My Misspent Youth In Films...
Return Of The Jedi
Directed by: Richard Marquand
Starring: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher
Released: May 25, 1983
What I Thought Then
OKAY OKAY OKAY, this is kind of standing in for the entire trilogy. Kind of.
This was the first Star Wars movie I saw, when I was like four, an age in which having seen it somehow did not spoil the twist in Empire that Vader is Luke's father. This was my favorite Star Wars film for most of my life, mostly because it had the best (read: biggest) ending. Just to be clear, I loved the entire trilogy, but if I had to pick one, it was this one.
What I Think Now
I still like it. It's long on spectacle, and it really mines a lot of drama out of Luke's attempt to reconcile with his father without succumbing to evil. That opening heist is so weird. That final battle is super exciting. I'm a guy who likes stories with strong endings, and this film delivered for me. The closing shots of celebration and catharsis still resonate. A lot of this movie still works really well.
But, yeah, it's definitely the weakest of the original trilogy. And I hate to pin it all on the Ewoks, but that's where it starts to come apart. They're an interesting idea, but every time the scene cuts to them during that final battle, you can't help laughing at the ridiculousness of it all. I get that Lukas was trying to create a contrast between technology and naturalism, but... it gets a little squicky. The Ewoks play into some uncomfortable stereotypes about primitivism, and it doesn't help that almost all of the stuff in the Ewok camp is shot with this weird soft focus glow.
And speaking of things that feel uncomfortable now, let's talk about Slave Leia. Or... or we could just not talk about it, because what really is there to say that hasn't already been said?
The effects are overall pretty good, despite their age. The costumes and puppetry and phenomenal, with the minor exception of Sy Snootles looking a little janky. The rancor in that early sequence is pretty great looking, although when he interacts with Luke you can see the matte lines. There's an interesting contrast between the creature design here, where creatures are mostly large and bulbous so you can fit a person inside--think of the green pig guards that Jabba The Hut has borrowed from a Zelda game. Whereas a couple decades later in The Phantom Menace, the new creatures are small, and often thin and reedy.
Where the movie really succeeds is where it leans into its own finality. This is the end of a trilogy, so it's really about gathering strength and tying off loose ends while heading into the climactic battle. The bits like Yoda's death or Han giving the Falcon to Lando, those moments carry some weight, because we know that this story is heading towards closure. And yeah, they're just blowing up the Death Star again, instead of doing something original, but it manages all that with a sense of gravitas.
Of freaking course I recommend it. It's Star Wars. I also recommend tracking down the original version, none of this Special Edition garbage with its edits and lost scenes and half-baked CGI "improvements". We've got the un-messed-with versions of the trilogy as a special features on early DVD releases of the Special Edition movies.