Walking Hairbrushes: “The Ewok Adventures” Were The Original “Star Wars” Spin-Offs

So I know we’re all very excited for J.J. Abrams’ latest “Star Wars” entry, blanketing the cinemas of this great nation on Thursday evening, the 17th, at 7 p.m. Creatively titled “The Force Awakens” (I’m kidding, that title is horrible), the thing cost (conservatively) $200 million (plus maybe $100 million more in marketing), and Disney shareholders would be disappointed if it pulled in anything less than $1.5 billion worldwide. But all sensible parties (i.e. people who aren’t camping outside theaters right now) are trying their darnedest to temper expectations, lest their souls be crushed again. And again. And again. Let’s take a moment now to reflect on some early “Star Wars” spin-off/sequel installments, “The Ewok Adventures.” These are films that benefit mightily from moderate expectations, and boast significantly superior special effects to George Lucas’s subsequent prequel trilogy. Maybe they’re not technically better, but the effects are considerably fuller of creativity and tactile life than any of the joyless pixellated dreck vomited out in 1999, 2002, or 2005 (except for the Acklay, Reek, and Nexu in that Geonosis coliseum fight scene during “Attack of the Clones,” feel me?).

In 1984, Lucasfilm rolled out the first post-Original Trilogy theatrical movie, “Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure” (later re-titled “Star Wars – Ewok Adventures: Caravan of Courage”). Granted, the flick was initially televised in the States on November 25th of that year, but was deemed worthy of international theatrical roll-outs come Christmastime. Exactly 364 days later, it was followed by a straight-to-TV sequel, the superior “Ewoks: The Battle For Endor.” “Endor” was also released internationally during the spring of ’86. So these are, technically, theatrical “Star Wars” feature films. I’m telling you, this stuff was catnip to five year-olds. I should know. This critic wore out the VHS tapes of both fine “Ewok” features in his youth, they functioned as my gateway drug into the broader “Star Wars” universe.

So, as of Friday, there will have been 10, NOT seven, theatrical “Star Wars” features. They are, in the stories’ chronological order (named the way they now appear on home video):

“Star Wars – Episode I: The Phantom Menace” (1999)
“Star Wars – Episode II: Attack of the Clones” (2002)
“Star Wars: The Clone Wars” (2008)
“Star Wars – Episode III: Revenge of the Sith” (2005)
“Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope” (1977)
“Star Wars – Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back” (1980)
“Star Wars – Ewok Adventures: Caravan of Courage” (1984)
“Star Wars – Ewok Adventures: The Battle for Endor” (1985)
“Star Wars – Episode VI: Return of the Jedi” (1983)
“Star Wars – Episode VII: The Force Awakens” (2015)

Anyway, let’s get into it, shall we?

“Star Wars – Ewok Adventures: Caravan of Courage” (TV Air Date: November 25, 1984)

The first Ewok feature is simultaneously the more narratively simple and clunky of the two. The plot: Two kids, cranky big brother Mace Towani (Eric Walker) and adorably weepy moppet Cindel Towani (Aubree Miller) are stranded on the Forest Moon of Endor with their folks (Fionnula Flanagan and Guy Boyd), Galactic Rebellion fighters. Those folks promptly get abducted by what looks like a Bull-Hog Rob Zombie (and also a kind of pre-cursor to Pig Val Kilmer in “Willow”), the Gorax, a 50-foot tall giant. After some early relationship hiccups, the Ewok community, led by child-Ewok Wicket (Warwick Davis, the star Ewok from “Return of the Jedi”), rallies behind the Towanis’ cause and embarks upon an epic quest to rescue their parents from the clutches of said Gorax — replete with ponies carrying cumbersome thatched hut-tents. Pretty basic, right? BUT the Ewoks mostly speak in un-subtitled Ewokese, and basic story elements are so haphazardly strung together that they have to be thoroughly explained by our Special Guest Narrator, Christmas’s Burl Ives.

It’s more Tolkien-core than “Flash Gordon”-core from here on out, from the adorable-little-fictive-creatures element (here a band of mostly-interchangeable Ewoks subs in for the band of mostly-interchangeable-dwarves in “The Hobbit”); some of said fictive creatures dying noble deaths; to the TWO Gandalf-esque mystic sages, the many forest battles; small magical items (the One Ring in Tolkien’s hobbit movies, the compass-arrowhead in “Caravan”); to the scene where one of our protagonists gets trapped under water (a la Frodo in “The Two Towers”); even a fucking Shelob-esque giant spider (the shoddiest of the flick’s special effects, a giant marionette puppet with a hand-operated mouth) and to of course a stirring cave-setting quest conclusion featuring a massive, intimidating carnivore (the Smaug confrontation on The Lonely Mountain in “The Hobbit,” the Gorax confrontation here); a giant cave beast plummeting down an abysmal cave chasm (the Balrog in “The Fellowship of the Ring,” the Gorax here). And this shit is kind of violent for what’s ostensibly a kids’ film! The Gorax, after showing too much resilience the first time it gets thrown down that chasm, is struck by Mace with an AX TO THE FACE, and then falls down the chasm a second, fatal time. This marks one of two key contributions by the bratty Mace to the movie. The other comes earlier, when he’s still ambivalent about the Ewoks. He calls them “walking hairbrushes,” when obviously they’re just walking teddy bears. But the reference is so nonsensical that it will LINGER IN YOUR BRAIN FOREVER, as it did mine.

