“The Cries of the Trees” (ABC/Global: September 7, 1985) is Star Wars: Ewoks
‘ debut episode, and the debut of a short-lived, hour-long, 9:00 AM block on ABC. Ewoks
and Star Wars: Droids
(ABC/Global, 1985-86) should have blown their direct competitors, Jim Henson’s Muppet Babies
(CBS, 1984-91) and The Smurfs
(NBC, 1981-90), out of the water. It was the battle of merchandising bonanzas – Star Wars
vs. the Smurfs vs. the Muppets.
“The Cries of the Trees” is essentially a boy-cries-wolf tale – Wicket (Jim Henshaw), Paploo (Paul Chato), and Teebo (Eric Peterson) play the forbidden game of “drop the sack,” lie about it, and are soon punished even when they’re not lying. ”Drop the sack,” for those wondering, is a game where Ewoks sit or stand on a high tree branch. There, the Ewoks throw bags of mud at someone moving a target. Why this is a “forbidden” game isn’t explained, beyond Paploo complaining about the game’s danger. The game’s just there to set a subplot in motion.
Morag, the Tulgah witch (Jackie Burroughs), is one of the main villains in Ewoks‘ first season, and the most competent. Morag curses Queen Izrina, one of the Firefolk. Izrina begins to burn the forest, infecting her fellow Firefolk with Izrina’s curse. Morag intends to destroy the Ewoks’ Soul Trees. This is important, as destroying an Ewok’s Soul Tree destroys an Ewok’s will to live.
Another subplot concerns Ewok shaman Logray (Doug Chamberlain) and Chief Chirpa (George Buza), as they create a “magic foam” to douse forest fires. Without giving too much away, the “magic foam” and “drop the sack” form two important parts of the show’s dramatic climax. It helps that the episode is written by Paul Dini, who was later instrumental in developing the DC Animated Universe.
I can tell Dini wrote “The Cries of the Trees.” The main villain is appropriately evil. Umwak (Don Francks) is the bumbling henchman, though his schtick doesn’t grate as it did in “The Tree of Light.” Despite the basic storytelling nature of Ewoks, Dini establishes the Ewoks’ world fairly well, writing Wicket and his friends as proper children.
As this is Ewoks’ first episode, Nelvana’s animation on “The Cries of the Trees” is of better quality than “The Tree of Light.” It’s not film quality, but it has George Lucas’ name (and, I assume, money) behind it, so “The Cries of the Trees” blows most Saturday morning cartoons of the mid-1980s out of the water. Even when Nelvana had to patch up a business plan after the failure of the 1983 film, Rock & Rule, the studio’s television work was relatively high-end, compared to Hanna-Barbera, Marvel Productions, Filmation, and Ruby-Spears.
Sadly, Ewoks was never anything more than a brand extension. On paper, Ewoks and Droids looked appealing to ABC. The success of two Ewok-centric TV movies softened ABC up for an hour-long, Saturday morning adventure block.
ABC’s Star Wars block took an unholy beating from Muppet Babies and The Smurfs. Droids moved to the rerun galaxy after thirteen episodes, and an hour-long special. Ewoks was “overhauled” (read: dumbed down) for 1986-87, and left to die at 11:30 PM. In the mid-1980s, The Smurfs and Muppet Babies were The Galactic Empire.
I’m not sure if the Saturday morning timeslot restricted Ewoks, if Nelvana wasn’t experienced enough to create a better show, and/or if the Ewoks were overexposed as a whole. ”The Cries of the Trees” suggests that, with better overall control, Ewoks could have been a credible series. Ewoks currently sits in the discard pale of Star Wars canon, earning the occasional home entertainment release, but mainly seen as a by-product of savvy marketing.