Courtesy Fantasia Film Festival

A Disturbance in the Force Review: Disaster in a Galaxy Far Far Away

Fantasia 2023

/
6 mins read

A Disturbance in the Force: How the Star Wars Holiday Special Happened
(USA, 87 min.)
Dir. Jeremy Coon, Steve Kozak
Program: Selections 2023

 

On November 17, 1978, The Star Wars Holiday Special aired on CBS and instantly become the stuff of legends. Originally designed as a way to keep the burgeoning Star Wars phenomenon on the minds of fickle audiences until its sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, was released, the two-hour special came with lofty expectations. The goal was to build a holiday classic, like A Charlie Brown Christmas, that would be a yearly staple for the network. In reality, it was never heard of again.

Similar to tales of ghosts haunting the house down the street, the holiday special is something that many people have talked about, but few have actually seen. Those who have been fortunate to lays eye on it, either when it aired or via other means, wear the achievement like a geek badge of honour.  In A Disturbance in the Force: How the Star Wars Holiday Special Happened, filmmakers Jeremy Coon and Steve Kozak seek to understand how a seemingly surefire hit became an infamous pop culture punchline.

As Coon and Kozak’s documentary notes early on, there was a time when the Star Wars universe was not the golden goose it is today. In fact, it was questionable whether the 1977 film would even connect with audiences. While George Lucas had a distinct vision for his space fantasy, the studio was not sure how to market it.  Enter Charley Lippincott, a trailblazer at Lucasfilms who realized that the key was to get the word out to science fiction fans directly.  Creating the type of marketing blitz that would make events like the San Diego Comic Con a key movie launch pad decades later, Lippincott tapped into geek culture before it had an official name.

Spreading the word about the film at sci-fi and book conventions, and even securing a comic book novelization before the film was released, Lippincott created so much grass roots buzz that Star Wars dominated the box office for months upon its release.

Despite its massive success, the franchise infrastructure that we have today was not available in the 1970s.  With no toy lines and happy meals tie-ins back then to satiate the appetites of fans, it was not uncommon at the time to do cross-promotions with popular variety shows of the time. A person could turn on their television and see Donny and Marie Osmond interacting with the likes of R2D2, C3PO, and Chewbacca on the Donny & Marie Show Star Wars Special or Mark Hamil doing a bit on the Bob Hope All Star Christmas Comedy Special.

Considering the success of these type of shows at the time, it made sense that The Star Wars Holiday Special enlisted producers and comedic writers who had a background in variety shows.  Unfortunately, what the producers lacked was a deep understanding of the science fiction genre.  Furthermore, while there were rumors of stars such as Cher and Robin Williams appearing, the producers utilized famous television actors as guest stars, from Bea Arthur to Harvey Corman to Art Carney, who were not part of the young demographic the special was intended for.

Speaking with everyone from those involved with various levels of the production, including writer Bruce Vilanch and fashion designer Bob Mackie, to historians to a plethora of famous Star Wars fans, the documentary offers a well-rounded explanation of the various poor decisions that led to the disastrous production.  One of which was the choice to focus the central story around a Wookie family without providing any subtitles so that people could understand what they were saying.

While the documentary does a great job of taking viewers through the ins and outs of the production, Coon and Kozak’s also gets viewers thinking about the nature of failure. Pressured to make the special as short-term content in between films, George Lucas removed himself from the production when he saw the direction it was taking.  Years later, the director still refuses to acknowledge it and has instructed his actors not to talk about it.

A Disturbance in the Force attempts to show that one’s failures should be embraced and not denied. Aside from our mistakes being a powerful learning tool, the documentary highlights that people’s perspectives change including how they interpret a work. Over forty-years later, the holiday special is referenced in everything from The Big Bang Theory to The Mandalorian by those who deeply love it, warts and all, and consider it an integral part of their childhood.

Full of interesting nuggets of information, there is plenty in A Disturbance in the Force that will delight casual and hardcore fans alike.

 

A Disturbance in the Force screened at the 2023 Fantasia Film Festival.

Courtney Small is a Rotten Tomatoes approved film critic and co-host of the radio show Frameline. He has contributed to That Shelf, Leonard Maltin, Cinema Axis, In the Seats, and Black Girl Nerds. He is the host of the Changing Reels podcast and is a member of the Toronto Film Critics Association, Online Film Critics Society and the African American Film Critics Association.

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