On Friday, December 16th, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story hits theatres. This will be the first big budget Star Wars spin-off film as well as the first in what appears to be a series of new canon Star Wars spin-offs in the “A Star Wars Story” series. However, Rogue One is far from our first Star Wars spin-off story. The most popular prior to 2016 would most likely be the 2008 animated feature Star Wars: The Clone Wars, which garnered enough attention to warrant six whole seasons of the TV show afterwards until it was cancelled due to the Disney buyout and them wanting to make their own show (Rebels is quite good FYI). Additionally, we’ve also got the original spin-off, the horrible step child that no one wants to talk about: The Star Wars Holiday Special. In between the two of those, we have a pair of nostalgia based Ewok TV movies that came after Return of the Jedi, reuniting the audience with the fan favorite Ewoks of the Forest Moon of Endor.
After the release of Return of the Jedi in 1983 which concluded the original Star Wars trilogy, George Lucas decided to make more films set in the universe. He picked the cuddly little teddy bear like creatures from the final film, the Ewoks, who’d helped defeat the Empire and stole the audiences hearts at the same time. Lucas was so embarrassed by the Holiday Special that that he made sure he maintained complete creative control over the Ewok movies. Not that it made much of a difference; it’s not as if they fared much better among fans after all, and usually if one thinks highly of them it’s because of their cheese factor and childhood nostalgia.
The first film, Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure, was released in 1984 to a decent amount of attention. The story follows two human children, Cindel (Aubree Miller who is only known for her roles in both Ewok movies) and her older brother Mace (Eric Walker) as they search for their parents who have been captured by a giant monster, the Gorax, after they all crash landed on the Forest Moon of Endor. With the help, at first unwarranted, of the Ewoks, Cindel and Mace go on a long trek with an Ewok caravan to rescue their parents. Along the way, we bump into some of the Ewoks seen from Return of the Jedi such as the village shaman Logray (Bobby Bell), Widdle (Tony Cox), and the most famous Ewok at all, Wicket (Warwick Davis), who previously won over the audience as the little critter who befriended Princess Leia after she was shot down off her speeder by Stormtroopers.
Caravan of Courage has its moments of cheese and many moments of considerable quality by conventional ‘good movie’ standards, but overall it’s a wonderful little flick. It feels a lot more like a straight fantasy film compared to the more sci-fi-tinged fantasy adventures of the rest of the franchise, but it definitely works in it’s favor. The best thing about Caravan of Courage is its world building. It is already rooted within the Star Wars universe, but it adds so much more just by fleshing the Ewoks, their homeland and their society. With the moon, we get to see lots of new creatures that live there, such as the giant Gorax, a giant spider, a Temptor (a creature with a tongue like a cute animal that lures its victims closer to its monstrous mouth), the vicious boar-wolves, and even the cute fairy like Wisties. Along with that, we see more of the Ewoks and their family units and shamans and everything. We see how they live within their little huts and that they are genuinely gentle and nice creatures, though not above protecting their own when needed, like seen in Return of the Jedi.
Another wonderful aspect about this film is the relationship between Cindel and Wicket. They hit it off almost immediately, being the youngest child of their respective races as well as being a lot more fun and carefree. Seeing the two of them become friends despite the obvious language barrier is incredibly sweet and pure and reminds us that sometimes children are better at being nicer and kinder than us adults. Their friendship also gives us an adorable glimpse into Cindel teaching Wicket Basic (what the English language is called in the Star Wars universe), which unfortunately creates my least favorite part about the film’s sequel.
With all this, I can say without hesitation, Caravan of Courage is a wonderful addition to the now Legends canon, and not within the series of the films and shows created post-Disney buyout. It’s a wonderful tale of friendship and overcoming barriers to form alliances with the least likely of creatures. It has wonderful creatures, set pieces, and tales of one of the coolest planets and creatures we’ve seen so far in Star Wars live action. It even has the wonderful Burl Ives, narrator and overall beautiful voice in Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, lending his voice talents to proceedings. It may be much more of a kids movie, but arguably, so was A New Hope. It’s just a shame that the same praise can’t be given for its follow-up, Ewoks: The Battle for Endor.
Ewoks: The Battle for Endor is a direct sequel to the first Caravan of Courage, once again taking place on Endor, with Cindel and her family just about finished fixing their Star Cruiser with plans for imminent take off. Cindel and Wicket, who now speaks Basic in full sentences and is a little freaky, are spending their last moments together running around talking about how she will come back to Endor and visit one day. Not long into the movie a band of reptilian humanoid marauders from Sanyassan IV, led by Terak (Carel Stuycken), and the witch Charal, a Nightsister from Dathomir, played by Siân Phillips, come across the Ewok village and Cindel’s star cruiser. Terak reveals he is on some sort of quest to gain the magical power from the power cell found in their crafts. In the battle all of Cindel’s family dies and her and the Ewoks are all kidnapped by the Sanyassans. Cindel and Wicket escape and run off on their own and goofy hijinks and epic fights ensue.
