This weekend, Return of the Jedi returns to theaters for its 40th anniversary. (Actually a little early, Return of the Jedi was actually released on May 25th.) Unfortunately it will not be the version that was released in 1983, but, instead, the Special Edition version that was released in theaters in March of 1997. (To get technical, the film has even been updated since then, but most of the changes happened in 1997.) I could go my whole life without seeing Jedi Rocks again, but, alas, it looks like I will be.
Return of the Jedi is a weird one for me as it’s my least favorite Star Wars movie of the Original Trilogy – and Luke’s plan to rescue Han Solo still makes absolutely no sense – but at the same time invokes the most nostalgia. I somehow have the ability to separate these two things. I saw The Empire Strikes Back in theaters when I was five, my first movie ever in a theater, but my memory of this is hazy. But I was eight when Return of the Jedi was released, which is kind of the perfect age for a Star Wars movie like this one to come out. And even for Star Wars, the marketing was in hyperdrive. Return of the Jedi was everywhere. From my memory, the only movie to maybe come close to this level of marketing was The Phantom Menace 16 years later.
Also being amped up, and adding to the nostalgia, were the action figures. The original Star Wars had a grand total of 21 action figures made. (Technically 20 from the movie, as Kenner made a Boba Fett figure before its The Empire Strikes Back line. Even then there were some odd choices. There would be no Tarkin action figure, even though he’s the main villain from the movie. But you could get Snaggletooth, who had about one second of screen time in the movie during the cantina scene. The Empire Strikes Back had a grand total of 29 action figures. Return of the Jedi would feature a whopping 47* action figures (if you count the Max Rebo band, and I do) from that movie alone. But like Tarkin from the first movie, there would be no Mon Mothma, literally the leader of the Rebel Alliance. But you could buy someone named “Prune Face.”
*We are getting into the weeds a bit here, but since I don’t want people yelling at me on Twitter, the last wave of Return of the Jedi** figures were released in 1985 on packaging titled “The Power of the Force.” Which, at the time, was very confusing – leading kids like me to think a new Star Wars movie called The Power of the Force was coming. In reality, Kenner just didn’t want to try to sell toys for a two-year-old movie and tried to rebrand it into something hip and fun. In fact, Kenner proposed a whole new Star Wars storyline to Lucasfilm and whole new toy line based on this story. Lucasfilm wasn’t interested. And this last line of Star Wars toys found their way to the bargain bins as kids had moved on to G.I. Joe and Transformers. Today, this last line commands the highest prices on auction sites.
**One figure from this last line is Luke Skywalker in a Stormtrooper outfit, which is from the original Star Wars. I know this. Again, just avoiding being yelled at.
Anyway, having said all that, in honor of the sweet nectar of nostalgia and the return of Return of the Jedi to theaters, here’s a list of the ten Return of the Jedi figures that were the strangest to make in the first place. Think of it like this. Let’s say you work at Kenner during this time period and you say, “Hey, we should make a Mon Mothma figure, right? She’s the leader of the Rebel Alliance.” And you are told, “Nah, we need to make this one instead.” This list is, from ten to one, how irritated you’d be at this decision. And we are going to leave any expanded universe or what would come later out of this ranking since that didn’t exist then.
10. R2-D2 (with pop-up lightsaber)
Nothing against R2-D2, but this marks the third R2-D2 figure released at this point. The first one was just R2-D2. The second was with a sensor scope like he used in The Empire Strikes Back. And now this one lets you put a little green stick in his head that looks nothing like an actual lightsaber, even from this era. Anyway, this Artoo is basically like the others, but with a green stick coming out of his head. I’d have much rather had a Mon Mothma. But, I will add this as a caveat: a few years ago I decided to try and rebuild my vintage Star Wars action figure collection with all the original accessories. No piece gave me more trouble than then R2-D2. The figure itself isn’t that hard to find, but the lightsaber he comes with is extremely difficult. Making it harder, there are a lot of reproductions out there and not everyone is upfront about that. I bought one online from a trusted dealer (I am not about to admit what I paid for a green plastic stick, but in my defense it was literally the last thing I needed to complete the set) and read the instructions on how to tell if it’s real or a reproduction – but the problem is the item has to be in your possession to test it. With vintage Star Wars accessories, there’s something called the water test. For whatever reason, accessories float. But the people who make the reproductions make them too heavy, and they sink. Now, this lightsaber has an even more fine level of buoyancy: If you put it in a glass of water it floats, but if you push it under, it then sinks. So there I am, a grown adult, floating a green stick on water, then pushing it under, watching it sink and then celebrating.
9. Han Solo (Trench Coat)
Overall I don’t mind this figure, it’s more the culmination of Kenner never quite getting a Han Solo figure right. (Honestly, I could write a whole piece on this.) The first Han Solo figure from the original Star Wars line is, for some reason, much skinnier than every other figure. On top of that, his head is too small for his body. To the point, Kenner then replaced his head with a bigger version that then looked too big for his body and also resembled Butthead more than Harrison Ford. (Also, this was very confusing as a kid because the new larger head Han didn’t match the figure on the back of the package.)
The second Han was in his Hoth gear. This was the first Star Wars action figure I ever owned and it was difficult to explain to my parents why I needed another Han Solo, in that he wouldn’t be wearing a heavy coat on every adventure. This figure is fine enough, it’s just his face is a little off and he always has his hood up. The third is probably the best, labeled “Bespin Outfit” even though he wears the same outfit on Hoth. The only problem is, for whatever reason, his boots are tan, the same color as his pants. With black boots, this figure might be about perfect. And then that brings us to trench coat Han, who for some reason is wearing gray slacks (black boots this time though) and his face looks like Bill Clinton circa 1994. Anyway, all of this has bothered me since the 1980s.
