In between Return of the Jedi‘s release in 1983 and the dark times of fandom in the late 1980s, Lucasfilm produced two Ewok movies; Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure and Ewoks: The Battle for Endor, and the Droids and Ewoks animated series. At the time, animation was a genre only briefly explored by Lucasfilm in The Star Wars Holiday Special. By the mid-80s, this was about to change! Nelvana and Lucasfilm came together to create The Ewoks, the perfect vessel for a spin-off series to attract younger audiences.
Since their blackened-out forms on the back of the Return of the Jedi Kenner action figure card backs, Ewoks have captured our imagination, especially in younger children (See the Ewok mid-level books such as “The Adventures of Teebo”). And the Saturday morning cartoon lineup fit the new series like a new hooded headdress. Ever the creator, George Lucas, knew what he wanted, and the creative process began.
As of 1985, Nelvana Studios in Toronto, Canada, was the only animation studio Lucasfilm has ever entrusted with Star Wars. They came to Lucasfilm via Canadian director David Acomba, who helped develop The Star Wars Holiday Special for television. Acomba showed Lucas Nelvana’s 1976 special A Cosmic Christmas, their first animated half-hour show and their first big success. Lucas loved it, and they were invited to participate.
In 1978, Nelvana co-founder Clive Smith arrived at Lucasfilm to present an 11-minute detailed animated presentation piece to be included on The Star Wars Holiday Special. After a 45-minute talk–dead silence until suddenly everyone broke out into applause. Lucas pointed out a couple of things to tweak, which impressed Clive, “George really knew his business; he knew exactly what he was doing.”
Creating the Ewoks animated series
After the success of the Return of the Jedi, Lucas busied himself with an array of projects. By 1984 he decided it was time to take another stab at bringing Star Wars animation to television. Lucasfilm immediately brought Nelvana in to develop the project using none of the major characters and transpose the PG-rated action from the big screen to the small screen. At the time, the status of future Star Wars films was uncertain. Therefore using the Ewoks allowed for future stories without conflicting with the mythology (it added to it in fact).
Miki Herman, one of the very few women who worked in production on the original Star Wars trilogy was executive producer on the Ewoks and Droids Adventure Hour which debuted in September of 1985!
Herman says, “George gave me the opportunity to produce these shows. And he always loved cartoons. So everything that I did stemmed from his sensibilities and his preferences. And I got Nelvana from Canada to do the animation (the same company who animated The Story of the Faithful Wookiee which can be see on Disney+). They were great people to work with, and we had a lot of time to plan and prepare.”
More Ewok Cels the Better
The Ewok stories’ development was influenced by Pogo, Lord of the Rings, and Carl Barks’ Uncle Scrooge stories. Ewoks‘ plotlines revolved around Wicket and his young friends exploring Endor while struggling to gain respect within the tribe.
“In May of 1984, we met with George and discussed how he saw the shows and how he wanted them.” Herman continued, “He wanted them to have a better quality than any animation show. He wanted to have a lot of emotion. George wanted more animation cels than any other television show (the average animated show had a cel count of 8,000-10,000. Some Droids episodes had 24,000 cels). George didn’t want the characters to just stand still while their mouths moved.”
Ewoks Not Cute Enough
In 1985, Saturday morning cartoons were overflowing with cuteness. One reason was the Reagan administration’s relaxation of FCC controls on children’s shows, which allowed cartoons at the time to resemble half-hour toy commercials. Shows like The Smurfs, Care Bears, and My Little Pony were attractive to viewers who were still in kindergarten. This lead to a substantial list of restrictions placed on the Ewoks series, including guns must not look like blasters, fires can only be started by magical creatures, physical contact can never include punching or hitting–only pushing or shoving, never strike a character in the head, and characters always had to be shown wearing seatbelts in vehicles.
Regardless of all the restrictions, Ewoks displayed some of the best animation out there. It’s been reported each episode cost between $500,000-$600,000 per episode. This was a lot of money for the time, but not enough to solve all production issues. The Droids series was more problematic because it had more human-like creatures, which are more challenging to nail down than Ewoks, which had more animal-like creatures.
Taj Mahal & the E-E-E-Ewoks
Another distinctive quality of the Ewok series was the music. For the theme music, Nelvana and Lucasfilm made the unprecedented move of contracting musical celebrities. The Ewoks theme music was done by blues artist Taj Mahal and is undoubtedly one of the most memorable theme songs ever recorded for a Saturday morning cartoon. Upon first hearing the music, Clive Smith didn’t know what to make of it, but before long, all of Nelvana hummed the tune in the halls.
During Toy Fair 1985, Miki met a Disney producer who could not understand how they could have such different music compared to Disney animation music. After Miki was replaced in the second season, a television animation producer from Los Angeles filled her role. He wanted to make the theme music more traditional. The music was changed for the second season, perhaps to make it more Disney-like.
ABC-TV ushered in several changes for the second season now titled All-New Ewoks, including making the Ewoks more brightly colored and the stories more light and fluffy. Episodes were also divided into two 11-minute segments instead of one continuous 22-minute episode. And, Droids was dropped from the Saturday morning line-up.
Female Ewoks Rule!
One of the most remarkable characters was Asha, which was writer Paul Dini’s creation. Asha was Princess Kneesa’s long-lost older sister, who was lost in the forest as a Wokling and grew up in the wilderness as a savage fighter who protects the forest creatures from evil-doers. Asha single-handily saves the tribe from the Duloks, the Ewoks arch-enemies.
By 1987, the Saturday morning landscape had changed quite a bit with Pee-Wee’s Playhouse and Mighty Mouse leading the pack. Ewoks were long gone and perhaps thought of now as the right cartoon at the wrong time.
For more on the Ewoks animated series, tune in to Disney + and check out the interview with Miki Herman and hear more about her time working on the Ewoks and Droids series, on episode #253 of ‘Skywalking Through Neverland.’
A Little About Me
My name is Eric Onkenhout, I live in Massachusetts, and Star Wars is my jam and has been since I was 6 or 7. Besides Star Wars, I also enjoy Marvel and Game of Thrones. I love to write, whether it’s fiction, reviews, or journalistic articles. I also enjoy long walks on the beach!
As far as movies, books, comic books, or tv shows, I tend to gravitate towards good writing regardless of the genre. I have a Bachelor’s degree in English-Creative Writing; I like sports like hockey, football, and soccer. And I have one cat named Zeke who is doing his best at laying on my arm as I type this right now.