Saturday, September 30, 2017

Unnecessary Sequels: Caravan of Courage

The season is upon us once again, so let's kick the tires and light the fires! Here's a little something out of left field to start you off...

So the last couple entries in this series, have focused on bad or unneeded horror movie sequels.  This time around, I thought I would mix it up, and throw you all a curveball. This particular curveball comes in cute and cuddly form of giant, wild teddy-bear folk. Brace yourselves!

This is what an 80s Childhood looked like.

Film: Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure (originally called "The Ewok Adventure")
Year: 1984
Director: John Korty
Unnecessary Sequels: Ewoks: The Battle for Endor (1985)

As a little kid growing up in the 80s, Star Wars was naturally a huge part of my world. At some early age, I saw the movies on TV, as well as these TV movies, and the cartoons. I was a fan of all of it, and it probably even had at least some small part in shaping who I was as I grew up. When this TV movie originally debuted, near my birthday in fact, on November 25th 1984, if I saw it when it first debuted, I was too young to probably really get much out of it or remember it. Thankfully, they replayed it on TV as I got a bit older, and it became something I loved.

In full disclosure, unlike apparently so many other Star Wars fans, The Empire Strikes Back has never at any point in my life been my favorite. As a kid, my original favorite Star Wars film was Return of the Jedi. When I grew into adulthood, it eventually became the original film, though I still love Jedi. I like Empire, it's a good movie and a great middle part to the original trilogy. It's simply never been my favorite. As a child, there was nothing NOT to love about Jedi though. It had Jaba's Palace, it had speeder bikes, walkers, a gigantic space battle the likes of which nobody had seen at the time, an epic fight between father and son, and of course...Ewoks.

And as a kid, lemme tell ya, I fuckin' loved Ewoks. I loved this TV movie, and while I probably saw and liked the Droids cartoon, I definitely liked and remembered the Ewoks one more. Wicket was the man, and just in general, how could a kid NOT love what were basically giant teddy bears?

Salty Star Wars fans.

Now I'm fully aware of the fact that along with the infamous "hatred" many fans have for the "Prequel Trilogy", that among perhaps older fans back then especially, there were some who also didn't like the existence of adorable and funny Ewoks in THEIR serious Star Wars film. Those people probably didn't like this TV movie either. And while people can like or feel however they wish, I would gently suggest that people who have a problem with a "cute" or funny element being in something they love, might want to grow up ever so slightly.

To me, even as a teen and adult, continued loving the Ewoks. Not as much as I did as a child, surely. But I still like the characters, and like the idea of the race. It's absurd, on it's face, that a race of tiny, cute-as-hell creatures could also be warriors and help turn the tide of battle against a fearsome, nigh unstoppable Galactic Empire. But that's also why it worked so well, and precisely why, in story, they DID help turn the tide. Because no fearsome, unstoppable Empire is going to pay the slightest notice to a "primitive" bunch of teddy bears. Much less think that such harmless creatures could ever pose any kind of meaningful threat to their operations. And it was that arrogance, and the dichotomy of these simplistic, naturalistic little beings with their crude tools and means, against this big hi-tech force, that literally got the logs rolling. In the end, while they did take out some Imperial forces, what the Ewoks accomplished was basically helping to serve as a distraction, while the Rebels destroyed the base and shut down the Death Star's shield generator. But the part they played in taking down the Empire was ultimately huge, because without them providing that distraction, the Rebels would have lost.

Fierce as hell.

So now that I'm done sharing my love for and defense of Ewoks as a thing, let's dig into the actual movie itself! The basic premise, is that these adventures take place between the events of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. And yes, as far as I'm concerned, this movie is canon, salty fans and Disney be damned. The story starts with a couple, Catarine and Jeremitt Towani (played by Irish actress Fionnula Flanagan and actor Guy Boyd), near the wreckage of their crashed starship, looking for their missing children who have wandered off. As they search, a humanoid giant comes stomping out of the forest towards them, probably attracted by the crashing of their ship, and grabs them both, taking them away. The children, Mace and Cindel (played by TV actors Eric Walker and first-time actress Aubree Miller), must eventually have made their way back to the wreckage, as the next morning, a group of Ewoks, Deej and his sons Weechee and Widdle (Wicket's father and older brothers) search the wreck, and find Cindel hiding. After Mace tries to attack them thinking them animals attacking his sister, the Ewoks subdue him and take both human children back to their village.

