Although their time on screen was all too brief, the Ewoks remain entrenched in the minds of Star Wars fans everywhere. These furry bastards helped to take down the Galactic Empire in Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, thus making them one of the most important species in the entire galaxy, yet the films show us tantalizingly little about them.
With so many other aspects of the Star Wars universe covered exhaustively by fans, there is surprisingly little conversation about the inhabitants of Endor's forest moon. Perhaps that's due to the ambivalence many people hold toward Ewoks; even today they remain one of the most controversial elements of the original series.
With Rogue One right around the corner, however, there's no better time to learn more about these hairy tree monsters. After all, do you want to be the person on the night of the premiere who knows the least about Ewoks?
Seriously. Go back and re-watch Return of the Jedi and you'll find that no one ever says the word "Ewok" when describing the primitive forest dwellers. Not even once. The formal name of the species is only seen in the movie's credits, the novelization, and various promotional materials. It's like George Lucas was just sort of expecting us to guess the word "Ewok" correctly.
This is a total Bearanstain Bears moment, the kind where you realize that your entire worldview is a lie. How many people went to the theater knowing they were called Ewoks, or casually used the name after seeing the movie? We're willing to bet it was a majority of those who saw the film. Clearly, the Ewoks struck a powerful chord with the viewing audience. After all, there's a reason no one knows the species name of whatever the hell Admiral Ackbar is (although he does have a pretty fascinating backstory if you want to check it out).
It's easy to think of Ewoks as harmless. They are both tiny AND fluffy, two of the least threatening adjectives in the English language. When our heroes first encounter the Ewoks, however, it can be assumed that they were terrified of them. After the little mammals captured Han, Chewie, Luke, and the droids (which in and of itself is insanely impressive considering the freakin' Empire can't do that) they trussed them up and prepared to eat them.
Apparently, humanoid flesh is a delicacy for the Ewok. They only reason Luke and the gang don't end the series as an entrée is because C-3PO (whom the natives think is a god) talks them out of it. Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on your perspective), C-3PO provides no such defense for the Stormtroopers at the end of Return of the Jedi. In the celebration following the Battle of Endor, the Ewok have a feast set up much like the one at he beginning of the movie. You know, the one where they were going to eat people? Only this time, they're also playing drums on empty Stormtrooper helmets. It doesn't take a genius to figure out what happened to the heads.
To say that Ewoks were helpful in the destruction of the Empire would be an understatement. They were a people with Stone Age technology and they still trounced an army with the most advanced weaponry the Galaxy had ever seen. They've truly earned their place among the Republic's greatest heroes.
Some Ewoks, however, apparently have an inexhaustible sense of civic duty. In Chuck Wendig's novel Aftermath: A Life Debt, a rebel commando named Dade is offered a "therapy droid" to help combat his PTSD after Imperial ground forces blow his leg off. When Dade refuses, the Doctor offers him a "therapy Ewok" instead. Apparently, some of the Endorian creatures volunteered to leave their home planet in order to help veterans recover. While the novel doesn't make it clear how exactly the Ewoks help, we imagine it involves generally being adorable.
Oh, and for you purists out there, this novel was released after Disney purchased the franchise. That means it is part of the official Star Wars canon. Yep, Therapy Ewoks are part of the official Star Wars canon. What a world we live in.
Like many nascent societies, the Ewoks worship an element of the natural world as their God. Specifically, they honor the giant trees that cover their moon's surface. One tree in particular, the creatively named "Great Tree", is believed to be the sacred progenitor of all Ewoks. Kind of like how the Targaryens believed they were descended from dragons. Only, you know, way lamer.
While it's unknown why the Ewoks so rapidly abandoned their traditional deity in favor of C-3PO worship, it's possible that they simply viewed him as a messiah of the Great Tree. Or maybe they just liked how shiny he was. Who can say? What we do know is that the massive conifers the Ewoks lived in were not only fire resistant, but also produced a natural insect repellent. And, of course, they made their homes in the trees so as to avoid the large predators that roamed the forest floor. One can understand how something so necessary could be conflated with the divine.
A ragtag group of volunteer soldiers from rural areas defeats a technologically advanced empire despite lack of resources and manpower. It's a theme that comes up time and time again in our culture and the narratives we share with each other. It would have been easy for George Lucas to model the Ewoks' defeat of the Galactic Empire on, say, the American Revolution for example. But nope. In a "making of" documentary featured in the 2004 DVD release of Return of the Jedi, it is revealed that Lucas based the guerilla tactics of the Ewoks on the Viet Cong.
