Wookiees were originally supposed to appear in the final movie in the original Star Wars trilogy, but they were ultimately replaced by Ewoks. Some love them, some hate them, and without counting the always controversial Jar Jar Binks, Ewoks are perhaps the most divisive characters in the Star Wars universe. Their introduction in Return of the Jedi is still a frequently discussed topic among Star Wars fans, many of which find these creatures to be nothing more than a marketing device (which is not far from truth).
After their appearance in Return of the Jedi, the Ewoks went on to appear in two made-for-TV movies – The Ewok Adventure and Ewoks: The Battle for Endor – which didn’t exactly help their already damaged reputation. But the Endor natives weren’t part of George Lucas’ original idea for Return of the Jedi, as he had planned for Wookiees to be part of the battle instead, but some obstacles got in the way.
Lucas originally envisioned the Wookiees as a primitive species, and in an early draft for A New Hope, the film ended with a battle between the Empire and a “society of Wookiees”, but it proved to be too complicated for the first film; instead of including a bunch of Wookiees, he opted for just one: Chewbacca. As the series evolved, so did Chewbacca, and the idea of Wookiees being primitive didn’t quite fit anymore. So when Lucas had the chance to actually do the battle he planned in the first film, he changed the Wookiees for a smaller version: Ewoks. Ewoks were quite controversial not only because they were very marketable but because many fans found it absurd that a primitive race of small creatures armed with sticks and rocks could defeat the Empire’s troops.
Lucas has defended the Ewoks saying that they were there to distract the Imperial troops, and they didn’t exactly win – it was more an example of teamwork. Return of the Jedi has been the only (canon) appearance of the Ewoks, but it was more than enough to leave a big and permanent impression in Star Wars fans. Love them or hate them, the Ewoks were a funny addition to the Star Wars saga, with their weird worship towards C3PO and their primitive weapons that managed to weaken the Imperial Stormtroopers (and AT-ST walkers). Credit where credit is due.
It’s fun to imagine what the big battle in Return of the Jedi could have been like with Wookiees instead of Ewoks, but not the primitive type of Wookiees Lucas’ originally envisioned – the technologically skilled, Chewbacca-style Wookiees.Visually, it would have been more dynamic than the Ewoks running around with their weapons, but it wouldn’t have brought as much (unintentional?) comedy to the film as these smaller creatures did.