To make a long story short, once the Ewoks manage to cure Cindel who has become sick, they go to the shaman Logray (featured prominently in Return of the Jedi), who uses a "sight spinner" to see a vision of their parents being held by the great monster that took them: the Gorax. The Gorax lives in a mountain fortress far from the Ewok village, and so Deej and his sons decide to set out with the children to help them find rescue their parents. Before they leave, Logray gives each member of this "Caravan of Courage" a special totem to help them on their way, including two extra that were to be given to new members of the party who must be convinced to join, or else the mission would fail.

Along their perilous journey, they find Chukha-Trok, an unusually large and strong Ewok woodsman, who is eventually convinced to go after bonding over some axe-throwing with the human boy Mace. And later still they find the solitary priestess Kaink, whose magic they desperately need, who is convinced to go after little Cindel impresses her. Thus the titular "Caravan of Courage" was complete!

The awesome stop-motion Boar-Wolf.

Ultimately, this Ewok Adventure is definitely a lighter, more "family" oriented fare. And I'm sure some fans have complained over time that it is too heavily "fairy tale" and "fantasy" oriented. To that, I would say first that Star Wars has always been a marriage of sci-fi action and "fairy tale fantasy", which is part of what makes it so great. And second, that the heavy emphasis on magic in the story fits right in line with how the Ewoks are presented in Jedi, as a very animistic people who are also highly spiritual, using rituals and magic as a regular part of their culture. Besides that, the magic in use, if you really want to bother breaking it down and thinking about it, is at it's core just manifestations of "The Force".

But I would say overall, that Caravan of Courage is a good film. Yes, I am not only nostalgic about it, but I would say that it is, all things considered, especially for a made-for-TV affair from the 80s, a solid family-oriented fantasy film that stands up today. A decent production, a large budget for a TV movie back then, and great effects-work by Industrial Light and Magic. Plus, it's just a fun story. It helps flesh out the Ewoks and their world more, and it doubles as a cool adventure, complete with curses ponds, fearsome beasts, mischievous fairies, giant spiders, and one mean mother of a Gorax. In other words it has everything one could possibly want from a movie.

A portrait of a typical Ewok hater.

So, to lead into the Unnecessary Sequel, it is somewhat necessary for me to first provide some spoilers, for context. The film ends, as seen above, with an epic showdown between the heroes, and that giant Gorax jerk. They manage to free the parents, and the powerful Chukha-Trok buys them some time by trying to trying to fight the monster by himself. In a sad moment for the story, Chukha-Trok is mortally wounded during the encounter, with his new human friend Mace holding him as he dies. He even gives Mace his prized axe.

Afterwards, the fathers are able to use some spider-thread to trip the giant as he rushes down the stairs after them, sending him sailing into the great chasm at the bottom, presumably to his doom. After everyone safely swings across the pit, the movie gives you one last "GOTCHA" moment, as the giant managed to crawl back up the side of the pit, trying to grab at them, but Mace uses Chukha-Trok's axe to deal him a final blow, sending him back down the chasm for good. The group make their way back to the Ewok village, and the family decides to stay while they repair their wrecked spacecraft. And with that, you get a nice, wrapped-up, self-contained, happy ending.

This is canon.

This isn't, Brimley or not.

The success of the TV movie, helped lead into the spin-off Ewoks cartoon series, which debuted along with the aforementioned Droids cartoon in 1985. But that wasn't enough. The network wanted another TV movie, since the first had done so well for them. And here's the thing, I don't have a problem at all with them making a second Ewok film. They and their world are interesting, especially to children, and there were certainly more stories that could be told in that world. My problem lies in the fact that they decided to make the second TV movie a direct sequel to the first. As I've already illustrated, the first movie was a cute, fun and heart-warming, and most importantly self-contained story. It had a happy ending, and we honestly never needed to see the Towani family again, left instead to hope and assume that they fixed their ship, and got off-world, avoiding the dangers of the Galactic Empire. Unfortunately, Lucas and Co had other ideas.

