Friday, June 13, 2014

The ‘Star Wars’ saga: a running commentary by my 4-year-old son

Right up top, let me say my wife and I aren’t those parents who foist all their old childhood favorites on their kids in the interest of nostalgia. Yes, Star Wars was a huge part of my childhood. I was an American boy in the 1980s, so how could it not be? But I swear our son came by his fascination with Star Wars organically, mainly by browsing books in his preschool library. The Lucasfilm marketing juggernaut is an unavoidable force, and its target audience begins pretty much in the womb. He started picking out Star Wars books every time we went to the library, asking to play various kid-oriented Star Wars games on the computer and generally geeking out as much as someone who hasn’t seen the source material possibly could.

Last month we decided he was finally capable of handling the movies – he knew every plot point of them already – and thus we all settled onto the couch for a family trip through the Lucasverse. The films didn’t disappoint, but they did inspire a lot of questions and commentary from the boy. I’ve trimmed down his more or less nonstop verbal barrage to a few pertinent points that I think capture the Star Wars experience through my son’s 4-year-old eyes.

"When will Governor Tarkin be in this?"
Having read up on the Star Wars universe extensively, the boy was excited to finally meet all the classic characters he'd grown to love from a distance – Luke Skywalker, Chewbacca, R2D2, and every kid’s favorite, Grand Moff Tarkin. I don't know why Peter Cushing's evil bureaucrat made such a pre-screening impression, but the boy spent much of the film's first 20 minutes wondering about his whereabouts. But hey, if he digs Peter Cushing, he and I have a whole lot of low-grade monster movies ahead of us.

"It's weird that Jabba the Hutt is in this."
Jabba the Hutt was, oddly enough, the boy's gateway to Star Wars. His preschool library contains a Clone Wars tie-in book called Watch Out for Jabba the Hutt. Minus the context of Jabba's villainy, the boy deemed him "cute and cuddly." By the time we watched Star Wars, he knew enough of the series' continuity to understand that Jabba was not supposed to make an appearance until Return of the Jedi. Of course, George Lucas changed all that when he slapped a digitized Jabba on top of the actor who played the cruel crime boss and inserted a long-deleted scene back into the 1997 special edition. It's a wholly extraneous scene that functions mainly as fan service – it’s patently obvious that Harrison Ford is meant to be talking to a human being. I was happy that its incongruity stood out even to a first-time, pre-adolescent viewer.

"Is that a Light-Sider or a Dark-Sider?"
The Force splits the universe into a pretty clear-cut dichotomy of good and evil. That seems to be a comforting concept for a four-year-old just starting to appreciate that life traffics mostly in scary shades of grey. Hence, he required near-constant confirmation of every minor character's allegiance.

"Biggs will be OK, because he will become Lando."
A while back at an antique shop we picked up a Star Wars picture novelization that included a story thread that got deleted from the movie, in which Luke has a philosophical conversation with his childhood friend Biggs, who is leaving Tatooine to join the Rebellion. Biggs eventually dies while flanking Luke in the attack on the Death Star, but the boy was unconcerned by his passing. See, in his first appearance in the book, Biggs wears a cape and has a dark moustache. When we meet Lando Calrissian in The Empire Strikes Back, he also wears a cape and has a dark moustache. That's enough of a resemblance for the boy to chalk it up to what I assume is some manner of Force-related reincarnation. I choose to think that's a refreshingly colorblind point of view.

"What did Yoda say?"
The boy came into the series with a pre-abiding love for all of the iconic Star Wars characters, but one of the biggies didn't live up to his expectations. My son is not a Yoda fan, largely because he usually has no idea what the heck the diminutive Jedi Master is saying. Turns out "guttural Grover with inverted syntax" is not a universal language, at least not for 4-year-olds.

"Yes! That will teach you!"
This was the boy's exuberant response as Boba Fett went flailing to his ignoble demise in the Sarlac pit. He did not take kindly to Mr. Fett facilitating Han Solo being frozen in carbonite. I was actually a little unnerved by how upset he got with the Dark Side, sometimes openly rooting for their deaths. The kid just hates evil, I reckon.

"That Ewok is having fun!"
Y'know, grown-up nerds can bag on the Ewoks all they like, but so long as kids' eyes light up at the sight of a furry little warrior whooping his way through the forest while barely clinging to a hijacked speeder bike, they're OK in my book. While I'm at it, the conventional wisdom that Return of the Jedi is a lackluster final chapter to the series is hogwash. That movie is fantastic.

"Why do so many people get their hands cut off?"
Obviously I was aware of the parallels between Luke and Anakin Skywalker each losing a hand, but until I watched all of these movies in a compressed time frame I never noticed just how many hands get chopped off over the run of the series. Luke, Anakin, Count Dooku, the Hoth Wampa, General Grievous, that dude in the cantina – it has to be an average of at least two hands per movie. George Lucas's severed-hand fetish is even more pronounced – and more unsettling – than Quentin Tarantino's foot thing.

"Jar-Jar Binks is always so silly."
This is one point of divergence for us. The boy had generally positive reactions to Jar-Jar Binks, adolescent Anakin Skywalker and The Phantom Menace as a whole. I suspected going in that I –along with most of the movie-going public – might have been too harsh on Episode I when it came out, but I quickly learned that if anything, I'd been too easy on it. That movie is garbage and there is no good thing about it. Still, the Star Wars marketing folks have done a good job of cementing it in the canon. For younger viewers, characters like Qui-Gon Jinn and Jar-Jar Binks are every bit as much a part of the saga as are, say, Lando Calrissian and Boba Fett.

"Anakin has really nice hair!"
That's the nicest thing anyone has ever said about Hayden Christiansen's performance.

OK, that's the easy joke, but I'll admit I was actually rather impressed with Christiansen's Anakin Skywalker on this viewing. Sure, he's over the top a lot of the time, but no more so than the role demands. On the whole, it's a nicely old-fashioned performance filled with the kind of outsized intensity and emoting that would be right at home in the serialized space operas that inspired Star Wars in the first place. I'd chalk up Christiansen's truly egregious moments – and there are a number of them – mainly to George Lucas's writing and directing.

"I wonder what Obi-Wan is up to."
This was probably my favorite comment of the series, delivered in the middle of yet another interminable exchange of purple passion between Anakin and Padme. I really liked Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith this time around, the former especially, but the general contempt for George Lucas's attempts at romantic dialogue is well deserved. The boy was right – no matter what Obi-Wan was engaged with at that moment, it had to be more interesting than that.

“Oh no.”
A quiet, pained whimper at the moment when Anakin officially switches allegiance from the Jedi to the Dark Side. A cool thing about watching movies with a kid is bearing witness to pure, visceral reactions that we old folks have been trained to suppress. It’s heartwarming and heartbreaking to see a melodramatic movie moment warm and/or break someone’s heart.

"I'm happy that Darth Vader turned good again because he didn't want to fight his son."
On second thought, this was probably my favorite comment of the series. The boy is young enough to get excited about stories where good wins out in the end, and the added sheen of a restored parent-son relationship seemed to make him particularly happy. Granted, that puts a lot of pressure on me not to become a universally recognized embodiment of evil, but I knew going in that parenthood would involve some sacrifices.