A return to some brilliant movie moments Review: The wonderful sweep of 'Jedi' still has the power to pull you in.

March 14, 1997|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

As Oscar Wilde once wittily quipped: Ewoks! Uck!

The Ewoks are the bad idea whose presence mars the otherwise impressive third panel in the "Star Wars" triptych, "The Return of the Jedi." George Lucas should have used his new generation computer effects to erase a few dozen of the annoying little fuzzballs.

But no: there they are in their gibbering millions, a race of cuddly little Poohs in leathery G-strings who yammer away like Daffy Duck on helium while waging war against an interstellar, thermonuclear power with stone age implements -- and winning. How cute. Constant viewer frowed up.

Perhaps they translated into a line of plush toys that enabled Lucas to open a new vineyard somewhere; I hope he enjoyed his wine, mine is quite bitter. The Ewoks represent probably the "Star Wars" cycle at its lowest ebb because it's the one time in the extraodinary three-movie narrative sweep where his sense of pace falters, then dies. At that point "The Return of the Jedi" merely becomes ordinary, a shame.

This is generally the most critically reviled of the films, the indictment being the commercial transparency of the Ewoks and the inadequacy of stars now playing adults when they are really still children. On all counts: guilty as charged.

Yet at the same time, the film reaches a density of emotion in its last 20 minutes that the cycle itself -- and few other movies -- can approach. That's the final three-way confrontation between the father and the son and the unholy ghost -- the emperor -- who comes between them. I'm of the belief that when Darth Vader turns from the one to embrace the other and gives up his own life in the process, it's one of the great moments in American movies. It's up there with the moment where that other Dark Father, John Wayne's Ethan Edwards, embraces Natalie Wood at the end of John Ford's "The Searchers," and well worth exposure to all those gibbering fur pies.

Lucas' tinkering has added some delights, probably more than in the other films. For one thing, there's a sizzling, goosed-up alien musical number in Jabba the Hutt's dark nightclub of a court. For another, that wormy thing in the sand into which Luke et al. almost get tossed by the pod-like Jabba now has snapping jaws and flailing tentacles; it's not just a rabbit hole with an attitude. And there's a final expansion of the VE (Victory over Empire) Day celebration that brings the film to its joyous conclusion.

All that is nice but not conclusive: what lingers from this film and what does not diminish in the re-experience are several brilliant sequences. One is the baroque opening act in Jabba's domain, with its medieval dungeons-and-dragons sensibility; then there's the spectacular sequence where Luke frees his friends, visually calculated to remind viewers of pirate movies, as he leaps and swings from wooden vessel to wooden vessel swashbuckling like Errol Flynn on a champagne high.

Then the movie somewhat founders for a long time; nothing happens until at last it lumbers into its last twist, yet another attack on yet another death star which is yet another trap (Note to Lucas: Please find some new plots!) Here, the cycle and the movie itself, is at its most dazzling: Like some kind of paramecium, the single story fragments and Lucas syncopates the rhythms of each strand brilliantly, flashing from small unit guerrilla war on Endor (Ewok headquarters) to a Leyte Gulf-size engagement in deep space between gray fleets of gigantic ships to the intimate passion of the father-son-emperor confrontation. Extraordinary business.

That's the genius of "Star Wars": in its glorious confines, the story acquires such sweep and power that resistance is futile.

'Return of the Jedi: Special Edition

Starring Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher

Directed by Christian Marquand

Rated PG

Sun score: *** 1/2

Pub Date: 3/14/97

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