This thing really gets a lot of mileage out of its $3 million budget (probably somewhere in the $10 million range in contemporary dollars), and most of that money clearly was staked in special effects. Special Guest Narrator Burl Ives is the most convincingly emotive performer in the entire enterprise, outside of maybe Warwick Davis (Wicket). On her first viewing of “Caravan of Courage,” Filmcore contributing writer Emily Schick noted with not-a-little-sarcasm that casting director Victoria Trostle “did a great job.” She also noted, sans sarcasm, that Mace had “an unfortunate face for a child.” ILM really packed a lot of visual punch into this thing. We get some solid matte shots and miniature work. The Gorax character is rendered via two techniques. For the most part, it’s a costumed actor shot in high speed to look extra-heavy, wearing a great character make-up from Harold Weed here). In two wide shots (as it plummets to down that chasm), it’s a an articulated puppet, rendered in great stop-motion by Phil Tippet — the man responsible for animating the Imperial Walkers and Tauntauns in “The Empire Strikes Back.” Back in the ’80s, Tippet normally applied his “go-motion” animation technique to move his model creatures, the primary distinction being that go-motion used motion blur to evoke realism in fast movements. The Ewok movies lacked the budgets or time to allow for go-motion, however, so the movement of these flicks’ monsters was entirely in focus. Tippet also busts out my favorite creature in the flick early on, a four-legged stop motion boar-wolf. There’s some glorious low-angle Ewok POV coverage of the boar-wolf snarling and barking, upper lip curled, as our heroic alien teddy bears broad at him with spears. Ultimately, it takes a poison-tipped dart from Wicket to fell the mighty beast. The profile coverage of the boar-wolf carcass upon, its initial cessation, is pretty great: tongue extended between half-opened, steaming jaws. Both “Ewok” movies worked as a testing ground for some ILM to refine some of their practical visual effects techniques. Specifically, they stepped up their already-on-point matte painting game here, developing a technique called latent image matte painting that would allow for loss-less compositing on film.

And ladies, if the alien critters with fangs and pincers don’t hit the sweet spot, prepare to be absolutely devastated by snuggling nuclear Ewok families cooing “Acha” to each other as they fawn over their doe-eyed babies or Wicket (who’s just an Ewok-kid himself, it turns out).

The only time the budget is really felt, actually, is during the movie’s happy ending, as the reunited Towani family parties with the Ewoks. This is such a direct echo of the Endor celebration scene in “Return of the Jedi” that it is impossible to ignore Lucasfilm’s frugality here. The entire scene is covered just in medium shots or close-ups. This choice is clearly a reflection of a few cost-effective measures by EP/co-writer George Lucas and director John Korty:
1. They couldn’t afford to rent wide-enough lenses for establishing shots.
2. They didn’t want to make time during the shooting schedule to capture said shots.
3. They only felt like casting a handful of extras as background Ewoks, thus saving some coin on catering, costuming and day-player rates.
4. They couldn’t afford any more matte paintings.

Objective Star Rating: ** 1/2 stars (out of ****)
Fanboy Star Rating: *** 1/2 stars

“Star Wars – Ewok Adventures: The Battle For Endor” (Air Date: November 24, 1985 — and yeah, that link IS THE WHOLE MOVIE)

