The best Star Wars movie is The Ewok Adventure
My biggest hope for The Last Jedi is that it will finally conclude its long marginal footnote about the Skywalkers and get back to the real protagonist of George Lucas' epic space drama: Cindel Towani.
We first encountered Cindel and her brother Mace in the finest Star Wars film made to date: The Ewok Adventure (irritatingly renamed Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure). A tale of intercultural exchange, bad parenting, language acquisition, spider hypnotism, deceptive tree dinosaurs, light fairies, the dangers of water, and the redundancy of speech, the film stands apart from the rest for how powerfully it marries the structure of the nature documentary (long sections are explained by a narrator) with visceral horror. On the surface, it's the story of how the Towani family — separated after their starcruiser crashed and the parents were kidnapped by the Gorax — were reunited with help from the Ewoks. But this is truly a hero's journey: It's rich in symbolic gifts, ungrateful boys, sudden alliances, and animal feedings — and pleasantly unmarred by chatty cathys like Harrison Ford (whose structural equivalent in Ewok Adventure, Chukha-Trok, dies in a heroic and timely fashion after hacking at the evil Gorax's foot with an ax).
As the internet burbles with fond recollections of people's tender first exposures to Star Wars, I'll brag that I was close to Cindel's age — 5 — when I first saw Ewok Adventure. Its importance was instantly clear. I goggled at that first shot of a giant moon cutting through the darkness — followed by the parents' symbolically tiny flashlight cutting through the woods. This would be a story about light and dark, one instantly understood. Plus, the clueless parents' few lines were real crowd-pleasers. "I knew we shouldn't have left them alone, not even for a minute," the mother said, and what child doesn't want to hear their parents say those very words? It only got better: "Please Mace, we're not mad at you!" the mother cried to Mace, Cindel's 14-year-old brother. I was captivated. This was the stuff of fantasy.
But then the story takes a sharp and modernist turn. It pivots from a tale about human parents who carelessly lost their children to a disorienting PBS nature documentary about a creature who appears to have lost his too. The viewer is introduced to Deej, a crunch-faced and scraggle-toothed little creature with a tattered hood who (the narrator explains) is looking for his children. An Ewok merrily swings as he chirps his concern. "He fears they may be lost," the narrator intones, but then he mostly disappears, and you're left to watch the Ewoks chat with each other and guess at what they mean. Only after watching the whole film can you go back to the beginning and start to understand some of the dialogue between Deej and his wife Shodu.
In the meantime, Deej flies, as the viewer watches in stunned incomprehension. Deej doesn't only find his children; he finds the human children too.
Enter Cindel, the Star Wars hero we deserve. Look at this outfit.
Cindel is ailing and crying when she's found, but she's nevertheless a lot sharper than her brother Mace, who tries to attack the Ewoks. "No, Mace, no," she cries. "I think they want to be our friends." She's right. He's wrong. And as he calls them "walking hairbrushes" despite the nice decorative fruit basket behind them (Mace is trash), Cindel starts teaching them language and learning their words.
Cindel (who would grow up to become a journalist) is clear and concise about her needs. "I don't feel good," she says, and when urged to eat, she says "I'm not hungry, I just feel bad." Five-year-old me (who was frequently sick) marveled at her precision. This was the situation exactly, and yet adults kept insisting on soup. She passes out and is revived by Ewok medicine, which comes in a stone bowl that flickers with blue fire. (I would spend my teens and twenties unconsciously looking for ceramic dishes that mimic the merry solidity of the Ewoks' crockery.) Cindel had it all: the gift of gab, common sense, and boots so exquisite I spent my youth getting overexcited anytime we went skiing, because my ski boots looked just a little like hers.
I mean, look at her life: She's absorbedly holding a ferret.
And despite being saddled with Mace, an ingrate who yells at people trying to help him and calls their gifts stupid, Cindel handled him well. She asks him why he won't talk about their parents, gets him to recognize that they might be dead, and responds kindly when he says things like "I will be mom and dad" and then, once they've been trapped in a tree with this thing snarling outside, says "just get some rest."
She doesn't yell at him when he sticks his hand in a tree and gets bitten by this:
She doesn't get mad at him when he throws away the rock the Ewok mystic gave him, insults Chukha-Trok (whom he's supposed to be recruiting as an ally), and she doesn't even get mad when Mace drops the Ewok priestess' crystal after it turns into a lizard. Instead, Cindel picks the lizard up, and it turns into a mouse. "Could you please help us find our mommy and daddy?" she says to the priestess, succinct and to the point. Impressed by the mouse trick, Kaink overlooks Cindel's dumb brother and agrees. "The caravan is now complete," the narrator announces, confirming that Cindel's diplomacy is the only thing keeping this quest going.
When Cindel's horse runs away, she's pretty level-headed about it. And when Mace touches the lake and gets trapped underneath — and let the record show that this is one of the most terrifying things that has ever happened on any screen anywhere — she sees it and sounds the alarm.
Ewok Adventure offers some immensely effective horror. Besides the terrifying boar-wolf, the tree-gremlin that turned into a dinosaur, the gigantic spiders (which are so scary they decided to use the thing three different times), the blood-curdling mystery of the lake which traps you as if it were made of ice, and the Gorax itself, Ewok Adventure also takes grand surrealistic turns, as when personified flashes of light (called wisties) start orbiting the group, chirping and squealing in a language of their own. (At this point, Ewok Adventure is mostly in languages besides English, and scorns subtitles. This is entirely to its credit.) The score becomes circus music as the wisties swirl with greater and greater intensity, the camera gets drunk and does nostril-based close-ups until the lights all dive into Cindel's candle and turn into a sparkly queen named (why not?) Izrina.
In the meantime, Mace (like the Ewoks) learns to communicate. He says things like "that was close. You guys are great!" and "Yes, he's dead. He died for all of us."
You can easily infer where Mace's problems come from: When the kidnapped parents spot him about to be catapulted 30 feet into the air by two small furry creatures, are they concerned? No! They're all excitement. And when Mace briefly dons a Southern accent to observe that they didn't know whether they'd ever see each other again, we understand that father and son can only communicate through this kind of artifice. The dad says he's proud, and it's not embarrassing, because it's barely even them. The Ewok and human families reunite and party.
Over the years, I have gone to watch other Star Wars movies brimming with excitement. What would happen to Cindel? (Mace and the parents died in the sequel, which was sad but understandable.) You can imagine my disappointment when I saw the series get derailed by Skywalkers. It's long past time to turn the camera on the hero whose reappearance I know we've all been awaiting: the great Cindel Towani.