I've read that George Lucas, shortly before sitting down to plan this sequel, had just recently watched the old 1937 Heidi film (starring Shirley Temple), and really liked the idea of incorporating that kind of set-up within this next Ewok story. Which, again, is fine on it's face. Except that they decided to go ahead and do that with the Towani family. Instead of letting them have their "happily ever after", The Battle For Endor begins, especially if you were a kid like me at the time, with the Ewok village being attacked by "Marauders" just as the Towani family are preparing to take their ship and leave. The girl Cindel manages to run away, but her family are gunned down. Talk about completely shattering and shitting on the previous film's ending. That's about on par with the equally fatalistic and crappy opening to Alien 3, in my book (RIP Newt).

Wilford Brimley, being Wilford Brimley.

Cindel and Wicket run into a small, wacky creature called Teek, who takes them to the home of a grumpy old human man who also just so happens to live on Endor, Noa Briqualon (played by Wilford Brimley, in prime Brimley fashion). Enter the Heidi influence, as Noa is at first presented as a Grumpy Gus, who hates kids and just wants to be left alone, immediately telling Cindel and Wicket to leave. But then when they don't go that far away, he secretly gives food to Teek to give to them, showing that he isn't such a bastard after all. And again, all of this, Teek, Noa, the Heidi influence, I'm FINE with that. But they should have left Cindel out of it. Her family should have escaped in their ship BEFORE the raid on Wicket's village, and if you're going to have a human girl, make it an all new one, I say.

This guy...

So the main villain of the story is the dork you see pictured above: Terak. He, along with his shape-shifting sorceress Charal and his army of goons, have apparently also become crash-landed and stranded on Endor (the moon must be bad luck), and apart from attacking and enslaving Ewoks, they want to find parts to get their grouchy asses back out into space, where they can do mean things, even though the REAL bad guys (The Empire) would kick their shit open in a New York Minute.

To do this, they stole the power cell to the Towani family ship, but seem to be morons and don't know how to use it. So they want to get their hands on the 4-year old girl, who they somehow think will be able to teach them how. Meanwhile, it turns out that old Noa, crafty guy that he is, ALSO crash-landed on this planet years ago, and has been fixing up his own starship, which now only (conveniently) needs a new power cell.

"Go-Motion" monsters.

The story itself isn't horrible, and if it had focused more on the Ewoks, and not on a tragic Heidi story that required Cindel's family to be murdered, thus making their valiant rescue and happy reunion from the first movie pointless and obsolete, it would have been ok. Not as good as the first TV movie, but ok. Acceptable. But as is, with the shitty family death setting a bleak and absurd tone, as a kid and now, it just leaves a bad taste in my mouth and makes the movie hard to enjoy.

Like with most Unnecessary Sequels, the movie isn't as good as it's predecessor, and contains elements that actually detract from, and even somewhat "ruin" the original movie, if you choose to not do as I do, and just ignore that this exists. The Ewoks eventually beat Terak, they get the power cell, Noa and Cindel say their goodbyes and he takes her wherever out in the universe, presumably becoming her foster father. But that isn't a terribly happy ending, in contrast to what it cost Cindel, and the erasure of the ACTUALLY happy ending of the first film that it represents. Life doesn't always have happy endings, true. But fairy tales often do, and Caravan of Courage did, and thus it should have remained.

Teek is cool in my book, he gets a pass.

There are some who would argue neither of the TV films ever should have been made, I'm sure. But to me, the first was a really good part of my childhood, something that, along with the theatrical trilogy, I became very attached to. So you can also imagine how 80s me was not only upset, but also a bit traumatized, by this sequel's direction. If it had been it's own separate thing, I likely would have still loved it. But as it is, ill-conceived as I feel it was, it is something I have strongly disliked since I first saw it. There are certainly worse Unnecessary Sequels I have seen (lots). But in some ways, given my attachment to the original TV movie, my dislike of this one is a bit more personal.

And with that, I'll leave it alone. Stay Tuned for more spooky content as we countdown to Halloween!