Before going into The Battle for Endor, it is imperative that you see Caravan of Courage first, or else you might find yourself struggling to play catch up. For instance, here Wicket speaks Basic very very well; it’s still broken sentences, but he can speak and understand it fully. Without seeing the first film it would be really confusing as to how an Ewok could do this. Also, the “emotional impact” of Cindel’s family dying would be nothing without the first film. I use quotation marks as every death scene is acted very poorly, even from the father who was replaced by the fantastic Paul Gleeson – with perhaps the worst performance I’ve seen from him – rendering the death scenes near emotionless. Not to mention, although she plays a wonderful Cindel, Aubree Miller is also horrible in these scenes, as she does not show much emotion towards her family dying.
The Battle for Endor also gives us a movie where horrible tragic things happen to the Ewoks and Cindel’s family, but instead of continuing to portray that, half the movie is a fun, adventurous hijinks involving a giant Condor Dragon wandering through the woods, a castle siege and epic woodland battle, and the fast walking and talking critter known as Teek. This further ruins the emotional impact of such a tragic beginning to the story. On top of that, we have an even more fantasty-esque story than the first, further pushing the film into territory that just doesn’t feel right for a Star Wars film, especially when it’s poorly done. The Nightsisters have been explored more recently as mystical force wielding witches, but in this movie Charal is portrayed much more as a traditional witch with her costume and magic ring that she can shape-shift with.
There are some decent parts to the movie, however, starting with Teek. Teek comes from a race of small humanoid ratlike creatures known as Teek that live on Endor, and they can run incredibly fast. Teek is fun and mischievous and kind-hearted as we find out when he comes across the basically orphaned Cindel and Wicket and leads them to a house in the forest so they can get warm and eat. However, that house belongs to another human who has been stranded on Endor and he does not want any visitors. Noa (Wilford Brimley) perfectly personifies the trope of the older hermit in the woods who hates everyone, but eventually warms to the children who need his help. After, at first, kicking the kids out of his house, Noa eventually lets them come in and stay with him and grows to care for them a lot. It’s an adorable and sweet relationship.
The film as a whole is a jumbled mess of nice things and sequences, which when patched together, make this an uneven outing. The acting by most people is bad, the fantasy vibe doesn’t work, and overall, is just hard to invest in. There’s still some wonderful creatures in it, though not as many as its predecessor, and the final battle is pretty big and extravagant. It’s one of those movies where if you really enjoyed the first film and just have to have more, go and watch it, but if not, then you are better off leaving it be.
As a whole, the Ewok films do create a fun fantasy double feature for Star Wars fans. They were both received well at the Emmy’s, with Caravan of Courage winning an Emmy for Outstanding Special Visual Effect and nominated for Outstanding Children’s Program. The Battle for Endor would win the Emmy for Outstanding Special Visual Effects and nominations for Outstanding Children’s Program and Outstanding Sound Mixing for a Miniseries or a Special. The films came with a lot of spin-off material, garnering a two season animated TV show titled Star Wars: Ewoks (and it’s partner Star Wars: Droids), as well as multiple book adaptions for each movie.
The Ewok films also showed the very last instances of George Lucas’ visual effects company Industrial Light & Magic, or ILM, utilizing stop motion animation. The stop motion effects in these films are also quite gorgeous to say the least, and clearly inspired by the late, great Ray Harryhausen. Another great technique ILM used was latent image matte painting, a technique used in 2001: A Space Odyssey where filming a part of the lens is blocked so that they can add a painting to the background and, in the case of Caravan of Courage, got wonderful results of stunning landscape shots.
As a Star Wars fan, these films are worth checking out, especially Caravan of Courage. They may not be the best examples of what the franchise has to offer, but they are fun additions to the Legends legacy and show a wonderful use of practical effects not seen in Lucas’ prequel trilogy. After that, I would also suggest watching the short Star Wars Ewok Advetnures Making Of documentary on Caravan of Courage made by both Eric Walker (Mace in the films) and Warwick Davis (Wicket) as Lucas felt that it would be fun and educational to give some of the kids a camera to shoot with during down time when making the first film. It’s a fun and goofy little look behind the scenes at an entertaining flick. The Ewok films have made a huge impact on people who grew up with them, but not as much on the younger audiences nowadays, and I hope that with the release of Rogue One people will go out looking for more spin-off material and find enjoyment in them.