"The Empire Strikes Back is the darkest Star Wars film", they say; "the Rebellion loses everything, Luke has an existential crisis, Han is gone". Or, "Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith is the darkest Star Wars", the say; "the whole galaxy is overrun by evil, the very flesh is burned off of Anakin's body, Amidala dies, we watch all the Jedi as they're indiscriminately slaughtered". Or, "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the darkest Star Wars", they say; "it's the one to finally put the war into Star Wars, with all the sacrifice and pointless death and violence that entails". I am confused how they can keep being so wrong. I admit, those are three dark films, all right, by the standard of upbeat popcorn movies. You know what's darker? A fifteen-year-old boy and his mother burning to death in the opening six minutes of a movie and his father being killed by a witch and her leather-skinned monsters less than ten minutes later, leaving behind a six-year-old orphan girl, who we'll later see to be suffering from post-traumatic stress, to be kidnapped by the same monsters. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Ewoks: The Battle for Endor, a TV movie for children.

Notwithstanding its aggressively grim touches - and the swift death of all of poor little Cindel's (Aubree Miller) living relatives is by no means the last time that The Battle for Endor idly drops in something just horrible as though it weren't no thing, even if it's the most shocking - this at least has the decency to be considerably better than The Ewok Adventure, its immediate predecessor. You would not necessarily know that right away. In fact, if you were me, you would right away be consumed with the absolute certainty that The Battle for Endor was the shittiest shit that was ever shat; aye, even if you had already had the knowledge of Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones. I won't say that the opening scene is the film's worst, but it does contain everything that is going to be hardest to tolerate across the next 94 minutes: strained, upbeat comedy; the very worst tendencies in Peter Bernstein's score (which is never as successful a John Williams pastiche here as it was in The Ewok Adventure), which swings from generally acceptable adventure movie boilerplate (cribbing overtly from "Night on Bald Mountain") at its best to this godawful happy jangly tosh, addle-headed summery elevator music that would be better suited to a Eurosmut film or a commercial about adult diapers than an sci-fi fantasy. What we have is Cindel the human and Wicket the Ewok (Warwick Davis), romping through the forest, eating berries, talking about life - aye indeed, talking about life, because in his infinite wisdom, George Lucas decided that Wicket was fluent in English now, and no matter how many midichlorians and Jar Jars and holograms of dead younglings and whatever were hiding in the future, I am pretty certain that this is the most upsetting thing that he ever decided to squash into the Star Wars universe.

On the other hand, The Battle for Endor has all but given up any pretense of existing in the Star Wars universe, so I'm probably overreacting. It's basically gone completely over to fantasy at this point, with a witch that can transform into a crow and a medieval-style castle on a bluff, complete with dangerous moat, and all that. Most of the elements of Willow that Lucas hadn't finished modeling in The Ewok Adventure, he took care of here, most transparently a sorceress dressed in sleek blacks screaming "FIND ME THAT CHILD". What in all of God's creation this has to do with Return of the Jedi, I could not say.

In truth, I am not being completely fair. The Battle for Endor isn't particularly good, but it is a considerable improvement over The Ewok Adventure, and for quite a good handful of reasons. There's an actual plot with actual conflict this time, instead of half a move of uninterrupted place-setting followed by half of a movie of totally disconnected episodes. And because there's actual conflict, there's actual action - perplexingly bleak action at the beginning, as I mentioned, with Cindel's family and several Ewoks being butchered by the reptilian Marauders, under the command of Terak (Carel Struycken), who looks sort of like if the Gill Man from Creature from the Black Lagoon, only forest-themed instead of Amazon River-themed. But action nevertheless, and some of it is even kind of decent. It's quite obvious that more money went into The Battle for Endor than The Ewok Adventure, with generally better special effects and more special effects throughout, as well as a lot more extras to flesh out the fighting scenes that never quite rise up to the level of a battle for all of Endor, but it'll do in a pinch when the target audience is 1985 preteens.

