is thus all the stronger for it. The way that the Vader's established theme and the Satanic droning of the new motif Williams writes for the Emperor cut in and out of each other is already enough to make their relationship one of the most driving and well-defined in the movie, and we don't even know who the Emperor is, really. Throw Luke into that mix, and add Hamill's most confident, but also most haggard performance yet, and there's a three-way conflict throughout the second half of the film that is as interesting and complex as anything in the character arcs of anyone in the Star Wars series. It's astonishing, really, how bland Leia is (though Fisher gives her all, and even with less to play, she's personally at the same level she was in The Empire Strikes Back), and how outright bad Han is, when Lucas and Kasdan had things like Vader's deep film-long ambivalence waiting inside of them.

Anyway, the film's last sequences are by far its most powerful and exciting, and not even the hokey Ewok song at the end (which I still much prefer to the hokier celebratory suite ending the Special Edition cut of the film) can rob the echoes of the emotional heights reached by Hamill's purposeful downshift from fury to calm after his last lightsaber battle, or McDiarmid's lizardlike croak switching from pleasure to rage (McDiarmid is absolutely magificent in the role: he's hamming it up while also being totally plausible as a realistic figure of literally pure evil, and his faux-kindly way of delivering crushing taunts to Luke is some of the best villainy in all of popcorn cinema), or the solo harp carrying Anakin Skywalker to his grave.

In sum: it's a film that's pretty rough, even by Star Wars standards, at story structure and plot holes; it's largely captivating at gigantic SFX and VFX spectacle; it's good at family movie and it's trivial at adult movie. But it is truly splendid and moving at Luke Skywalker's character arc: taken as the culmination of three films' worth of building him up, and challenging him with his own flaws, it is a rich, operatic finale. Even if we just take it as the sum of this one movie's journey from Luke's quiet expression on the hologram projected in Jabba's throne room to the grin of triumph as he rejoins his friends after saying goodbye to his redeemed father, it is moving and soaring and Hamill, though never anywhere close to a major actor, earns every bit of the emotions the film traffics in for its final twenty minutes. The proportion of good-to-bad in Return of the Jedi is damned dubious, but it leaves us on a huge high after a protracted burst of its best material, and that makes it a hell of a popcorn movie, even after everything.

Reviews in this series
Star Wars (Lucas, 1977)
The Empire Strikes Back (Kershner, 1980)
Return of the Jedi (Marquand, 1983)
Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace (Lucas, 1999)
Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones (Lucas, 2002)
Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith (Lucas, 2005)
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Abrams, 2015)
Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Johnson, 2017)
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (Abrams, 2019)