When watching the 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special, the first thing that comes to mind is “Huh? What did I just watch?” This 90 minute special has achieved a status of infamy in its sheer terribleness. It was such an awful piece of junk that it’s never been re-aired even once in 37 years. It was voted as one of the Most Embarrassing Moments in Television History. It was about this project that George Lucas—the guy who defends The Phantom Menace—made the comment “If I had the time and a sledge hammer, I’d go around destroying every copy!” To sum up…It’s bad!
To be totally fair, there is a 9-minute animated sequence in the middle of this special which is actually fairly good. Nothing special, but perfectly watchable. It’s notable as the first appearance of Boba Fett (Two years before the Empire Strikes Back) and it’s also sort of a proto-version of Droids. Aside from that, however, this whole thing reeks of mind-numbing wretchedness.
It seems that the ill-conceived idea was to turn Star Wars one of those musical/variety shows that were so popular back then. However, not only are the scenes unfunny and the musical numbers terrible, almost none of it has anything to do with the story of the Star Wars characters. Other than the threadbare-thin bookended plot about Chewbacca and his family, nothing here says “Star Wars.” It seems like they just wanted to find yet another way to cash in on the immense success of the original film. Wow, imagine that!
It should be pointed out that although this is often called a Christmas Special, it actually aired on Thanksgiving 1978 and it’s titled as a Holiday Special. It’s unclear which holiday it’s meant to be connected to, so I guess it’s a general, all-purpose, ‘pick-your-own-holiday’ special.
The cast of Star Wars: A New Hope actually appears in this (although R2D2 is described in the credits as being played by R2D2. Was Kenny Baker in there or did he actually read the script in advance and run for the door?) Harrison Ford looks progressively more embarrassed as his scenes progress.
The movie starts with some stock footage from Star Wars where the Millennium Falcon is being chased by some Imperial fighters. Actually, we get a lot of re-used footage here. One laughable moment is of Vader walking the halls of his space station HQ, in a scene taken from A New Hope, but with new dialogue dubbed-in by James Earl Jones added to fit the plot.
So what is the Plot, you ask? Our story, if we can be generous enough to call it that, concerns Han Solo (Ford) trying to get Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) back to his homeworld Kashyk in time for the Wookie Life Day celebration. What is Life Day? Who knows. They never tell us. Just go with it. Anyway, they have to escape the pursuing Empire ships before they can go sing songs around the Life Day tree.
Meanwhile, Chewy’s family is in their treehouse home (clearly just a painting from the outside) impatiently waiting for him to arrive for the festivities. The family includes his wife Mala, his son Lumpy and Grampa Itchy. (Yes, Lumpy and itchy! Seriously!) We get several scenes of the Wookie’s home life, where they talk and they argue about stuff, but we have no idea what the heck they are talking about because there are no subtitles. Just a lot of Wookie roaring!
Momma Mala decides to call Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to see if he knows where Chewy is. Luke, who looks like a very tanned Ken doll here, is hanging around with R2R2 (apparently played by R2D2) while fixing his X Wing. Luke doesn’t know where Han and Chewy are. After this, we don’t see Hamill again until the finale. Mala also calls Leia (Carrie Fisher) who is doing something in an office with C3PO (Anthony Daniels) but she doesn’t know anything either. Like Luke, she vanishes until the last scene.
Back on Kashyk, little Lumpy is watching a hologram of an even littler circus troupe. While he’s doing that, Mala is in the kitchen watching a cooking show. Yes, the Star Wars special features a segment on how to make a salad. Harvey Korman—the guy who was so funny in Blazing Saddles and The Carol Burnett Show—appears in an unfunny scene as a 4-armed female cook (a parody on chef Julia Childs) hosting the show, repeating the words “whip and stir” over and over. It just goes on and on!
Art Carney (best known as dopey sewer worker Ed Norton in The Honeymooners and the Jackie Gleason Show) arrives, having slipped through an Imperial blockade so he can deliver Life Day presents to Chewy’s family. He has a mini-translator for Lumpy and—believe it or not—porn for Grandpa! Yes, their guest celebrates the sacred holiday spirit by bringing the old Wookie a virtual reality porn machine featuring a sexy Diane Carol as the fantasy girl Grandpa moans over in his VR helmet. (I’m not making this up!)
