Trashy, goofy, and surprisingly sincere, this superhero fantasy is better than you expect but not as good as it should be.
Here is just one small moment in "Return of Jedi," a moment you could miss if you looked away from the screen, but a moment that helps explain the special magic of the Star Wars movies. Luke Skywalker is engaged in a ferocious battle in the dungeons beneath the throne room of the loathsome, Jabba the Hutt. His adversary is a slimy, gruesome, reptilian monster made of warts and teeth. Things are looking bad when suddenly the monster is crushed beneath a falling door. And then (here is the small moment) there's a shot of the monster's keeper, a muscle-bound jailer, who rushes forward in tears. He is brokenhearted at the destruction of his pet. Everybody loves somebody.
It is that extra level of detail that makes the Star Wars pictures much more than just space operas. Other movies might approach the special effects. Other action pictures might approximate the sense of swashbuckling adventure. But in "Return of the Jedi," as in "Star Wars" and "The Empire Strikes Back," there's such a wonderful density to the canvas. Things are happening all over. They're pouring forth from imaginations so fertile that, yes, we do halfway believe in this crazy Galactic Empire long ago and far, far away.
"Return of the Jedi" is both a familiar movie and a new one. It concludes the stories of the major human characters in the saga, particularly Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia and Darth Vader. It revisits other characters who seem either more or less than human, including Ben (Obi-Wan) Kenobi, Yoda, Chewbacca, and the beloved robots C-3PO and R2-D2. If George Lucas persists in his plan to make nine Star Wars movies, this will nevertheless be the last we'll see of Luke, Han and Leia, although the robots will be present in all the films.
The story in the Star Wars movies is, however, only part of the film -- and a less crucial element as time goes by. What "Jedi" is really giving us is a picaresque journey through the imagination, and an introduction to forms of life less mundane than our own.
In "Jedi," we encounter several unforgettable characters, including the evil Jabba the Hutt, who is a cross between a toad and the Cheshire Cat; the lovable, cuddly Ewoks, the furry inhabitants of the "forest moon of Endor"; a fearsome desert monster made of sand and teeth, and hateful little ratlike creatures that scurry about the corners of the frame. And there is an admiral for the Alliance who looks like the missing link between Tyrannosaurus Rex and Charles De Gaulle.
One thing the Star Wars movies never do is waste a lot of time on introductions. Unlike a lot of special effects and monster movies, where new creatures are introduced with laborious setups, "Jedi" immediately plunges its alien beasts into the thick of the action. Maybe that's why the film has such a sense of visual richness. Jabba's throne room, for example, is populated with several weird creatures, some of them only half-glimpsed in the corner of the frame. The camera in "Jedi" slides casually past forms of life that would provide the centerpiece for lesser movies.
The movie also has, of course, more of the amazing battles in outer space -- the intergalactic video games that have been a trademark since "Star Wars." And "Jedi" finds an interesting variation on that chase sequence in "Star Wars" where the space cruisers hurtled through the narrow canyons on the surface of the Death Star. This time, there's a breakneck chase through a forest, aboard airborne motorcycles. After several of the bad guys have run into trees and gotten creamed, you pause to ask yourself why they couldn't have simply flown above the treetops ... but never mind, it wouldn't have been as much fun that way.
And "Return of the Jedi" is fun, magnificent fun. The movie is a complete entertainment, a feast for the eyes and a delight for the fancy. It's a little amazing how Lucas and his associates keep topping themselves.
From the point of view of simple movie-making logistics, there is an awesome amount of work on the screen in "Jedi" (twice as many visual effects as "Star Wars" in the space battles, Lucas claims). The fact that the makers of "Jedi" are able to emerge intact from their task, having created a very special work of the imagination, is the sort of miracle that perhaps Obi-Wan would know something about.
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