While the comparisons are almost cartoonishly obvious in retrospect (traps made out of logs and sharpened stakes, ambush techniques designed to take advantage of the terrain, etc.), it was certainly a bold move on Lucas' part to compare the United States to the evil Galactic Empire. Perhaps the reason the inspiration managed to elude the public imagination is the rather incongruous casting of the fur-covered bipeds as the Viet Cong.
No one really gives Ewoks enough credit. This is perhaps most clearly illustrated in Return of the Jedi when Han, Leia, Chewbacca, and C-3PO are attempting to sneak into a building that controls the shield generator for the Death Star II. An Ewok, a being that just discovered that life exists on other planets and that his people are hopelessly behind in the technological arms race, accompanies them. He distracts several of the Imperial forces guarding the facility by stealing a speeder bike and leading them on a chase through the forest.
That's mind boggling. This little guy woke up in the morning, probably brushed his lustrous coat of fur with a stick or whatever, and then rode a flying death machine through a labyrinth of trees for a cause he barely understood. Ewoks had yet to develop any motorized transport and yet they can pilot vehicles that weren't even designed for their species. It's like a Paleolithic man taking a Snapchat of his cave painting.
George Lucas always intended the technologically advanced Empire to fall to a primitive species. The power of that archetypal storytelling is hard to deny. Lucas thought so far ahead that he even included a member of this species as a main character in the story: Chewbacca. That's right, Wookiees were originally meant to help take down the Galactic Empire in a climactic battle on their home planet (first developed as the forest moon of Endor and later changed to Kashyyyk) with Chewbacca presumably playing a pivotal role. In the same DVD commentary where Lucas reveals this fascinating detail, he also explains why the story had to change.
Chewbacca could pilot the Millenium Falcon, the ship on which he was also the mechanic, and he even repaired C-3PO after the droid became damaged. Lucas thought it would be confusing to then show a Wookiee home planet with a Stone Age culture. His solution was to create a new alien species. Never one to throw away an idea entirely, Lucas named his new creation the Ewoks. "Ewok" is the word "Wookiee" with the syllables swapped.
Wow. Just look at that thing. Apparently early in the concept process, people thought it would be "fun" if Ewoks looked like a child's nightmare after they saw a kangaroo for the first time. The fluffy tail and plush fur evoke a sense of comfort, almost as if at the last second the artist decided, "Screw it, I'll throw some rabbit in there. But I just have to keep the terrifying vestigial T-Rex arms."
Then there's the matter of the dark, soulless eyes. Vacillating between feral anger and stoned indifference, it's easy to see why production decided to go with a different design. Remember, the Ewoks were likely created as a marketing move to appeal to children. Someone was told to create something a child would want to cuddle with and came up with this senseless monstrosity. The next time you complain about the how creepy the finished products' glassy eyes are, remind yourself that it could have been much worse.
While the Ewoks were ostensibly named via an inversion of the word Wookiee, the exact spelling of their named was influenced by the Miwok tribe. The Miwok are a linguistically connected group of four Native American subcultures indigenous to Northern California. NorCal is not only home to the spectacular Redwood forest (in which the Battle of Endor scenes were filmed) but also includes San Rafael, which is the location of Lucas' famous Skywalker Ranch.
Lucas has said that he wanted to steer away from traditional science fiction tropes when naming things in the Star Wars universe (no Sarglax the Great or Zaxillian Armada) and that he wanted each name to reflect the nature of the character or concept it represented. It is perfectly reasonable that the director would look to his surroundings for inspiration. When selecting a name for an indigenous group to inhabit an area of tall trees, why not use something with which you are familiar?
Dave Minton is a planetary scientist at Purdue University who writes many well-researched and professional academic papers. The one we're most interested in just so happens to be about Star Wars. Although the theory has been floating around the internet in one form or another since about 1997, Minton was the first to actually sit down and do the math. Using a screenshot of a hologram depicting the Death Star II next to the forest moon of Endor, Minton extrapolated the masses, velocities, orbital paths, and diameters of the celestial bodies.
Armed with these facts and figures, Minton authored a white paper for Tech Insider that detailed the horrifying ramifications of the Death Star II's explosion so close to the moon. Many have dubbed the devastation that would follow the "Endor Holocaust". Disney, hilariously, is apparently not a fan of such bleak Star Wars fan theories. In a spectacularly passive aggressive Tweet, the media behemoth provides a plausible explanations for the Ewoks' survival that can be found here.