Now, the heroes think that the plot is to escape from the Marauders and figure out some way to free the remaining Ewoks from the lizard-men's castle, traipsing through woods and deserts and mountains to get there (this film represents a revolutionary moment in the franchise: it is the first movie to present a world with more than one biome. A baton so far only picked up by Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace, sadly). But the villains, Terak and his apparently-human witch lieutenant Charal (Siân Phillips), know that the plot is to capture Cindel, since her now-late father (Paul Gleason) had some power cells that he was using to fix up the family's busted spaceship, and the Marauders want to use it for vaguely-disclosed nefarious reasons, possibly involving their own busted spaceship. They assume, for whatever reason, that Cindel will have some idea about unlocking its potential. So that gives us two different vectors of narrative action, and it's two more than The Ewok Adventure had, so kudos to all involved. The film was written and directed (après a Lucas story) by the Brothers Wheat, Jim and Ken, whose other great contribution to the "humans trapped on a hostile alien planet" genre was the first draft of Pitch Black, a much better film than this one; but they have a reasonable handle on keeping this all moving with some deliberate speed, while drawing a much better performance out of Miller than she gave in the last movie.

Where The Battle for Endor really outstrips its predecessor, though, is in the form of the curmudgeonly human survivalist (and owner of yet another busted spaceship) that Cindel and Wicket meet on their travels. Not that Noa, for that is the survivalist's name, is a particularly good character; in sober fact, he actually kind of sucks. He's just your routine "Heidi's grandfather" type, the gruff child-hater who takes all of about thirty seconds to reveal his kindly Santa Claus side, but the important thing about him is that he's played by Wilford Brimley, and that one casting choice alone makes the whole character and the movie containing him a tiny bit more fascinating. Brimley has many charms as an actor, but surely not least among them is that he can make grandfatherly warmth seem curt and violent, and violence seem grandfatherly. He is absolutely not someone inclined towards the sweet-natured saccharine bullshit that the film apparently has in mind for the character, and even while there's not any implication, after his second scene, that he's anything but kind-hearted, this is communicated entirely through Brimley-esque barks and terseness. He's also frankly just a damn good actor, able to redeem the hokey nonsense of the script, through what magic I cannot say. But not even Alec Guinness in Star Wars did so much to overcome such dubious material. Brimley can make the lightweight domestic comedy of his interactions with his housemate, a little unspeaking gerbil-monkey thing called Teek (Niki Botelho), play with actual human feelings of familiarity and companionable fellow-feeling (Teek, by the way, is such a transparent "design a new toy" creation that it makes me want to eat sandpaper. Stupid little cute monkey with its cute little teeny tiny hands). He can deliver the line "Oh, look here, some kinda... some kinda little muffins. You have some?" and make it sound like it's not the dumbest thing a person could possibly say (and in a Star Wars context, no less! Such a hilariously prosaic word and concept for this space opera world, "muffins". That's a Star Wars Holiday Special-level boner). It's genuinely impressive how kind of almost interesting Brimley makes all of this, simply by playing the Wilford Brimley Character and remaining apparently oblivious throughout the entirety of the film that he's meant to be on an alien moon filled with warrior teddy bears and not in, say, rural Maine.

Mind you, Brimley does not so much salvage the movie, as throw into relief everything else about it that does not work. Because it does not work, of course. It's bland in the way that virtually all of the kid-targeted fantasy of the 1980s was bland, with Phillips unable to make much more of her character than the usual "bad guys wear black (and are overtly sexualised)" tropes, and the miles of indistinct, rubbery-looking alien Marauders make essentially no impact at all. Other than the Ewoks themselves, the creatures look entirely lifeless (as if Teek wasn't already annoying enough, its bright white fur tends to leave it feeling over-exposed & thus the foam rubber of its face - something which cinema lighting usually has to carefully account for - looks completely artificial). But the Ewoks, now, the Ewoks are okay. Or at least Wicket is, and no other Ewok is prominently featured. His mouth moves now, his eyes move (but not blink), and he is actually to some degree capable of emotional expressions.

It's a trivial addition to the Star Wars universe, no doubt about it, not even particularly inspired as children's cinema. And yet I find myself walking away from it with no feelings of ill-will in my heart. We know what bad Star Wars looks like, and this isn't it. It's pointless brand-extension, but it's not bad. It's not surprising nor is it a crime against the medium that it has been mostly forgotten - it came out right when the first wave of Star Wars fandom was breaking, leading to the only significant stretch of time (a decade or so) since 1977 during which most people didn't particularly care much about Star Wars one way or the other, and resolutely forgetting that the Ewok movies exist was part of that. I'm not going to argue that it deserves to be re-discovered; but it is better than two of the prequels, for whatever that's worth.

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)