Friday, 16 November 2018

40 years on: the animated sequence of the Star Wars Holiday Special

The Star Wars Holiday Special animated segment

This Saturday, November 17, it's 40 years since the Star Wars Holiday Special, probably the strangest event in Star Wars history.

There’s plenty to mock in the special. I’ve indulged in that mockery myself in posts here and here. We can deride the domestic life of Chewbacca’s comedy, some painful comedy shtick, Princess Leia’s musical tribute to the wookiee holiday Life Day, and Luke Skywalker’s bizarre hair and make-up, to begin with. 

But in the blessed spirit of Life Day, perhaps let’s look at one aspect of the special that has been relatively-kindly received 
– its animated sequence.

Never seen again: the Star Wars Holiday Special

George Lucas has shown every sign of wanting to erase the Holiday Special from history.

Millions saw it that Friday in 1978, in the US and Canada, but it was never broadcast in North America again. Some people must have come to wonder whether the whole strange experience was a hallucination brought on by taking an early nip at the Thanksgiving liquor.

Sweden saw the Holiday Special in 1979, while France had a shortened version that same year. It was transmitted Venezuela, Honduras and Brazil in 1981. But that was the end of its broadcast history.

In those pre-internet times, plenty of people in the rest of the world were unaware of the special’s existence, especially since George Lucas blocked any home video release.

I did not even hear of the Holiday Special until the August 1981 issue of Fantastic Films reached the UK. That magazine told the story of Nelvana Ltd, the animation studio that produced the 10-minute animated segment in the middle of the special. 

Nelvana, Boba Fett and the Star Wars Holiday Special animated sequence

Nelvana's work profiled in Fantastic Films #16

At the time Fantastic Films wrote about the company in 1981, the Toronto-based company Nelvana Ltd had just made its first feature-length production, Drats (aka Rock & Rule), set in a post-nuclear future where two duelling rock musicians are able to summon sea creatures from other dimensions 

The article notes that Nirvana was founded in the early 1970s by Michael Hirsh and Patrick Loubert, both in their mid-20s. In 1977, it created a popular TV animation, A Cosmic Christmas.

In early 1978, when George Lucas’s company began preparing its Holiday Special, it hatched the idea of an animated sequence which would introduce a key character from the yet-to-be-filmed Star Wars sequel. The Holiday Special’s original director, David Acomba, was aware of Nelvana’s work and suggested the company should be invited to bid for the chance to make that segment.

Lucas’s people were duly sent a videotape of A Cosmic Christmas and decided the Nelvana team were the right choice to make the animation. But they Nelvana was not making the sequence from scratch. 
It was provided with a detailed script and a complete soundtrack, so the studio’s job was to animate to that. 

The plot has the Millennium Falcon crash-landing on a swampy planet, where our heroes from Star Wars are attacked by a monster and then rescued by a hooded stranger, one Boba Fett.

Luke and Han contract a virus which puts Solo in a coma. Boba Fett and Chewie go off to obtain an antidote, but R2-D2 intercepts a communication between Fett and Darth Vader. It turns out that Fett is on a mission to befriend the Rebels so they will reveal the location of their hidden base. Once Han is cured, the game is up, and Fett flees. 

Fantastic Films outlined the difficult job Nelvana had taken on:
“The project was an artistic challenge in that the studio wanted to depict the familiar stars loosely enough that they would not look like human actors rotoscoped, but carefully enough that they would not look like grotesque caricatures. The villain, Boba Fett, was a particular problem since he was an original character never seen before. (Lucas was using this animated sequence to give him a try-out.) Nelvana had to depict him so that he would be faithful to the character’s life appearance in The Empire Strikes Back, still over a year in the future.”

The production of the Holiday Special was not a happy one, and David Acomba quit the project. As I've written before, I don't quite buy the theory that 
it would all have been better if Acomba had stayed on – it’s just hard to imagine how the Holiday Special could ever have turned out well. Nonetheless, that is the judgement of the Fantastic Films journalist. The report says Acomba quit over the “many arbitrary changes” being made to the special, adding: 

“The animated sequence, which needed to e started earlier than the live sequences because of the additional time required for animation, was the only one to be filmed as Acomba and Lucas had designed it.”

It runs less than ten minutes, and it doesn't have a dramatic climax, but the sequence is well-done, and it would have been very exciting to a young audience at the time.

Will we ever see the full Holiday Special officially released? 

Boba Fett in the Star Wars Holiday Special 

The Star Wars Holiday Special was an embarrassment for George Lucas, who was busy scripting and preparing The Empire Strikes Back when it was made.

Fantastic Films notes: “It was so poorly received that George Lucas publicly announced that there would never be another Star War TV program. Except that the public had loved the animated sequence.”

There is certainly some truth in that. And when the Star Wars films were released on Blu-ray in 2011, Lucasfilm finally seemed ready to ease its policy of pretending the Holiday Special had never happened. The animated sequence was there as an Easter egg, the first part of the special ever to get a home video release.

Nobody has been expecting a deluxe 40th anniversary of the Star Wars Holiday Special on Blu-ray and DVD. And we don’t know what stipulations George Lucas may have made about this subject when he sold his business to Disney. But it’s surely time for everybody to relax about the subject, see the funny side, and finally release the special in its entirety -- as well as recognising that the animated sequence is a lot of fun.


Steve H. said...

I may have stated this same comment in a previous post you made about the Holiday Special but I certainly remember watching this when it aired in the US. I'm sure all my friends did as well. We were 10 and obsessed with all things Star Wars. I have absolutely no memory of thinking at the time it was weird, boring or stupid. As a matter of fact I'm sure I loved it. Because, y'know, it was Star Wars. It wasn't until a friend got a VHS copy in the 90s and we watched it for the first time since it aired that we came to the conclusion it was horrible.

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Darren Slade said...

Glad to hear you liked it in 1978, Steve. I think I might have as well, and I've certainly seen younger kids of the 21st century enjoying it perfectly well.
For adults, though, I think the only possible reaction is open-mouthed astonishment!

Lee Vee said...

I really wish the Holiday Special would get released on disc. People who think this should have been the dark and gritty Special aimed at adults are just missing the point of this. Star Wars was a kids film. Kids were it's biggest audience. Kids bought the toys and most of the merchandise. So they made a variety show aimed at kids, not for adult movie critics.

These types of campy, staged variety shows were all the rage in the '70s. I am sure most kids who saw this on its's original airing enjoyed the hell out of it, though many wouldn't admit it as adults. Though I was the right age, and lived in America, I unfortunately missed seeing this somehow.

I think it is refreshing to see Star Wars done with a different tone and style to the features. Plus, this was the only true sequel/spin-off to Star Wars since, as this blog often points out, ESB took things in a much different direction.

I think the producers of this show knew the audience for Star Wars better than Disney does. Disney makes generic sequels/spin-offs aimed to please adults and movie critics. They do not make movies for children.

At the end of the day we get Bea Arthur, Harvey Korman, Art Carney, Jefferson Starship and some decent Nelvana animation. All great talents, most of whom were known to American children of the 1970s.

Love your blog. You are a unique voice in Star Wars fandom. Thanks for taking us back to a time before May 1980. A time which many of us remember fondly.

DoggingYou said...

I watched it in 1978. I remember being thrilled about it. The live action segments were strange to me but the animation segment definitely excited me. I had already been a fan of Nelvana Studios style from their other TV Animation Specials that aired once. Nelvana Studios have a style and finesse that Disney Corporation do not have the knack for, i.e. The Black Cauldron.