It’s easy to hate on the “Star Wars” prequels, and deservedly so — they’re pretty terrible. But people also tend to use another episode as shorthand for the series at its less than ideal.
As the common narrative goes, “Return of the Jedi” closed out the original trilogy on a bum note, ruined by Endor and its flock of cuddly, easily merchandisable Ewoks. (Or as “The Thick of It”’s Malcolm Tucker brilliantly described it, “the planet of the teddy bears.”)
George Lucas and team originally envisioned a darker end to the trilogy, with Han Solo killed during the rescue mission at Jabba’s palace and Luke Skywalker ending the film by walking off into the desert, a la Paul Atreides at the conclusion of “Dune Messiah.” Instead, Lucas realized there was extra money to be had in furry toys. What would have been a bleak ending instead turned into one for the kids.
There’s a lot to be annoyed at in “Jedi.” The Ewoks are pests. Harrison Ford, who clearly wanted rid of Han, is only slightly more committed to the role than Sean Connery was in his final official Bond movie, “Diamonds are Forever.” The dialogue is sometimes as stiff as it was in “A New Hope.” The ending is overly joyous, especially compared to the less-than-happy ending that “The Force Awakens” reveals to have happened, with the Dark Side simply going into hiding, rebranding as the First Order. (Want all the spoilers? We've got you covered.)
But are we being too hard on it? There’s a lot of goodness here, and even if it winds up, with its second Death Star, repeating "A New Hope" — setting the scene for “The Force Awakens” to almost straight-up remake that one — it’s a thrilling and emotionally deep ride. The long Jabba/rescue sequence is perhaps the most sustained bit of excellence in the entire franchise: a mega-cantina scene with new species crammed into every room, around every corner.
It’s a brilliant mini-film of its own before the big show, with moments of real feeling. The most touching bit isn’t Leia’s reunion with the de-carbonited Han; it’s the part — cited by Roger Ebert as proof of Lucas’ singular voice — where the beastly Rancor has been felled by Luke, and instead of wallowing in its defeat we stay with its keeper, who weeps over the death of this horrific, deadly, ever-ravenous monster.
It’s standard to say the film goes downhill once we get to Endor and Leia, Luke, C-3PO and R2D2 are bro-ing down with some spunky critters. But discounting this half of the movie means neglecting the thrilling speeder chase, the chaotic battle itself and the business with Luke turning himself over to Darth Vader so he can take him out. The business between Luke and Vader is the most emotionally rich stretch of the entire franchise, finally building on the tension laid out by the twist reveal at the end of “The Empire Strikes Back.”
The lightsaber battle between father and son is appropriately magisterial, building to Luke losing it, pounding brutally and recklessly away at his evil pops until he’s taken a body part. Mark Hamill, too, had improved as an actor, going from the gawky amateur hour of “Star Wars” to the cold, clipped and precise badass he is throughout “Jedi.” (It should be noted he had already been excellent in Samuel Fuller’s 1980 war epic “The Big Red One.”)
This doesn’t excuse its other major faults, though even they’re not that bad. The Ewoks are more a nuisance than a dealbreaker, and Harrison Ford may be detached but he’s nowhere near as remote as he would later be, in movies where he barely seemed awake. He’s still very animated, still more or less the Han who had turned him from an underemployed character actor — who was delightfully villainous in Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation,” three years before “Star Wars” — into a megastar.
There’s a lot to like, even love in “Jedi.” Of course, astute detectives can probably find some greatness in the prequels too.