The quality and success of “Caravan of Courage” beget this quickie-sequel, which is, improbably, a notable improvement over its predecessor. This time, more care was paid to casting talented adult actors, yielding stylized-but-effective performances from Wilford Brimley, Carel Struycken, Sian Phillips, and THE ASSISTANT PRINCIPAL FROM “THE BREAKFAST CLUB.” “The Battle for Endor” takes place some 6 months after the events of the first movie. This is very much the “Empire Strikes Back” to “Caravan of Courage”‘s “New Hope” — a darker, faster movie, less interested in Ewok world-building than in getting to the meat of the story. We’re barely five minutes into the proceedings when Cindel’s whole family gets wiped out by a race of Skeletor-ape creatures, the Sanyassan Marauders. They are fronted by the remorseless Terak (Struycken) and his right-hand sorceress, the human (humanoid?) Charal (Phillips). BAM. A quick note on Cindel’s family — the first film’s Jeremitt Towani (the forgettable Guy Boyd) has here been replaced by the immortal Paul Gleason (that’s Assistant Principal Dick Vernon to you), and even though he’s in the movie for a nanosecond, his heroic self-sacrifice to save his daughter creates a poignance that I doubt Boyd’s limited range would have been able to evoke. Filmcore contributing writer Emily Schick was quick to point out that, during the opening credits, Wicket and Cindel “run like idiots” through a colorful Endor field and a green-ass forest. She is not wrong. The Sanyassan’s then destroy the Ewok village and abduct all of the Ewoks. Happily, there is a tiny escape-sized slot in the bottom of the skeleton-wagon carting Cindel and Wicket along, so our heroes run back to seek shelter in the forest, away from the Marauders. They find a small hut in a clearing and settle there. Only to find that it belongs to pseudo-Space Hobo Wilford Brimley (his character is annoying named Noa without the “h,” because the future?) and his little buddy, the speed-demon hyena-monkey-fusion Teek (Niki Botelho) — who, fittingly, is a tweak.

After slowly melting Brimley’s ornery facade, Cindel and Wicket convince their new friends to abet them in their rescue of the other Ewoks. After many forest battles, castle battles, and cave battles, Terak and Brimley face off for a climactic walking stick-vs.-sword joust, generally covered in cool Steadicam/handheld shots and some panning stuff. It’s also, helpfully, not too long, and thus doesn’t overstay its welcome. Terak eventually gets the “Hobbit” troll-in-sunlight treatment courtesy of “the power,” a magical red amulet triggered into action by a rock Wicket throws at it, mutating into a frozen statue. Wait why do Cindel and Diabeetus abandon Teek on Endor? Teek was Diabeetus’s homie! I take umbrage with that poorly-devised character motivation.

One of the sequel’s best improvements, aside from better pacing, clearer plotting, and the casting of Diabeetus in a major role, is writer-directors Ken and Jim Wheat and writer-executive producer George Lucas’s decision to LET WICKET SPEAK (somewhat choppy) ENGLISH. If they’re not going to subtitle the Ewokese, it’s the least they can do. This really, really helps move the plot along.

ILM’s Primetime Emmy Award-winning special effects (spearheaded by VFX supervisor Michael J. McAlister) reached another level here (relative to television, that is). It feels like the budget has been boosted a bit (although Filmcore cannot confirm the price tag for this baby at present). Phil Tippett by this point was too cool to work on these little “Ewok” movies anymore, so here he is replaced by stop-motion animator Tom St. Amand. The creature quality doesn’t suffer in the slightest. The innovative character make-ups actually improve, courtesy of Karen Bradley and Kevin Brennan. We get a lot more of them, first of all, than we do in “Caravan:” the Sanyassan’s have a cool, creepy look, with Frankenstein’s monster-esque hollow cheekbones, deep-set zombie eyes, “Planet of the Apes”-style noses, and KISS platform shoes. We get skeleton-cage-wagons pulled by FUCKING GIANT STOP-MOTION-ANIMATED GLURGGS THAT LOOK EXACTLY LIKE GIANT DEWBACK LIZARDS BUT APPARENTLY ARE DIFFERENT. The movie’s other sick stop-motion contribution is a fucking giant winged cave bat/dragon/pterodactyl thing that kind of looks like a way better version of Rodan and leads us to a sweet hang-glider chase scene that liberally borrows from that pterodactyl-Raquel Welch abduction scene in “10,000 Years B.C.”

Instead of borrowing its entire plot from Tolkien, we get a lighter sprinkling of ol’ John Ronald Reuel, some “Planet of the Apes,” a lot of “Star Trek,” some “The Wizard of Oz,” some Ray Harryhausen, a little David Eddings, some Morticia Addams, AND some classic Disney with the whole parents-dying-and-turning-our-hero-kid-into-an-orphan plot. Si├ón Phillips’s shapeshifting witch Charal was an obvious inspiration for Anjelica Huston’s Grand High Witch in “The Witches” five years later.

Objective Star Rating: *** stars (out of ****)
Fanboy Star Rating: **** stars

In conclusion, then, I think between these live-action movies and a 35-episode animated TV series, it’s safe to say that George Lucas has gotten the whole Ewok thing out of his system. With so many creature and character spin-off “Star Wars” movies purportedly in development, I think it’s high time we got an Admiral Ackbar spin-off. A story focused on the development and marketing of his signature cereal, perhaps.

While we’re doling out full links to old “Star Wars” TV specials, here for your viewing pleasure is the COMPLETE “Star Wars Holiday Special” (INCLUDING the Boba Fett animated short).

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