Finally putting an end to those irritating YouTube videos titled things like “The Star Wars movies they don’t want you to see,” Disney have added the 1980’s Ewok movies to Disney+, introducing a new generation to the bizarre made-for-TV films spinning off the furry aliens from Return of the Jedi into their own adventures. In fact, several generations because I, a prequel kid, had never seen them either. I had only heard mentions of the dreaded pictures from frustrated original trilogy fans, and brief clips here or there when Lucasfilm would allow footage to be used in a documentary or special feature. As a huge Star Wars fan, it was a wonderful moment when I clicked on the new “Star Wars Vintage” collection and saw multiple pieces of content I had never seen before. Then I started watching Caravan of Courage.
The first thing that struck me about Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure – other than having a Star Wars film with “caravan” in the title is never a good idea – is that it didn’t feel like Star Wars. It’s an Ewok movie, not a Star Wars movie. Those things need not be mutually exclusive but here they are. Once I got over that fact the film made at least some sense to me. The idea for such a thing came from George Lucas himself who wanted to tell an Ewok story for his young daughter and experiment with the medium of television, something Lucasfilm hadn’t done before. And you can tell. The film feels like a test for the filmmakers and ultimately a trial run for Willow; the finished film being far from the most important purpose of the production.
At a most basic level, the plot and character work is… fine. Two kids crash land on Endor and have to team up with a band of Ewoks, including Wicket and his family, to save their parents from an evil monster. However, the use of Ewoks who exclusively speak Ewokese as lead characters does mean the film requires brief uses of narration to explain the simple story. The problem is that this quest doesn’t begin until a good 45 minutes into the movie and so the film’s first half has no pace or momentum. It’s just Ewoks pottering about while the kids, Mace and Cindel, recover from their wounds. The first half of the film is mind numbingly dull and feels longer than the entirety of The Last Jedi, but I’ve got to admit, the second half is a fun fantasy adventure, if you look past some of the acting and questionable production that is.
Star Wars is usually presented as fantasy rather than science fiction and Caravan of Courage doubles down on this to the point where it feels like Tolkien more than Star Wars. It’s The Hobbit but with Ewoks instead of Dwarves. A band of fantasy characters on a quest taking them to the lair of a terrible beast, with multiple magical interludes on the way featuring a variety of hazards and creatures. At one point, our heroes even get gifted magical items, one being a candle of endless light, as they leave the forest, just like the Fellowship when they leave Lothlórien. And “magical” is the correct word to use. Gone is “the Force” and instead Endor is a place of actual, fantastical magic. The production also feels more like generic fantasy than Star Wars too, from the matte paintings (photographed by David Fincher!) to the score, which only briefly uses John Williams’ theme for Wicket.
One element that would have been improved by feeling more like Tolkien is the locations and how they’re initially revealed. In Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies we’re introduced to these amazing fantasy locales from the point of view of the characters, mostly the Hobbits who are seeing them for the first time. We get a lavish shot entering Rivendell for example, with the characters matching the audience’s amazement. Caravan of Courage has none of that. Despite the human kids being new arrivals on Endor they’re never impressed. The first time we see the treetop village from Return of the Jedi is a static establishing shot and the children are already in Logray’s hut, ignoring their surroundings.
This Star Wars movie doesn’t feel like Star Wars and nor does Endor feel like Endor. In Return of the Jedi, despite the filming location, it did feel somewhat like an alien world but here, whether due to the film stock or cinematography, Endor always feels like the Californian countryside. It begins looking more like an episode of The X-Files; a man and a woman walking through the dark wood with torches/flashlights. Earth animals are everywhere, including ferrets, chickens, rabbits, horses, and owls. It’s not that these creatures can’t exist in Star Wars – there are ducks and geese in The Phantom Menace – but the sheer quantity of them with nothing else alien around, other than little people dressed as teddy bears, relinquishes all pretence of it being set in a galaxy far, far away.
Caravan of Courage does however do one thing unique in Star Wars: it has a planet with more than one biome. It’s just a shame that planet/moon has to be Endor. After endless planets covered purely with either ice or sand in the franchise, Endor is shown to have forests but also arid landscapes too. Acid pools and great mountains scatter the landscape. It’s an interesting dichotomy to have one of the most fantastical parts of the Star Wars mythos (albeit not canon) take place in the least fantastical environment. Despite the odd shot of an extra moon in the sky, it looks just like Earth. But I’m sure it has to do with budget rather than intent. The fantasy creatures – when they do show up – distract from the environment and are usually fun additions, other than perhaps the fairy-like Wisties.
Caravan of Courage is surprisingly creepy at times considering its young audience, and the scenes inflected with horror are the film’s best. Ewoks rolling down hills may make toddlers chuckle but show me the giant spiders! I can’t express how much I love seeing giant spiders. They should be in everything and even if done poorly (here they’re executed adequately) they make for a fun sequence. There’s a very 80’s-looking stop motion monster the Ewoks fight which is charming, even if some obvious day-for-night photography scuppers the effect somewhat. At one point Mace is trapped underwater and almost drowns, which will never not be terrifying, and I’ve yet to mention the Gorax, the villain of the film. It’s a giant troll-like figure and I was shocked by how well the effects looked in terms of scaling him up to look ginormous. Oh, and I don’t care what people say, the dead-eyed Ewoks are scary in their own right, especially when holding children at knifepoint.
I’m an Ewok racist; they all look the same to me. I can just about pick Wicket out from a crowd but that’s it. I can’t tell the rest apart. I don’t dislike the Ewoks but I’m not a big fan of them either. They can only hold my attention so long, which is partly why the film’s first half is so boring. The second introduces a new threat every few minutes to distract from the uninteresting protagonists. Although I do like seeing more of Logray and Ewok mysticism. Canon or not, more lore is always intriguing and seeing different sects of Ewoks, from priestesses to axe-throwing warriors, is a fun expansion.
With the majority of the Ewoks being interchangeable and unmemorable, the pressure is then placed on the human characters to hold the movie together. Cindel is very much an audience surrogate character for the young viewers, finding the Ewoks cute and fun and ultimately building a rapport with Wicket. The older Mace, a name Lucas has been trying to put in Star Wars since the first draft of the original, may be a surrogate for the slightly older audience. The teens who want more action and less cutesy teddy bears. Wearing what looks like a bad Rebel Pilot cosplay, Mace learns all about responsibility and accepting help during the quest to save his parents while also protecting his sister. It’s more of your generic, standard character journey for this type of movie, lacking the scale and impact of Luke’s coming of age tale, but perfectly acceptable. Which, when it’s at it’s best, is what the film is.
I’m sure if I was around when the film was first released, I would have been annoyed. Angry even. This is what Star Wars is now? With no new core films on the horizon, the legacy of Star Wars is Ewoks? Thankfully, the franchise is now in a very different place where there’s so much content. Looking back on Caravan of Courage almost 40 years on, it’s a weird oddity that I’m glad exists. It’s even somewhat enjoyable. It’s charming if you can make it through the first 40 minutes, which are as bad as the naysayers say. It’s very much a children’s film and that’s okay. We can pointlessly argue over the franchise like old nerds who invest too much of ourselves in these things when we need to remember that Star Wars is for kids, and Caravan of Courage is a perfectly decent film for children. I don’t know if I’ll ever watch it again but I’m glad I’ve finally been able to and that it’s now available on Disney+. Now, onto the sequel…
Are you only just discovering Caravan of Courage or do you have childhood memories of the Ewok movies? Let me know in the comments and be sure to geek out with me about TV, movies and video-games on Twitter @kylebrrtt.