This is the 17th post in a daily series. Read about it here and see the list of previous posts here. A new post about “Star Wars” will be posted every day for 40 days leading up to the franchise’s 40th birthday on May 25th.
As I mentioned yesterday, most fans place the original “Star Wars” trilogy above the prequel trilogy in terms of story, characters, and well, everything. That extends to the individual movies, too: these same fans might not agree on which of the three original movies is best, but they’d place any one of the original trilogy movies over any of the movies from the prequel trilogy.
Fair enough. That’s true of my rankings, too.
But for the fans who lambast “The Phantom Menace” and Jar Jar for pandering to children, I’ve got some history for you to consider.
Yes, Jar Jar was designed for kids in mind. Yes, the movie was full of weird aliens that made for better toys than characters. Yes, the plot seemed less developed than the world in which it was set. But this was George Lucas, and we should not have been surprised in the least. He had already done this before.
We sort of allowed this to happen. Our beloved “Return of the Jedi” — and thus, our precious original trilogy — was a Trojan horse.
In 2010, Gary Kurtz confirmed what many of us had suspected for a while: Lucas had prioritized toys over storytelling. Kurtz was the producer for “Star Wars” and “The Empire Strikes Back,” but left the franchise before the third movie was made. In an interview with The Los Angeles Times, he explained:
I could see where things were headed… The toy business began to drive the [Lucasfilm] empire. It’s a shame. They make three times as much on toys as they do on films. It’s natural to make decisions that protect the toy business, but that’s not the best thing for making quality films… The first film and ‘Empire’ were about story and character, but I could see that George’s priorities were changing.
This helps explain why the Jabba sequence at the beginning of “Return of the Jedi” was so long and involved. Salacious Crumb, The Gamorrean guards, and Bib Fortuna were all great examples of Lucas’ ability to build a world, but they did nothing to advance the overall story. They made great toys, though.
Kurtz had wanted to end “Return of the Jedi” to end on a somber, darker note. The movie, as it was released, showed the heroes celebrating with the Ewoks after the Empire had been defeated. Kurtz, though, had planned to kill off Han Solo in a raid on an Imperial base. Leia would struggle with her new role as queen, and Luke would be shown walking off alone, “like Clint Eastwood in the spaghetti westerns.” But Lucas said no, because “he didn’t want any of the principals killed. By that time there were really big toy sales and that was a reason.”
Kurtz has long though this approach was a flawed approach to filmmaking. Around the time of the Los Angeles Times interview, Kurtz spoke about how those priorities can hinder a movie’s potential, saying:
The emphasis on the toys, it’s like the cart driving the horse… If it wasn’t for that the films would be done for their own merits. The creative team wouldn’t be looking over their shoulder all the time.
One wonders what “The Phantom Menance” and Jar Jar would have been like had Lucas not had any thought about the toys. What would his voice have sounded like? What would his mannerisms have been like? Would the film still have the pod race? Would the prequels have begun with a young Anakin if appealing to kids wasn’t the point?
Those questions are hard to answer, and it seems dishonest for us to say the prequels shouldn’t have been marketed to kids. After all, many of us were kids when we fell in love with the original trilogy. We shouldn’t expect the movies to mirror our current maturity level just because we’re older now and can see through the blatant marketing ploys.
But there were people who saw through the Ewoks for what they were. In an episode of “How I Met Your Mother,” Barney Stinson (played by Neil Patrick Harris) introduced what he called “The Ewok Line.” According to Stinson, anyone who was born on or before May 25, 1973 — that is, anyone who was at least 10 years old when “Return of the Jedi” came out — was too old to appreciate the Ewoks. Conversely, Stinson argued that anyone born after that May 25, 1973, was young enough to like the Ewoks, as the characters had been directly created for and marketed to younger kids.
Stinson’s creepiness, chauvinism, and ageism aside, this is a pretty good assessment. It helps explain the divided opinion on the Ewoks, and in turn, explains the divided opinion on Jar Jar. And, this theory gives us hope that there is something that can unite the divided fans. Fans might not agree on the Ewoks or on Jar Jar, but anyone who was alive when those movies came out will be old enough now that they can all hate whatever child-pandering characters are introduced in the new trilogy.