Ah, the mid-'80s. A time when the cocaine flowed like water and television executives had no idea what constituted good children's animated television. ABC greenlit 35 episodes of Ewoks (later rebranded as The All New Ewoks in season two following mediocre ratings), a cartoon following the adventures of the Ewoks before the events of Return of the Jedi. Citizens of Bright Tree Village, the Ewoks speak English (or "Galactic Basic" as it were) and spend a lot of their time singing songs. If you didn't get enough of the "Yub Nub" song at the end of Return of the Jedi, this is the show for you!
In the vein of The Smurfs or Snorks or Care Bears or like a million other shows that are popular with people you wouldn't expect, Ewoks provided a familiar formula of adorable protagonists that solved adorable problems through friendship and teamwork. Needless to say, no humanoid life forms are ritually slaughtered and eaten. So, you know, it's not loyal to the source material at all.
We want to take a moment to talk about this Ewok's fancy hat.
This stubby-legged, tiny armed, fluff goblin is wearing the skull of what appears to be an actually scary animal. That means that an Ewok had to straight-up murder that horrifying beast (it's called a boar-wolf if you're curious) with a sharpened stick or a slingshot or whatever, then decided to wear its face as a decoration.
Human beings are efficient hunters because of our stamina. We can run longer and in worse situations than just about anything else on the planet, then finish off more ferocious animals once they're tired. That's clearly not how Ewoks do it. Given the fact that they have tiny baby legs, we have to assume that Ewoks are hunting their game through... sheer badassery? Clearly the hunters and warriors of their tribe recognize that they are objectively cute and are trying to rectify this by wearing proof of their vicious nature on their heads.
Again, they were able to capture Han Solo and Luke Skywalker without even trying that hard. So maybe Ewoks just happen to be the greatest trappers in the galaxy.
Sound designer Ben Burtt created the Ewoks' language (named, rather efficiently, Ewokese) based on recordings of the Kalmyk language, spoken by the Kalmyk people of Russia. The Kalmyk are the Russian branch of the Oriat people, the westernmost group of the Mongols. Burtt explains in the commentary track for Return of the Jedi that he first heard Kalmyk in a documentary and was immediately taken by how alien it sounded to Western listeners.
Burtt, after some research, found an 80-year-old Kalmyk woman willing to share her people's folk stories in her native language. It was this refugee's voice recordings that became the basis of Ewokese. Voice actors mimicked the old woman's voice in different styles until Burtt was able to put together a skeleton of a fictional language. Anthony Daniels, the actor who played C-3PO, was especially involved, helping to create several new words during the scenes in which he had to speak Ewokese.
Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure and Ewoks: The Battle for Endor are made-for-TV spin-off movies that aired on ABC in 1984 and 1985 respectively. The events of both films take place between Episode IV: A New Hope and Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, so don't expect any cameos by the Rebel Alliance or the Galactic Empire. The movies follow the traditional '80s child-adventurer movie template: children are separated from their parents, encounter some adorable puppet-like creatures, and go on a journey that serves as an allegory for growing up.
The films are generally no longer considered part of the Star Wars cannon. Really, they're much more like fairy tales than science fiction. In the Battle for Endor, for example, one of the main villains is a witch named Charal. Not a "Force Witch" or a "Sith Sorceress," just a regular ol' witch. She winds up being trapped in the body of a bird for all eternity (long story, don't ask). The purists among fans are probably just happy that we don't have more Harry Potter in our Star Wars.
While Griffon Bruxellois may sound like as much like a fictional creature as an Ewok, they are actually a toy dog breed right here on Earth. Make-up artist Stuart Freeborn reportedly based his costume designs for Ewoks on illustrations by Joe Johnston, the visual effects director for Return of the Jedi. Johnston in turn based his work on images of the Griffon Bruxellois, a dog breed owned by none other than George Lucas.
Honestly, if someone had shown you a picture of this dog without telling you the backstory, what would you think? "Oh, I get it, you're messing with me. You have clearly taken the face of an Ewok and mashed it onto the body of a small dog in Photoshop," seems like a pretty reasonable response. Rest assured, we promise the Griffon Bruxellois is very real. Of course, this means if you are so inclined you can get your very own Ewok!
So when are we getting Rise of the Ewoks: A Star Wars Story? Would you see it in theaters?