Here’s a thing: if you are reading this from North America and are of a sufficient age, you probably remember a 1984 made-for-television film named The Ewok Adventure. It was a spin-off from 1983’s Star Wars sequel Return of the Jedi, and saw two human children get rescued from a crashed spaceship by the cuddlesome Ewoks of Endor and subsequently head off with them on a quest to find the children’s missing parents. If you’re reading this from most other countries, however, you probably remember The Ewok Adventure as Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure: a fully-fledged theatrical release put out to cinemas in a much more ambitious fashion. On mid-1980s television there was a lot less pressure on the film to succeed, and an appropriate sense of scale to what is essentially a middling children’s fantasy. On a cinema screen Caravan of Courage is forced to compete with the feature films of 1984, and staggers away as a potentially terrible disappointment.
I retain a vague sort of affection for the film, since I saw it at the age of eight when anything related to the Star Wars saga would have piqued my interest. Watching films from our childhoods can link us back to a sense of what being a child felt like. Nostalgia is a powerful drug, and for me at least Caravan of Courage comes with a high dose of it. To an extent it papers over the cracks and – for the 90-odd minutes of viewing it at least – makes the unwatchable fitfully enjoyable.
Let us not confuse ourselves: Caravan of Courage is a terrible film. While some of its visual effects are remarkably effective – a giant antagonist towers believably over the cast during the climax, for example – most of them feel cheap and awkward. The Ewoks have glassy dead eyes and unexpressive masks for faces. It all feels quite a bit cheaper than its ambitions require, and with most of its cast consisting of people in masks and costumes that makes it a difficult story with which to engage. George Lucas’ story is simplistic, perhaps due to the inability to generate complex interactions between the Ewoks, but it also comes with a redundant and ongoing narration by a disinterested-sounding Burl Ives. One might suspect Lucas really was not that interested in developing an Ewok movie, since it indulges in stereotype.
Aubree Miller does a sufficient job as the young Cindel Towani. As her older brother Mace, Eric Walker is deeply unconvincing. That is mostly down to the screenplay by Bob Carrau, which forces Walker to recite some truly dreadful dialogue throughout. In all honesty the Ewoks are never particularly convincing. Care was taken to give them lifelike movements and behaviour in Return of the Jedi. Here they just feel like what they are: little people in animal suits. When the film is good, it is good in fits and starts, and never maintains audience interest for long. There is a place in history for Caravan of Courage: an even more terrible television special aside, it was Star Wars‘ first attempt at a spin-off. A much better job has been done of that in recent years, with Disney’s Rogue One and Solo showing some of the possibilities of making such productions. Historical interest, however, is really Caravan of Courage‘s only reason to be seen these days.