Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 24, 2004)
Because both 1999’s The Phantom Menace and 2002’s Attack of the Clones received so many negative reactions, folks tend to forget the moderately lukewarm reception to 1983’s Return of the Jedi. To be sure, many people really liked Jedi and it certainly raked in lots of money; as with predecessors Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, Jedi was its year’s biggest-grossing movie.
However, after two classic flicks, Jedi seemed less scintillating to many fans. Personally, I think it does have its flaws and qualifies as the weakest of the “Original Trilogy”, but Jedi remains too much fun for me to worry a lot about those problems.
Note that because Jedi comes as the last part of a trilogy, my review inevitably will include some spoilers. Honestly, I doubt too many readers won’t already know these movies well, but if you fall into that category, you’ll probably want to skip my synopsis and movie discussion entirely.
Jedi starts not too long after the conclusion of Empire. At that time, the situation left Han Solo (Harrison Ford) frozen in carbonite and a prisoner of gangster Jabba the Hutt. Led by Jedi-wannabe Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), our gang rescues Han from Jabba’s clutches and rejoins the Rebel Alliance’s battle against the Empire.
As part of this, we learn that the Empire toils to build another Death Star, the enormous battle station the Rebels destroyed back in Star Wars. Since the Empire learned at least one lesson in the meantime, as they put a protective force field around the new Death Star. The source of this sits on a moon called Endor. The Rebels need to send a team to knock out the field so that a squadron led by Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) can blow up the new Death Star. Our old pals Han, Luke, Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), and droids C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) assist in this assault.
Essentially the rest of Jedi follows three paths. Due to his connection to Empire nasty Darth Vader (David Prowse, voiced by James Earl Jones), Luke eventually realizes that his presence acts as an impediment to the team. He gives himself up to lead to a final confrontation with Vader and the Emperor (Ian McDiarmid) in which Luke intends to redeem Darth.
Back on Endor, the Rebels see what obstacles they face and acquire some unlikely allies via the moon’s native population, the little, fuzzy, cute and cuddly Ewoks. After some initial tension, the two sides make friends and find that the primitive Ewoks help with their battle against the Empire. As Han and company struggle to disable the force field, Lando leads the Rebel troupe to attack and destroy the Death Star.
I think the complaints about Jedi essentially fall into two categories: “déjà vu” and “teddy bears”. By the release of Jedi, the Star Wars series was well established as an enormously profitable franchise. This included every kind of merchandise one could imagine, so when Jedi revealed the adorable Ewoks, cynics immediately pounced on George Lucas as they believed he created those characters largely to move product.
Could be, but I think the Ewoks inspire much more malice than they merit. Lucas originally planned to ally the Rebels with Wookiees, but that became impractical due to our understanding of Chewbacca. Whatever species the Rebels met needed to be very primitive and low-tech, but we already knew Chewie as a technologically savvy dude, so that couldn’t work. Did the species encountered by the Rebels need to be a shorter, cuter take on the Wookiees? Probably not, but I don’t see this as a significant flaw, though the flick does indulge in too many cutesy moments.
As for the “déjà vu” element, that stems from the feeling that Jedi did little more than reprise the better parts of the first two parts of the “Original Trilogy”. After all, the film’s climax essentially reworks the endings from both of the earlier movies along with new elements via the Han/Leia/Ewok rebellion. This sense of repetition does taint the film slightly, as it makes Jedi seem a bit less creative.
However, the packaging of the conclusion works awfully well. Jedi cuts from one scenario to another smoothly in a way that helps stoke the excitement levels. The climactic confrontation with Luke, the Emperor and Vader works particularly well. Yeah, we already saw Luke vs. Darth in Empire, but the third participant deepens matters, and this sequence becomes especially dramatic.
The other two parts appear less dynamic, and the attack on the Death Star particularly suffers from “second stringer syndrome”. Lando is the sequence’s best-known participant, and he never became more of a secondary character; the others involved in that sequence don’t even become that important and remain tertiary. The assault loses something since it doesn’t involve any of our primary participants, but that doesn’t stop it from becoming exciting and dynamic.
Really, the sense of fun is what keeps Jedi going. Of all the three flicks in the Original Trilogy, it definitely stresses action the most heavily. This comes at the expense of character and story development, as Jedi displays the cartooniest exploration of its story. This comes as a particular disappointment after the relative depth of Empire, and it fares poorly even in comparison to the character delineation of Star Wars. Given the issues that affect the main personalities, the way it gives their growth the short shrift seems bothersome.
Nonetheless, I still really enjoy Return of the Jedi. It’s the silliest, thinnest and most superficial of the “Original Trilogy” but it’s also probably the one that offers the most consistent fun. Perhaps it seems like a disappointment when compared with the superior flicks that preceded it, but Jedi is still an exciting, dynamic and very entertaining flick.
Note that this DVD of Return of the Jedi presents an updated version of the flick. Many of the changes came with the 1997 “Special Edition” but Lucas continues to tinker with the movie, so some additional alterations appear here.
If you want a detailed examination of the changes, throw a stick anywhere on the Internet and you’ll find 100. I won’t get into that, as instead I’d prefer to provide my general impressions of the changes. Jedi falls between Star Wars and Empire as far as its degree of alterations. The first flick includes the most differences when compared to its original version, while Empire’s changes remain fairly modest.
Jedi represents both the good and the bad of these alterations. On the negative side, we find the absurd “Jedi Rocks” song during the first act. Set at Jabba’s Palace, this replaces the “Lapti Nek” musical number that originally appeared in the flick. That one wasn’t great, but “Jedi Rocks” is ridiculously bad. In fact, it’s the single worst element to appear in the Original Trilogy and should embarrass all involved. I can’t say I’m wild that this edition’s ending replaces Sebastian Shaw as the Anakin ghost with Hayden Christensen, but it doesn’t annoy me too badly.
Some of the alterations advance the film, however. For example, the visual effects get a generally nice touch-up, with the biggest improvement seen during the Rancor scene in Jabba’s Palace. That segment’s rear projection effects never worked well, and they appear substantially more convincing here.
Many others disagree, but I definitely prefer the DVD’s ending song to the old Ewok “Yub Yub” number from the original movie. Although I never developed a real dislike for the Ewoks, I did always hate that damned tune, and the newer one gives the film a more melancholy conclusion. It’s not a great number but it certainly betters “Yub Yub”.
Obviously, I’d prefer this version of Jedi without “Jedi Rocks”, but that track doesn’t ruin the movie or even harm it too badly. After all, the song it replaces wasn’t anything special. I like enough of the alterations to mean that I view the updated edition of Jedi in a positive light.