If you’re anything like me, the two Ewok movies were always that piece of Star Wars media you meant to get around to at some point but never did. I remember first reading about the existence of these movies in a Star Wars action figure guide, yet even as a Star Wars obsessed kid, I never bothered to seek them out. They weren’t exactly easy to come by for a while but when they dropped on DVD in 2004… I still never got around to it.
Yeah, it was part of Star Wars lore, but both films were about the Ewoks, no one’s favorite Star Wars race of aliens. Nowadays the made-for-TV films are struck from canon, if they really had a place there to begin with. Yet two years ago, when out of nowhere Disney+ added both of the films, I finally decided to give them a watch. I was doing a Star Wars marathon, so why not?
The first film, Caravan of Courage, didn’t leave me feeling like I’d missed anything. A bland take on a Lord of the Rings-esque story starring Ewoks with way too much talking and some kids. I was expecting about the same for the sequel.
I was not prepared for what I was getting into. I did not expect Battle for Endor to not only blow the first Ewok movie out of the water but for it to become one of my top five Star Wars movies ever. You’ve got Warwick Davis’ Wicket packing heat; characters that feel more at home in Conan the Barbarian than they do in Star Wars; Wilford Brimley kicking ass; and massive amounts of death. Allow me to explain.
Battle for Endor picks up after the first Ewok film and thankfully requires little knowledge of the first one to enjoy it. All you need to know is that little girl Cindel’s (Aubree Miller) family was stranded on Endor and they befriended the Ewoks. Their village is attacked by the forces of Terak (Carel Struycken), an evil warlord who commands an army of marauders. They kill anyone in their path, including Cindel’s entire family. Yep, within the first 10 minutes, a little girl watches her entire family get slaughtered with only Wicket’s creepy furball face to comfort her. I’d be messed up too.
The Ewok tribe’s captured but Cindel and Wicket manage to escape, meeting the playful creature Teek (Niki Botelho) and his caretaker, the grumpy Noa (Brimley). Noa is initially reluctant to offer aid, but cannot help coming to care for the now orphaned Cindel. When Cindel’s captured by Terak’s right-hand witch Charal (Sian Phillips), Noa and Wicket must save her and the other Ewoks.
Airing in 1985 on ABC, Battle for Endor is a beautiful example of early post-Original Trilogy weirdness, an experiment in trying a different tone and style for the franchise. These days, doing a full on fantasy style Star Wars movie, complete with a witch using a magic ring to turn into a raven, a medieval castle, and an enchanting white horse (not even a space horse!) would be impossible. The Star Wars brand has become too codified. We’ll never get something like this in the franchise ever again and that makes this all the more special.
On the one hand, this is very much a kids movie. There are long stretches with Cindel and Wicket traveling across the land, including an imaginative sequence where Wicket makes a hang glider. Cindel sings a little song to Noa. There’s giggling and pie eating. Noa functions as the grumpy old man who doesn’t want anything to do with strangers or to make friends before his heart melts at Cindel’s plight. It’s all right out of a children’s fantasy novel. The gang even sneaks past some guards by pulling a Muppet Man!
On the other hand, this movie goes so much harder than it needs to. Cindel watching her family die and the nightmares that plagued her are shocking and unsettling. Noa comes face to face with the skeleton of the only (probably human) friend he had on Endor. Charal is forced to live the rest of her life as a raven. In the film’s most stark and striking bit of “this is supposed to be a kids movie,” Wicket makes Terak activate the magic ring only for it to incinerate the warlord into a corpse.
Some might call this “tonal whiplash” or “inappropriate for children,” but it really works. It gives you the feeling of reading the original versions of classic fairytales where characters would have horrific consequences for their actions in order to really drive home the lessons of the story. And come on, if I saw Terak get smoked like that as a kid? I would have cheered or delightfully screamed, “gross!”
Star Wars pulling inspiration from sword and sorcery fantasy movies of the ‘80s (there’s more than a bit of Conan the Barbarian and Beastmaster flavor in here) makes for an intriguing what if. Could Star Wars have become the sort of franchise that rides the trends of popular culture instead of setting them itself? Maybe the franchise as a whole would have pivoted into a more Willow style direction for its next trilogy?
Whatever the case, the film delights in its fantasy setting. The matte paintings are lush and gorgeous. We get several stop-motion creatures that I’d take over CGI beasts any day (and the effects here are thankfully spared the “Special Edition” treatment). The film allows itself the camp of a fantasy movie, with Charal especially hamming it up when she’s forced into prison like she’s the Wicked Witch of the West. And Charal has magical powers that are wonderfully free of any connection to the Force in the film. After endless talk of the nature of the Force, and it being the most special powerful thing ever in most Star Wars properties, it’s nice to get a glimpse into a version of the franchise where other kinds of unknown powers are out there in the universe too.
The element that really makes the movie such a joy to watch is Wilford Brimley. He deftly threads the needle between a grumpy old guy and a broken man with a secret heart of gold. The way he bonds with Wicket and Cindel, especially in the scene where they all play music together, is whimsical in a way no other Star Wars property has ever been. It makes the more bog standard “rescue from the castle” plot come alive with wonder and joy. When he helps Cindel focus on the happy memories of her dead family? It’s heartwarming!
The weakest elements of the film include the admittedly slow pace, though it adds to the atmosphere and highlights all the wonderful location footage in the Redwoods. The bigger problem is when elements of Star Wars proper do creep in. The final battle against the marauders has Noa reactivate his ship and get in a turret to light up the bad guys with a few well placed blasts. It’s far too close to Han and Luke using the Falcon’s turret guns in A New Hope.
If you’re a fan of Star Wars, you probably haven’t given Battle for Endor a chance and that needs to change right now, especially with it streaming on Disney+. There’s nothing else quite like it in the Star Wars universe and who knows, it could make you change your opinion on Ewoks more than Return of the Jedi ever will.