August 23, 2012

TV Retro Review | Star Wars: Ewoks 1.1 – “The Cries of the Trees”

“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.


August 19, 2012

TV Retro Review | Star Wars: Ewoks 1.6 – “The Tree of Light”

With this entry, I throw my hat back into regular URBMN content.  I will now review shows from the past, as well as the present.  Star Wars: Ewoks (ABC/Global, 1985-86; 1986 as The All New Ewoks) is as good a place to find false nostalgia as any.

“The Tree of Light” (ABC/Global: October 12, 1985) is typical Nelvana tripe from the mid-1980s.  Wicket (Jim Henshaw), Latara (Taborah Johnson), and Princess Kneesaa (Cree Summer) are excluded from an important mission on Endor’s forest moon – the Tree of Light is dying.  The chosen Ewok team needs to sprinkle fairy dust – sorry, Light Dust – on the Tree of Light, before it dies.  The Duloks – tall, ghetto, swamp versions of Ewoks – want the Tree of Light to die, so they can become more of a presence on the forest moon.

The Dulok shaman, Umwak (Don Francks), is the standard bumbling henchman to King Gorneesh (Dan Hennessey).  Umwak is assisted by his nephew (Hadley Kay), though the Duloks – being Nelvana villains – aren’t too bright as a whole.

For instance, Umwak designs a pair of “special glasses,” which are supposed to navigate a cave maze for him.  In practice, they don’t do anything.  The Ewoks, “led” by Weechee (Greg Swanson) and Paploo (Paul Chato), are hardly smarter than the Duloks.  The whole episode’s an excuse to prove Wicket, Latara, and Kneesaa’s worth, as the three abide an Idiot Plot.

Honestly, this episode can be reworked as a Care Bears Family (ABC/Global, 1986-88) episode.  Henshaw, Hennessey and Francks voiced characters in Care Bears Family.  Some of the music cues – the bumbling-henchman synth cues, in particular – have a Care Bears Family sound to them.  Both shows feature living teddy bears, fighting against enemies who want to eradicate said teddy bears.  I know Care Bears Family came a year after Ewoks, but the two shows are eerily similar.

Hell, Henshaw’s Wicket is similar to Tenderheart Bear, while Hennessey uses almost the exact same voice for Gorneesh and Brave Heart Lion.  Hennessey’s a decent voiceover actor, but Nelvana never let the man stretch in the mid-1980s.

As an aside, it’s funny how Henshaw voiced eager do-gooders in the 1980s.  He soon ditched voiceover work, and became a writer/director.  These days, Henshaw’s the resident grump of Canadian television.

Nelvana’s animation on Ewoks is serviceable – not great, but better than 1980s Saturday morning cartoon standards.  Nelvana basically did Ewoks to keep the lights on.  The best part of an Ewoks episode should not be Taj Mahal’s theme song, but that’s what happens with “The Tree of Light.”

Having not seen Ewoks in two decades, I don’t remember the show being this bad.  I’m hardly nostalgic for Star Wars, as I’ve never cared for Star Wars in any of its incarnations.  “The Tree of Light” just reminds me too much of Care Bears Family.

“The Tree of Light” is from the first season of Ewoks, the season considered superior by Ewoks fans.  If every episode is like “The Tree of Light” – stories where Wicket and friends fix what the other Ewoks fuck up – I have to ask: what is Ewoks superior to?  Star Wars: The Clone Wars (Cartoon Network, 2008- ) has its faults – Clone Wars has never met a film it didn’t steal from – yet it’s a better Star Wars series than Ewoks.  Star Wars fans accepted whatever they were offered, in the bad old days.