What we all know - and like most things we all know, it's a simplification, but in this case not such an extreme nor indefensible one - is that George Lucas stuck the Ewoks into Return of the Jedi to sell toys. "Warrior teddy bears" isn't the most all-time slam-dunk moneymaking idea, to be sure, but it's probably the closest thing that could be comfortably fitted into the Star Wars universe. Or uncomfortably, as the case may be. At any rate, 1983 is the cut-off point: no matter how much you love the Star Wars franchise and how much it means to you and your childhood and all that, you couldn't really pretend any more after 1983 that it wasn't first and above all a money-making endeavor driven by merchandising, and even as I tend to think that the Ewoks aren't quite as artistically indefensible as a lot of people make them out to be (which, given that many people think they are more or less explicitly anti-art, I'm not staking out particularly strong ground here), I'm not going to pretend that art was at the forefront of Lucas's mind as he swung about looking for ways to make his signature property more toyetic.

We come now to 1984, and the first entry in the fully armed and operational Star Wars Merchandising era in history (one that, arguably, we never left; certainly, Disney of all corporations isn't going to shy away from marketing tie-ins). For here is where those child-friendly toy-ready Ewoks make the leap from merely pulling focus in a story about our good friends Luke, Leia, and Han, and instead become the stars of their very own feature-length commercial: The Ewok Adventure, a television movie that was quickly rebranded Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure during its modest theatrical release in a handful of countries. For after all THE Ewok Adventure suggests that there can only be one. AN Ewok Adventure leaves you with all the room you could possibly want to keep the spin-off machine rolling on and on, to make a sequel movie, say, or a whole damn television cartoon series. But we're going to pretend for right now that none of that tawdriness happened, and leave ourselves with the simply matter of just one little Ewok Adventure to deal with.

And "deal with it" is being charitable. This is not, of course, the worst thing to happen to Star Wars on television: why, The Star Wars Holiday Special was just six years and one week old when The Ewok Adventure premiered on Thanksgiving weekend. But we don't even have to swing at that lowest of the low-hanging fruit: I would probably still stack The Ewok Adventure above Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones, quality-wise. How much more could you possibly want than that?

The point being, anyway, that even if this is not the bottom of the Star Wars barrel, it's way the hell down there. Not the least of its problems are the Ewoks themselves. They are not, in Return of the Jedi, all-time great movie creatures: for whatever budgetary reason, they were constructed without much sophistication or care, even the ones who get featured with a lot of screentime. They had glassy, unblinking eyes, and they had crappy little rubber lips that didn't move in any discernible way when they were emitting noises that were supposed to be speech. Frankly, they're the most unpleasant-looking element of the whole movie, and Jedi is already the most threadbare, economical of the Star Warses, outside of the exemplary battle sequences. But "cheap for Star Wars" is still enough to make it surely the most polished, high-production-value release of 1983, and their generally impressive surroundings and co-stars helped to make the Ewoks look somewhat acceptable in their first appearance.

But now, age the suits by a year, and subject them to the lower-budget cinematography of a television production - and a cinematographer John Korty, who hadn't shot anything in a full decade (he was also the project's director, and had much more recent experience in that role, not that it did much good) - and the results are pretty dire indeed. For something whose solitary function is to make the Ewoks look so adorable and appealing that every child in America would swivel around at the first commercial break and desperately ask their parents to buy them an Ewok doll for Christmas, The Ewok Adventure is shockingly terrible at doing that. As much as possible, Korty keeps the action pipping along in medium and wide shots, the better to suggest that the Ewoks are in some way articulate without actually having to make them so, but sometimes a close-up simply can't be avoided, and that's when you get this:

If something like that ever shows up under your Christmas tree, call a damn exorcist.

The unpleasant, awful Ewoks are one of the major failings in The Ewok Adventure; the others are the story and human characters. AKA "the trifecta". In fact, the story isn't unsalvageably bad, and we'll get there shortly. The humans, though, kind of are. The plot (set, officially, between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, but that certainly doesn't inform anything we see onscreen - particularly the part where the Ewoks start to pick up isolated English* words, absolutely unforgivable bullshit that in no way squares with Jedi on any level) is predominately concerned with a human family that crash-lands on the forest moon of Endor, stranding the parents, Catarine (Fionnula Flanagan) and Jerremitt (Guy Boyd) in one part of the world, and the children, tween-ish Mace (Eric Walker) and little 4-year-old Cindel (Aubree Miller) in another. Luckily for the children, they're quite close to the treetop village of the Ewoks, who find them quite by accident when one Ewok, Deej (Dan Frishman) is on the way home from an unrelated rescue mission of missing Ewok youths. After patching up the humans and feeding them, the Ewoks help the children hunt through the wilds to find their parents, currently the prisoners of a giant creature called a Gorax.

Now, that "after" is doing a lot to imply that The Ewok Adventure gets moving in fairly short order. That's absolutely not the case. Almost half of the 96-minute movie has been frittered away before the rescue party - including, of course, the only Ewok virtually anybody would have a chance of naming, Wicket (Warwick Davis, giving the best performance in the movie by an unaccountable margin), the same one who befriended/will befriend Leia - finally gets around to leaving. Prior to that, it's just a bunch of aimless setpieces poking around the Marin County redwood forests to no particular end, giving us far more time than we could possibly want to get to know Cindel and Mace. And here we learn something important about George Lucas, which we'd learn again 15 years later when Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace came out: he has no fucking clue about children. It is probably not fair to blame either Miller or Walker for being so utterly goddamn terrible in The Ewok Adventure: he had barely any acting career, and she had absolutely none at all (this film and its sequel are her only screen credits). And they're obliged to play Lucas's conception of what kids are like, which is of course an impossible challenge; just look at how badly he tended to get thing when he was trying to depict what adults are like, and presumably he is one of those.

