Actress Aubree Miller and her Ewok pals
This holiday weekend brings the arrival of the first trailer for J.J. Abrams’ hotly anticipated sequel Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It will kick off a manic frenzy of Force-related activity for the foreseeable future, with Disney expected to release a movie every year from 2015 onwards, a mix of official ‘Episodes’ and spinoffs focusing on other corners of the Star Wars galaxy.
The latter might seem like a new innovation for the franchise that George Lucas created, but that isn’t quite the case. In fact, thirty years ago today saw the premiere of a full-length Star Wars TV movie that even many fans may not be aware of: 1984’s Caravan Of Courage: An Ewok Adventure.
The film wasn’t actually the first Star Wars TV spinoff. Six years earlier had seen the legendarily awful CBS variety one-off, the Star Wars Holiday Special, made without Lucas’ input, and which the creator has tried to suppress ever since. Burned by that experience, Lucas made sure he was in control when he pitched his new project to ABC — he ended up writing the story and serving as executive producer. His idea: to focus on the pint-sized teddy-bear creatures, the Ewoks, introduced in the previous year’s trilogy finale Return Of The Jedi. The courageous critters had proven somewhat divisive among the Star Wars set, with younger fans adoring them, but older ones dismissing them as childish comic relief.
Caravan of Courage was shot on the cheap in Marin County and the California Redwoods, with Oscar-winning documentarian John Korty directing. It’s set between the events of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, and opens with the Towani family crashing on the forest moon of Endor, all narrated with a bizarre, folksy voiceover from country singer Burl Ives.
Eric Walker with the Ewok band
Parents Jeremitt and Catarine are swiftly taken by a giant monster called the Gorax — not, it should be said, the finest visual effects moment in the Star Wars canon. The children Mace (Eric Walker) and Cindel (Aubree Miller) find refuge with the Ewoks who live nearby, including fan favorite Wicket from Jedi (again played by Warwick Davis). Later, the Ewok tribe and the kids set out on a Hobbit-like quest to find the Gorax’s lair and retrieve both the humans and the monsters that the beast has taken.
Watch the trailer below:
Caravan is better than the Holiday Special (really, how could it not be?), but is still far from a work of art. The budgetary constraints are obvious, but the slack, episodic pacing is worse. Most fatally, it’s just hard to identify with anyone; while we hesitate to criticize a child actor, Mace is a singularly whiny hero, and the inexpressive faces of the Ewoks don’t make them much more to fun to hang out with.
Nevertheless, Star Wars-starved, Ewok-loving kids made the show a ratings hit, and it even picked up a couple of Emmy nominations. Lucas was reluctant to go ahead with a live-action series that ABC suggested (there was a Care Bears-esque cartoon spinoff on the network for two years). But a darker sequel, The Battle For Endor, focusing on an orphaned Cindel, premiered the following Thanksgiving. Given the decidedly mixed feelings of fans towards the creatures, we’d be surprised if Abrams's sequel or the spinoff movies saw a return to the forest moon. But if we learned anything from the fall of the Empire, it's that we should never underestimate the Ewoks.