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Star Wars: Return Of The Jedi's Ewoks Were Originally Planned As 'Short' Wookiees

If the "Star Wars" saga has taught fans anything over the past four-plus decades since the original film was released in 1977, is that the "galaxy far, far away" is filled with endless groups of species besides humans. Among the myriad of groups highlighted in the original "Star Wars" trilogy were the furry, bear-like creatures known as the Ewoks in 1983's "Episode VI – Return of the Jedi," who inhabited the forest moon of Endor.

The Ewoks, of course, haven't been the most popular group among die-hard "Star Wars" fans over the years (and George Lucas knows it), with the complaint of them looking like stuffed teddy bears among the most popular rants. With all the hate thrown the Ewoks' way over the years, it would have been interesting if Lucas could take a trip on the way back machine and change the species to a downsized version of one of the saga's most beloved characters in Chewbacca.

In an interview with Rolling Stone published a couple of months after the initial theatrical release of "The Return of the Jedi" in 1983, Lucas explained how he came up with the Ewoks, what their purpose was, and what he first imagined they looked like.

"The idea was just a short Wookiee," Lucas told Rolling Stone. "In the original film, the giant end battle was the crux of the whole movie: a sort of primitive society overcoming this huge technological society. In the early versions of the script, those primitives were Wookiees."

Lucas saved only one Wookiee for the Battle of Endor

Of course, George Lucas wasn't originally satisfied with the final cut of each film in the original "Star Wars" trilogy, which led to him tinkering with them for their "Special Edition" releases in theaters in 1997. And while "The Return of the Jedi" saw some retooling, perhaps the biggest change, Ewok-wise, came with new music for the tribe's celebration with Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), and Han Solo (Harrison Ford) after Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) piloted the Millennium Falcon and Wedge Antilles (Denis Lawson) an X-Wing fighter to blow up the new iteration of the Death Star.

Prior to that, the rebels — including Han, Leia, and Chewbacca — did battle with the Empire ground troops on Endor. By that time, however, Lucas' idea to use short Wookiees was supplanted by a tribe that came to be known as the Ewoks. "Since I couldn't do [the] battle [I originally envisioned], I took one Wookiee, and he ended up being Chewbacca, who became a more technological person," Lucas recalled for Rolling Stone. "So in this one I said, 'I can't make them Wookiees, so I'll make them short Wookiees and give them short hair and give them a different society and make them really primitive, the way it's intended.'"

Lucas admitted to Rolling Stone that he was up for criticism with the final look of the Ewoks, but he didn't appear to be afraid of any backlash: "Well, they evolved and started getting cute. [Smiles] Dare to be cute. The worst we could do is get criticized for it."

Lucas wasn't so sure about the merchandising marketability of the Ewoks

Shrewdly, George Lucas negotiated to keep the merchandising rights to the "Star Wars" saga, ushering in a new era of movie action figures and role-play items that earned him billions of dollars.

Not surprisingly, critics felt that the inclusion of the cute and cuddly Ewoks in "Return of the Jedi" was a calculated business move by Lucas because the characters looked so much like teddy bears. Lucas, on the other hand, was already aware that the Ewoks would be polarizing among fans, and in his 1983 interview with Rolling Stone, he argued why putting teddy bear-like character on store shelves might not be the best of business moves.

"A lot of people are going to be offended by Ewoks. A lot of people say the films are just an excuse for merchandising [saying] Lucas just decided to cash in on the teddy bear," the filmmaker observed. "Well, it's not a great thing to cash in on, because there are lots of Teddy bears marketed, so you don't have anything that's unique."

And while Lucas realized in 1983 that people were looking at his merchandising "as an evil thing," he shed some light for Rolling Stone, explaining what practice did for his company behind the scenes. "That's what keeps funding the other things we do — the computer research and all the other things ... ultimately, a lot of fun things come out of it, and at the same time, it pays for the overhead of the company and everybody's salary."

"Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi" will celebrate the 40th anniversary of its theatrical release on May 25, 2023.