Still, goddamn terrible they both are, with Miller's achingly innocent Adorable Little Girl presence coming off much better, even with the ghastly Phyllis Diller hairdo she was saddled with. Walker gets a worse character and more specific things to do, presumably because he was sufficiently old that "simply be a little kid" wasn't going to fly as a directorial intervention. He goes miles over-the-top in playing sullen and mean, and Korty does him no favors by favoring every other character whenever possible. Or, by just straight-up presenting the kid as a horror movie serial killer.

The biggest shortcoming here, and the one that Lucas would exactly repeat in The Phantom Menace, is misunderstanding what kids want. The idea, plainly, was to have the children here, like lil' Anakin in the later movie, function as surrogates to the kids who are clearly the target audience here. But the writing (Bob Carrau, a first-time writer, was responsible for the script) overshoots, making the kids, especially Cindel, much too childish. Kids like to identify with older, cooler kids; they don't identify with 4-year-olds, and there's no other real point to Cindel except as an audience surrogate (she is our entrΓ©e into the Ewok world, and gets more screentime than her brother).

The protagonists are such drags that it's essentially impossible to care what happens to them, but if you can ignore that, the story has relatively okay bones. No, that's overstating it. It functions, sort of. It is clear that Lucas and Carrau had at some point watched a fantasy adventure and wanted to play around with building one into Star Wars; more than anything, this feels like an attempt to figure out what wouldn't work so Lucas could be sure not to put it into Willow. But the spine of a worthwhile quest narrative is in there, and even if none of the episodes do anything except introduce some new element of Endorian life for us to gawk at and declare to be very cool, thank you very much production designer Joe Johnston (a visual effects art director for the original Star Wars trilogy, and still a few years shy of making his directorial debut with Honey, I Shrunk the Kids). At least some of the time, those new elements are very worth the gawking. At one point, the adventurers run into a tribe of tiny sprites called Wisties, who are achieved using a genuinely cool visual effect that makes them look distinctly not-there in a way appropriate to their shimmering, quick-moving nature. And before we see too much of it, the Gorax is a pretty fine bit of movie monster design. There's also a bear-boar thing that's actively kind of awesome in how terrifyingly violent and menacing it is without ever looking like something that could plausibly be held to exist in any real world.

But The Ewok Adventure ends up looking mostly pedestrian, clearly shot in just a few hundred square yard of forest, with normal animals dropped in as if they were somehow magical - as if a damn ferret looked like a sci-fi creature and not just a normal everyday Earth ferret, and don't get me started on the chicken - and all the magic sucked out as much as possible by the flat lighting and staging, and the Ewok costumes that look like costumes. Given that Star Wars is, at heart, all about having fun diving into new worlds, this blandly familiar aesthetic would probably be enough to torpedo The Ewok Adventure absent any other concern. Of course it has other concerns, though: the unfocused story with no momentum, the unlikable lead characters, and the deadly slow pacing of the first 45 minutes. Including, no less, a long sequence of Ewoks jabbering at each other in their own language while we have no real clue what they're going on about - because the last time bearlike creatures spend minutes and minutes of screentime talking in chirps and grunts without subtitles in a Star Wars TV special, it was an unalloyed good. At least this time, there's a narrator in the form of... Burl fucking Ives? What mob debt did he have to pay off in a hurry, I wonder. Anyway, somehow the warm baritone of Ives provides the running narration for whatever the hell the Ewoks are up to, and the effect is precisely that of watching one of those nature documentaries with a jovial voice ruthlessly anthropomorphising the wild animal behavior. This is not, I presume, the effect they were going for.

It's no fun at all, but it's not terrible. The spirited fantasy adventure vibe works kind of oddly well, given how most of the individual moments that go into establishing it are pretty much terrible. Maybe it's just the promise of a big scary giant hanging around at the end of it, or the fact that even when the things being depicted are baffling or terrible, the Lucasfilm people spend some time making it look decent (never the Ewoks, though. They are irredeemable, and they have a lot of bad names that are impossible to keep track of properly). It is never, ever inspired - even the very worst of the actual Star Wars features are always more inspired than this. It's nothing but a transparent attempt to keep the brand name alive and the marketing spigot open, and it really does not attempt to go above that horribly mediocre bar. And yet, Star Wars can be so much worse than this. I probably shouldn't give The Ewok Adventure points for simply failing to be The Star Wars Holiday Special, but grinding mediocrity is still better than a howl from a soulless abyss.

Reviews in this series
Star Wars (Lucas, 1977)
The Star Wars Holiday Special (Binder, 1978)
The Empire Strikes Back (Kershner, 1980)
Return of the Jedi (Marquand, 1983)
The Ewok Adventure (Korty, 1984)
Ewoks: The Battle for Endor (Wheat & Wheat, 1985)
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 Clone Wars (Filoni, 2008)
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Abrams, 2015)
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Edwards, 2016)
Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Johnson, 2017)
Solo: A Star Wars Story (Howard, 2018)
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (Abrams, 2019)

*Or Galactic Standard, or whatever the EU took to calling it.