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Nov 28, 2020

The 'LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special' May Even Redeem the Original

Our producer-at-large Father Vince Kuna, C.S.C., a USC film-school grad, does a regular feature here called BASED ON, looking at literary works adapted into TV or movies.

The Lego Star Wars Holiday Special, streaming on Disney+, an animated film written by David Shayne and directed by Ken Cunningham, based on the the Star Wars Holiday Special (TV Movie-1978) written by Rod Warren and directed by Steve Binder.

Partaking of new family traditions is one of the joys of joining a religious community. At Moreau Seminary, the formation house for the Congregation of Holy Cross set at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, seminarians learn in the first semester about the Thanksgiving movie.

After enjoying the dinner feast, everyone settles down to watch a movie together. The film must satisfy a happy medium of criteria: not rated R, but not a children’s G, either; some values messaged, but not too preachy; something that not everyone has seen before, but nothing too obscure.

As the film buff, I was tasked with the selection. If memory serves me correctly, I went “three for three” -- Millions (2004), St. Ralph (2004), Joyeux Noel (2005) -- impressing even my brothers who I knew would rather have spent the time watching football.

At my first parish placement following ordination, I wish one criterion had included not selecting a movie to deliberately tick off your fellow brothers as some leftover Halloween trick. But that was apparently in my priest-friend/novice master’s mind when he played a DVD version of the 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special for the gathered community.

The show proposed a vague storyline of Life Day interspersed with the main characters of the original film that was trying to be a television movie, but ended up being a quasi-variety show. The visual look puzzled all of us, too, with live-action Wookiees awkwardly navigating the background of hand-drawn animation. It was maddening to sit and watch. That our version happened to retain the commercials making for the least worst part of the evening says something.

Disney+ released the LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special this month, coming off the success of the feature film LEGO franchise. While not the length or quite the quality of the previous films, there’s some joy to be had.

The ensemble from the most recent trilogy plans a Life Day celebration on the Millennium Falcon. Rey struggles to train Finn in the ways of the Force and feels compelled to time-travel and seek the wisdom of Jedi who came before.

Rey and BB-8 enter the actual scenes from the previous films and, here, you can see the filmmakers readily acknowledge the good and the bad of the Star Wars universe. Rey and Darth Vader pause the lightsaber battle to coo at Baby Yoda. Good. I will in fact, reference the cameo in my Christmas homily as a great “prince of peace” moment.

The two time-travelers also encounter the mano-a-mano fight between Anakin and Obi-Wan resolved in the saga’s creative low-moment: the latter character established the literal high ground. Bad.

The theme of this clever 47-minute special, then, reminds us of the high and lows of our own family gatherings and encourages us to cherish both for better or worse.

The LEGO film franchise began with the sing-able line, “Everything is awesome!” I thought it to be a harmless tune, forgotten soon after it was whistled. But in hindsight, there is some bold theological statement there. The line presupposes everything could be awesome.

Revisiting the original, I will grant it one thing: it tried to create a media universe for Star Wars, that the same characters you see on the silver screen could visit you too, on your antennae-adorned, statick-y television. It just didn’t quite know how to execute it in those days

In the COVID reality, I’m glad the LEGO franchise that typically plays best in theaters could have a new version streamed while quarantined. So, it seems you can’t always have the good now, without absorbing the bad first.

With that perspective, I still wouldn’t call the 1970s show awesome, but knowing the 2020 version might not exist without it, I’ll cease calling the original version totally awful.

Here's the trailer for the LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special:


Here's what some of the original cast think of the original one:


And, because the Internet never forgets -- even when it probably should -- and despite the best efforts of Star Wars creator George Lucas to bury it forever, here's the original, in all its glory:


Image: Disney+

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