I began to suspect that watching Return Of The Jedi with my daughters was a bad idea when my youngest daughter, Kallista, 4, answered a question from Athena, 6, as to whether we would ever see Jabba the Hut again:
"No, Athena, Princess Leia didn't want to be a slave so she choked Jabba and killed him."
So much for the daddy-daughter movie night.
Despite my general content-based misgivings of the first Star Wars trilogy for my children, who are more accustomed to the mild or non-existent dangers of Martha Speaks or Rio, I had borrowed Return of the Jedi from the local library. Athena and Kallista had "watched" Star Wars (Episode 4) and The Empire Strikes Back (Episode 5) previously, but the key word here is "watched."
Their viewing habits bear some small connection to the interruptions of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Yet instead of well-timed satirical zingers voiced by a witty robots, they offer something like Molly Bloom's monologue from the end of Ulysses as screamed by Jar Jar Binks. Samples:
What do most of those words in the sky mean? That Han Solo person isn't really frozen and it is just an actor, right? Why is that fat man crying when his monster died? Is it because that monster is his pet and he loved him and now he is sad? How would Yoda say get us more popcorn? Would it be like "popcorn, you will get us now, yes, ummmm?" Is that thing (an Ewok) Chewbacca's cousin? Oh, Chewbacca is good? And they don't know Chewbacca and the Ewoks are really inside that machine and so Han Solo is scared for a minute? Right? Daddy? Right?
After hours of incessant questioning like the shrill bleeping of Stormtrooper laser fire -- face myself, I must. Come to this place, how did we, ummmm?
The Star Wars mania inflecting Kallista's princess-centered worldview stems from the plastic lightsaber Athena received for her 6th birthday. Their two cousins have their own models. This makes Kallista, the youngest, the only one of four close-knit girls without a light saber. She has decided, of course, that these plastic sticks must contain powerful symbolic magic. She hopes to earn a lightsaber for her upcoming birthday. She is a young Jedi trainee.
I didn't help matters by taking the four girls with their lightsabers (and Kallista with a stand-in water-soaker) for "Jedi training." I proceeded to lead them through various Jedi "challenges" --hopping on one foot, chasing a balloon with their magic sticks -- before knighting them as they yelled "I am a Jedi" across a Saturday-afternoon corporate parking lot re-purposed as our stellar academy.
Maybe this is good. It doesn't take any Jedi mind tricks to reveal the ridiculous stereotypes perpetuated by most of girl-marketed toys and books that, like Star Wars, exist in their own elaborate fantasy worlds: The Strawberry Shortcake re-boot is perhaps better than the original ("Raspberry Tart" did became "Raspberry Torte"). I can even appreciate the considerably more-enlightened values of the newer My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic serials. Such re-workings are light years better than the pre-potty training pull-ups splattered with Disney Princess faces that whisper coyly: Remember girls, relax your bowels like royalty.
Therefore, I hoped our viewing of Return of the Jedi would not focus so much on, say, the violent chain-choking of the giant worm gangster by his scantily clad slave princess. Instead, I was pulling for the oversimplified version of "good" triumphing over "evil" with a healthy dose of anger-control instruction: Kallista, don't throw a fit because you have to finish dinner. Anger leads to the dark side and the dark side leads to an early bedtime...
When we finally emerge from furious-question hyperspace to the final showdown between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker, I was running out of patience and popcorn. Bring on the moral payoff. Ok, girls, pay attention! When Vader tosses the Emperor into the Death Star's reactor pit, Athena and Kallista seem to experience a visceral childlike catharsis.
Amazingly, they even grow quiet -- for a fraction of a light second -- when Luke touchingly removes his father's mask to expose the wizened face of his now at-least partially redeemed parent. And there he is, the fierce warrior humbled in his final moments, returned from his long cyborg exile and recuperated in the brotherhood of intergalactic humanity. I look at my daughters, expectant to hear their take:
Kallista: Wow, he looked way better in his costume!
Athena: He really needs to go to the doctor! And, he needs to get some sun!
Ah, three movies worth of laser-cannon inquiry funneled into commentary on the generally poor state of Anakin Skywalker's complexion.
They also completely miss the fact that Vader dies, until Luke burns the body on a pyre and the ghostly triumvirate of Obi Wan, Yoda and Anakin appears, smiling, with order returned to the Force. The girls awaken, indignant.
Athena: Wait a second! Are they ghosts now? Good ghosts?
I make ready to discuss the place of spirit visitations in the Star Wars universe. I consider the best way to explain, cycling quickly through the difference between western and eastern conceptions of the soul, and then realize, to my mild horror, that the girls are keenly aware of the three other as-yet-unwatched prequels.
A long time for me in a galaxy far far away.
For now, though, I get a pass. They turn their attention to the dancing Ewoks in the closing frames. In this moment of furry celebration -- and it is really just a moment -- I, too, turn away from the dark side.
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