A Fish Called Dory
My five year old’s fish died today. Her name was Dory. (What else would a five year old name a fish?) She was sad, but I think she took it pretty well. Better than my wife and I did. Sure, we’ll miss the fish, but the thing that’s tough for us is the realization that this is just the first of many hurts that will slowly chip away at her innocence over the course of her childhood.
Now don’t get me wrong, life is tough. And we’ve all got to be a bit tough to get through it or we risk falling to pieces whenever things go wrong. But some of the toughest people I know are also some of the happiest people I know. They’re not so much hard as they are flexible. They’re optimistic. They believe in the power of hope, the power of joy, the power of possibility. In some ways, you could say they still believe in a bit of magic.
But what’s this got to do with Return of the Jedi?
Han Solo Must Die
The Empire Strikes Back is pretty much universally thought of as the superior Star Wars film. And the struggle between director Irvin Kirshner, producer Gary Kurtz, and George Lucas throughout the production of that film is well-documented. The finished product is a more mature film, with complex character development and themes that are more suited for a film made for adults rather than one aimed at strictly kids. It’s the film Kirshner, Lawrence Kasdan, and Kurtz wanted to make, but it wasn’t quite what Lucas had in mind.
With Empire behind him, Lucas wanted to avoid the kinds of struggles he had with Kirshner and Kurtz, so he parted ways with Kurtz (who had been with him since American Graffiti) and hired Richard Marquand to direct the film. Lucas and Marquand seem to have seen eye to eye on wanting a return to form for Return of the Jedi, but the struggles weren’t quite over. Kasdan took on writing duties once again as a favor to Lucas (to whom he felt he owed his career), and Kasdan really felt one of the heroes needed to die to give the film some emotional weight. Harrison Ford agreed, and thought Han Solo was the man for the job. Ford argued that Solo had no past and no real story obligations beyond Empire and that it would suit his character arc to sacrifice himself for the greater good.
Return of the Fairytale
But Lucas insisted Jedi had to have a happy ending, so he vetoed Ford and Kasdan’s idea, and our heroes lived to see the Empire defeated. It’s always been assumed that Marquand was basically a puppet director, but he and Lucas agreed that the trilogy needed to return to its fairytale roots for the finale. However it happened, Jedi ended up as more of a lighthearted, optimistic affair than Kirshner’s darker middle film.
And that’s what I love about it.
I was 7 when Jedi came out. Just old enough to be aware of the significance of what I was seeing and just young enough to not yet understand that life doesn’t always give you happy endings. A little over a decade later I was graduating high school. By then, life had gotten complicated. By then, I’d buried my share of pet fish. But then, I’d seen enough of life to know happy endings can sometimes feel like they are few and far between.
Sure, Empire is more grown up. The heroes get their asses kicked. As an adult, I’m all too aware that that is often the reality of life. And as adults, we have to face reality. Sometimes our art is a way to come to terms with those harsh realities.
But sometimes you just need something that reminds you to hope. Something that reminds you to keep going. To have faith. To have fun. Something that reminds you to believe in a little bit of magic.
And Return of the Jedi does that for me. I hope it always will.