8. Anakin Skywalker
Yeah, I get it, how can you have no Anakin Skywalker? Again, if we aren’t going to have a Tarkin, I don’t fully understand why they made a figure of the guy we only see has a Force Ghost at the very end of the movie. Also, Lucasfilm has effectively removed poor Sebastian Shaw as full-on Anakin from the movie. If you see Return of the Jedi this weekend, you will not see Force Ghost Sebastian Shaw. You will see Force Ghost Hayden Christensen. (Shaw still has his scene after Luke takes off Vader’s mask.) It’s weird, with the timeline we have now, during the events of Return of the Jedi, Darth Vader would be around 46 or so. Sebastian Shaw was born in 1905. He was almost 80. (I should point out that 80 in the 1980s was very different than 80s today. At least, not many people that age were making brand new Indiana Jones movies.)
7. Rebel Commando
I get why “generic Rebel soldier” gets made over Mon Mothma, in that they want kids to beg their parents for ten of these to build an army. (Yeah, at least in my house, this didn’t work. I had one. It took everything to convince my mom to buy me a Stormtrooper after I already had a Hoth version.) It’s more the design, it doesn’t really fit in with the rest. It feels more like a G.I. Joe figure with less articulation. Also, I never understood why we got this guy, but we never got the Rebel trooper (aka Fleet Trooper) from the original movie that we see fighting Stormtroopers as the movie opens. The first generic Rebel soldier was in his Hoth gear. Good figure! But also very specialized.
I’m not advocating both of these Ewoks should not have been made, just that one or the other shouldn’t have been made. And, look, I get it there was a huge Ewok village playset they were selling and the more Ewoks to fill it with, the better. But these two look almost exactly the same. To the point, as I said earlier, I have both of them right now and I can hardly tell a difference. There were so many Ewoks! Make one that has different color fur! Now take Teebo, there’s a distinct-looking Ewok. Though, during the first wave of Jedi figures, the only two Ewoks were Chief Chirpa and Logray. Logray is very distinct looking, but Chief Chirpa was just a gray Ewok with no real unique characteristics. So parents buying their kids Ewoks would get multiple Chief Chirpas as “army builders.” Which, in retrospect, is kind of weird since he was the Ewok leader. It would be like buying five Emperor figures just to fill out the base.
Same as above. But, I will add, when Return of the Jedi action figures started coming out, before the movie was released, the first two Ewoks released, Chief Chirpa and Logray, were blobbed out on the back of the card in an effort to keep their design secret. What’s weird is, these weren’t just black boxes over them. It looked like an ink blob of some sort. So, at the time, my friends and I just assumed this is what Ewoks would look like … ghastly blobs.
4. Imperial Dignitary
In 1995, Kenner, now owned by Hasbro, started releasing Star Wars figures again. For 10 years there was just nothing, which seems kind of absurd today in that it’s hard to go anywhere without seeing some sort of Star Wars-themed product. I remember being in college and a friend, Tony, was like “I was at Toys ‘R’ Us today and they had new Star Wars figures.” I honestly didn’t believe him. I had to see these. They were very … muscular, as a lot of stuff was from that era. Anyway, Hasbro has released pretty much a never-ending onslaught of Star Wars action figures and vehicles since then. They have made pretty much every action figure you can possibly imagine over the last almost 30 years now multiple times. As far as I can tell they haven’t made the Imperial Dignitary in 20 years. He is a character who gives advice to the characters, as a kid, you would like to play with.
3. Prune Face
When I originally had this action figure, I just assumed he was one of Jabba’s goons. Though he is wearing Rebel Alliance military fatigues, so maybe that should have been a clue. But with no internet, there was really no way to know who this guy even was, or who he sided with. Apparently, when Mon Mothma gives her speech about how to defeat the second Death Star, Prune Face (later given the name Orrimaarko) is … well he’s there listening. That’s about it. In 1983, you could create an entire display of the people who listened to Mon Mothma’s speech, with the only problem being not having a figure of the person who gave the speech. I digress.
2. Klaatu (Skiff Guard Outfit)
Klaatu here has the honor of being the only non-main character in the first three movies to be bestowed two action figures. Now, I have no problem with the first Klaatu being made as he appears in Jabba’s throne room. Again, kids like monsters. And it’s fun to have as many of these aliens as possible to fill out displays or whatever. But if we’re going back to the original question, imagine pitching that non-existent Mon Mothma figure. Again, the leader of the Rebel Alliance! And the answer is, “Hm, I think we should make a second Klaatu figure. This time, he’s in an all-white outfit. Kids will want him to be more comfortable in the hot Tatooine sun.”
1. General Madine
He’s just some guy. Actually, his job in the movie is literally to introduce Mon Mothma, the actual important person. Looking back on there being no Tarkin in the original run of figures, a case could be made, well, he’s just some guy. Kids would rather have a monster from the cantina than just a guy in a uniform. Well, now here’s an action figure of just some guy, only way less important than Tarkin. And did he at least come with a cool weapon of some sort? Nope … one white stick. Watch out, Darth Vader, here comes General Madine and his pointing stick, so he can point at all the plans the Rebel Alliance has to defeat you. Anyway, did I own General Madine? Yes, of course I did. Someone had to stay behind at the base and guard it with a stick.
You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.