We live in a marvelous age, folks. When I was a kid, all we had were VHS pan and scan versions of older movies like Superman, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Aliens. These days, nearly every weekend brings with it a theatrical re-release of a classic movie. So far, this year has given us a remastered edition of Titanic and now Star Wars: Return of the Jedi for its 40th anniversary. It’s a strange echo of 1997, which saw the release of Cameron’s film and the Star Wars Special Edition trilogy.

My views on Return of the Jedi have varied over the years. As a kid, it was my favorite Star Wars movie. It was joyful, action-packed space fantasy with vivacious visuals and colorful characters. As I got older, though, my interests gravitated more to the darker aspects of The Empire Strikes Back and I left ROTJ’s childish antics behind.

In theaters, I still enjoyed the spectacle. John Williams’ incredible score does much of the heavy lifting, but there’s also fun character development and exquisite effects work. Han Solo is more goofball than scoundrel, Leia is a doe-eyed princess over feisty freedom fighter, and Luke is, well… a more powerful Luke.

Even Darth Vader lacks menace. In a wild about-face from his actions in Empire, the villain doesn’t kill a soul and ambles about until the third act. He does share a great scene with Luke, where he confesses his love of the dark side. Still, this never feels like the Vader we all fear – probably to make the film more kid-friendly. 

I mean, just watch this scene:

Compared to, say, this scene in Empire:

Return of the Jedi maximizes fun above all

Jedi is fun. Where A New Hope and Empire are designed to appeal to all audiences, ROTJ is intended for youngsters. I once read a review that described the experience as hanging out with old friends, which is apt. The stiff performances, simplistic script, quick resolutions to dangling story threads, and lack of fresh ideas make it evident that the cast and crew were eager to move on. While ROTJ does satisfy, I’m not sure it lives up to its namesake.

After everything, this is how the Empire goes down?

Out of the original Star Wars trilogy, Jedi feels the most dated. The hairstyles, the acting, the fight choreography, and the film’s overall look firmly place the events in the early 1980s. By comparison, Empire featured vibrant cinematography, dark shadows, and incredible lighting. Watch this fight sequence between Luke and Vader and compare it with their standoff in ROTJ.

That said, Jedi does have some magical moments. Luke versus the Rancor is fantastic, Jabba the Hutt remains an all-time villain, and that speeder chase through the forest still induces goosebumps:

I’m not gonna go all in on the Ewoks. They don’t work for me, but they make kids happy.

The Empire Strikes Back stands alone

If you remove Empire from the equation, Star Wars hews closer to a Saturday morning cartoon than, say, Dune. Empire remains the lone wild card — the grim Star Wars epic that teased endless artistic and creative possibilities.

Return of the Jedi is very much in line with George Lucas’ vision. It’s big, bold, and occasionally thrilling, but it’s also silly, packed with goofy humor and cartoonish action … not to mention hopeful, optimistic, and full of heart. 

Sitting in the theater, I was swept away by Jedi’s innocence and matter-of-fact approach to good versus evil. There’s little nuance to be found here, but that’s part of the appeal. About midway through, I stopped gritting my teeth over its flaws, sat back, and enjoyed the show. We’ll likely never get another Empire Strikes Back again, particularly with Disney in charge. Still, that legendary picture may have been a case of lightning in a bottle, an aberration in a long-running franchise that has struck out far more than its hit. I give up.

Return of the Jedi doesn’t equate to cinematic greatness but offers quality family entertainment. In these increasingly cynical times, maybe, just maybe, that’s enough.

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