“Too long have you furry beggars lived in our branches!”
Anyone that read my review for the very similar Star Wars spin-off release of Animated Adventures Of Droids will remember that the one thing that annoys me more in the movies than the droids themselves ... are the Ewoks. So what do I have to contend with now? Yep. Those cutesy little fur-balls (which we all know are just Wookiees downsized due to budgetary constraints) that somehow managed to topple the might of the Empire in Return Of The Jedi. Once again, as with Droids, there are two episodes presented on this disc, each broken down into four chapters that run smoothly as full length features. However, unlike Droids, the individual chapters are actually separate stories that have been lumped together and placed under a banner title. This, of course, may be the sequence in which they originally aired but, I have to confess, this is one cartoon series that I never did catch back in the eighties so I'm just assuming. For me the Ewoks had ruined the movie and provided a terribly unsatisfying climax to the greatest sci-fi saga ever, so I wanted nothing more to do with them. Thus, it was with some degree of foreboding, a little resentment and perhaps even a slight willingness to despise, that I returned to the forest moon of Endor to reacquaint myself with these lumpy little teddies.
“And from your fire shall spread the forest's death!”
Starting off with The Haunted Village (1hr 23 mins) we get to meet the young Wicket and Kneesa, Chief Chirpa and the rest of the Ewok tribe as they try to live out their idyllic life in a high-rise tree community in harmony with the woods and wildlife around them, learning the usual morals along the way. There is much “Yub-nubs!” and “Beecha-wawas!” to be had from the many scrapes the plucky young'uns get themselves into. However, the persistent fly in the ointment is a rival tribe of Grinch-look-alikes called the Dulocks who seem hell-bent on disrupting all their fun. These guys are accompanied by more of Marco (Droids) D'Ambrosio's risible Casio keyboard doodlings, making their appearances a real test of your patience. They say that young children need repetition but this signature theme borders on brainwashing. But coming to their, and the show's advantage though, is Morag, the Tulgah Witch who really is a despicable piece of work, who actually seems to want to destroy the Ewoks and not just annoy them. She becomes the running centre-stage villain that connects this series of adventures and some of her heinous schemes, accompanied by plenty of Disney-esque wicked witch cackling, are quite imaginative. An early story sees magical soap turn the Dulocks invisible to wreak havoc and the capture of a fire-fairy called a Wistie turns the Festival Of Hoods chapter into a terrifically dark tale of a forest fire threatening to engulf the Ewok village. That's right - I said terrifically dark. I must admit that I was surprised at how grim in tone some of these tales could be - think The Dark Crystal shot through with Hair Bear Bunch animation - and this element places Ewoks light years ahead of its Droids companion, completely turning the cutesy characters in mild peril concept on its head with the injection of some real tension. Have a look at the witch's snatch-squad riding out on huge skeletal spiders. Another stand-out story in the first batch sees wizard-wannabe Teebo become Master Logray's apprentice. But when his first task is to clean up without using magic there's no surprise when everything ends up pear-shaped. I mean, it didn't work for Mickey, did it? And the duelling-wizards finale is quite cool, too.
“These little puffballs are everywhere!”
The second batch entitled Tales From The Endor Woods (running for 1hr and 25 mins) has the main Ewok cast a little bit older, but no less inclined to getting themselves into bother. Little Latara runs off with a travelling circus famous for getting themselves hopelessly lost and a red-haired leprechaun aids in the quest to find the cure for Wicket's dad, who has succumbed to the poisonous fungi of the Rokna Tree. This one has some great blue meanies with projectile quills fired from their wild bouffant hairdos - providing a touch of Flying Daggers-style action in Ewok land. But, best of all are the two bookend stories in this selection. The first sees the Dulocks rebuilding an ancient battlewagon with which to attack the Ewoks and features some great fast-paced western-style heroics atop the speeding vehicle and, once again, a real vicious streak to the Dulocks' intentions. But the final story adds a nice touch of pathos with the rediscovery of a long-lost Ewok sister who has become a legendary red-furred, wolf-riding saviour of the forest. Protection of the ecology is the theme here but it is nicely handled and not sledge-hammered home, which is typical of the series' themes in general. Where it could have been patronising and preachy, Ewoks tends to pull back on the sermonising, letting the action speak for itself, which is actually quite refreshing. The lessons are certainly in here alright - thieves never prosper, care for the environment, respect your elders etc - but they never get in the way of the stories themselves.
“Wicket, you little geek. Where are you?”
Well, to be honest, this collection of cartoons is great. Yeah, I know, I'm supposed to be the one that hates Ewoks. But the thing is, taken out of the Star Wars context - and this series correctly makes no attempt at a connection - the Ewoks really do work. Firstly and, perhaps, most pertinently, this is pure fantasy as opposed to the more rigid sphere of sci-fi, so the fable-like quality of the themes feels more comfortable. Their forest setting is wonderfully atmospheric; each story has a pleasing level of darkness and jeopardy to it and, essentially, the show benefits from having a consistent set of characters. Whereas with Droids, Threepio and Artoo are whisked off by different masters to strange new environments and seemingly taken further and further from the universe that we knew so well, Ewoks lets us explore Endor a little bit more with each show and this grounds the tales marvellously. We find it easier to care about them and their homeland as time is spent getting to know the tribe and its history. More narrative structure is afforded each tale, too, with well-developed plots and tightly-written scripts that genuinely froth with wit and imagination, clever use of angles and some great filmic direction. But it is the darkness that surprised me most of all and, I suppose, changed my opinion of these pint-sized throw-pillows. Check out the wailing soul trees and the imprisoned Wistie, Morag conjuring from atop a wicked precipice and the actual snatching of an infant from its parents. Okay, so the infant in question is actually the giant baby of a family of colossal Phlogs, but how often do you see kidnapping in a children's cartoon? But, instead of scares, the show wisely opts for a cosily eerie feel. Very much in the style of the original fairy tales and Disney's darkest moments, Ewoks generates a delicious balance of enchantment and danger, slapstick and magic. And, they may be cute and cuddly but these guys are savagely protective when threatened -listen out for the oft-used war cry of “Dengar!” (isn't that a badly scarred bounty hunter from Empire?)
On the animation front we are in the big and bold territory once again, a la Droids and virtually any other kids' TV cartoon of the era but what manages to set this apart from the crowd is the wonderfully surreal imagery on display - the many weird beasts, the forest fire, the great backgrounds reminiscent of the sixties Spider-Man cartoon with evocative purples, blues and greens and the Ewok village itself - all captured so atmospherically. Those rickety hide-and-branch gliders make an appearance as well. All in all, an exciting cartoon treat that the kids will love. Mine certainly did. But, of interesting note here (and I'm not ashamed to admit it either) I actually watched a couple of these episodes again myself late one night and thoroughly loved them!