If you were to rank the original Star Wars trilogy, your ranking would most likely have Return of the Jedi in third. That’s understandable. The film is certainly not as groundbreaking as A New Hope (which I still call just Star Wars). It’s also not as dark and foreboding as The Empire Strikes Back. It’s easy to dismiss Return of the Jedi as a lesser film. George Lucas admits that he made some film choices with marketing and toy sales in mind. Part of his decision making involved deleting pretty cool scenes like leaving Tatooine. While ROTJ has some flaws, it is fundamentally a strong movie, once you strip away some unnecessary layers.
Despite Complaints, Still a Fundamentally Strong Movie
The first real complaints are usually about the return to some earlier, familiar settings. This was seen as lazy filmmaking. In an entire galaxy, why rehash Tatooine and the Death Star? In ESB we traveled to Hoth, Bespin, and Dagobah. The newest locale in ROTJ was the forest moon of Endor. Which, now that I think of it, I don’t know the real name of. Was the moon a moon of a planet called Endor? Was the moon itself called Endor, like the United States OF America? Regardless, these complaints were valid up to a point. Lucas returned to Tatooine because that’s where Han Solo was being held by Jabba the Hutt.
A stubborn and Megalomaniacal Empire
The return to the Death Star was more to demonstrate how stubborn and megalomaniacal the Empire. They were building a second, larger planet-destroying Space Station. These projects cost tons of money, and the Empire wasn’t exactly printing it themselves. Therefore, Lucas had to return to the Death Star in order to destroy it. This served to show the reader that the Empire could be economically crippled and defeated. As far as the forest moon of Endor, Lucas has stated that he based the idea of the setting, and those damn Ewoks, as a tribute to the native tribes who once lived among the California Redwoods, the Miwoks. This brings us to the second major complaint about ROTJ, those damn Ewoks.
If nothing else, George Lucas has more in common with Gene Simmons than with Steven Spielberg. Lucas makes money off of licensing hand over fist. The Ewoks were a cutesy cash grab, nothing more. They were originally supposed to be Wookies, but obviously Wookies aren’t quite as cuddly as fuzzy Muppets are. The idea was that an indigenous tribe, using their primitive technology and moxie, would be able to defeat a vastly superior, more well-trained army. I understand the vitriol here. The movie would’ve been better served with a more hardened group of fighters. So Lucas saw dollar signs. He then geared his movie in that direction, at the expense of strong and interesting storytelling.
The Indignity of Fett’s Death
Third, Lucas killed off an iconic character in the most undignified and utterly childish way. The character of Boba Fett was revered by many. He represented the unknown badass, a Clint Eastwood in Mandalorian armor. After his successful acquisition of Han Solo, he was steeped in mystery. How big of a role would this character play going forward? Well, not too terribly big it turned out. Lucas killed him off in a stupid way, and even made the juvenile decision to have the Sarlacc burp after eating Fett. Again with the cutesy. While these are all valid reasons why ROTJ is deemed as weak, there are many more reasons why it’s a grossly underrated success.