Finally, the plot reaches Kashyk when Imperial soldiers arrive to occupy Chewy’s treehouse, hoping that Han and Chewbacca will walk into a trap. While waiting for our heroes to arrive, one of the Imperial troopers decides to watch some TV and for the next 4 minutes, we see a music video by the Jefferson Starship, playing some strange song which has nothing to do with the plot or anything else in the Star Wars universe.
Despite her home being occupied, Mala decides she can’t miss her soap operas and tunes into “Life on Tatooine”. This segment shows us a cheaper version of the Star Wars cantina, where Bea Arthur is the owner/bartender Ackmena. When the Empire takes time out from its universal conquest to close down the cantina permanently, Ackmena must inform her customers that they’ll have to find a new hangout. She does this with a song-and-dance number, of course.
Giving credit where it’s due, Bea Arthur is the only one to put any genuine effort into her role and she comes across as funny and likable. This scene would actually be somewhat effective if it was connected to anything. If the people who made this special had chosen to center it around Ackmena and the cantina, it might have actually worked. Sadly, “Life On tatooine” ends and we’re returned to the treehouse again.
Lumpy is depressed about having the Empire in his home. He raises his spirit by—watching a STAR WARS CARTOON! Yes, Star Wars animated cartoons featuring Luke, Han, Leia and company exist in the Star Wars universe. (What does Lumpy think about his dad appearing in his favorite cartoon show?)
To be fair, this all-too-brief cartoon segment is clearly the best part of this whole mess. The animation is very reminiscent of Droids and may have been a test run for the future animated series. The original cast provides the voices.
This segment has an actual plot: Han Solo and Chewbacca are retrieving some magic talisman to fight the Empire with. When the Falcon crashes, Luke and the two droids go to the rescue, landing in something that looks like Jurassic Park. There, they met the mysterious armored hunter Boba Fett who offers to help Luke find the Falcon. Once the ship is located, we learn that the talisman spreads a Sleep Virus that affects humans. Han is already asleep and Luke succumbs next. Boba Fett volunteers to go retrieve the cure but the suspicious Chewbacca goes along with him. While slipping into the nearest city to get the cure, Boba Fett sneaks off alone to contact Darth Vader and tell him that the plan is working. Unbeknownst to Boba, R2D2 picks up the broadcast and warns the rest. After Han and Luke are awakened, our heroes reveal that they know of Boba Fett’s treachery. There follows a brief fight, and Boba Fett flees, promising that they’ll meet again. (Bobs Fett is actually an impressive villain in this. No wonder he made such an impression that he was utilized for the next film.)
With the cartoon over, we go back to the treehouse. (Ugh!) Lumpy has plan to use his mini-translator to fool the Empire but it requires some assembly so it’s back to the TV, where Lumpy watches a long instructional video (Harvey Korman again). This leads to whole scene of Lumpy assembling his translator while Korman tries unsuccessfully to be funny. Lumpy is caught in the act but fortunately for him, Dad and Han Solo show up to save the day. The one, solitary Storm Trooper left to guard the family clumsily trips and falls out of the treehouse to his death.
Han says a touching goodbye to Chewy and his clan but he’s back in the very next scene, along with the rest of the original cast, to participate in the vague Life Day ceremony, where Leia sings a cheesy Life Day song and Harrison Ford tries hard not to look mortified.
And that’s it! That’s the whole special. What sort of holiday message were they trying to send us? It’s mostly just Wookies watching TV (and porno.) There’s no action, except in some stock footage and the animated segment. The big climax is an Imperial Soldier tripping. We end with a bad song. (Although Fisher’s voice isn’t bad.)
This special was so bad it made Harvey Korman and Art Carney unfunny. I didn’t think that was possible. And what’s with Grandpa’s masturbation machine in a holiday special? And why do they have Star Wars cartoons in the Star Wars universe? Who actually had the idea that Star Wars would make a good musical/variety show? Why did George Lucas approve of this mess? (He didn’t write it, by the way.) I think this special was the reason Harrison Ford asked to have Han killed off in The Empire Strikes Back…so he wouldn’t have to do another one of these!
To sum up…It’s bad!