Return of the Jedi was my favorite when I was a little kid. Star Wars was the “boring” one, Empire Strikes Back was the “scary” one, and Jedi was the one I watched over and over again.
When I became a teenager and young man, I found that Empire became my favorite. Maybe because it was “darker” or seemed more real. Jedi slipped to #2–I still loved it, and it didn’t drop because it fell out of favor; but rather, I found myself just liking Empire Strikes Back more and more. Star Wars was still the boring one, but it got better with age and time.
As a grown adult, I look at these films from a dramatic and craftsmanship point of view. Empire Strikes Back is still the best and continues to grow in esteem as time passes, both for the enhanced depth and complexity of the characters and emotions involved, as well as the sheer excellence in execution of all filmmaking crafts. The script, the camerawork, the direction, the acting, the score, the set and costume designs, the casting, and on and on, the people involved in making Empire got every last creative ounce out of each and every scene. And then they stood back and asked, “how can we make this even better?” It is the little things mis-en-scene in Empire that make it, as Roger Ebert once said, a near perfect movie of its kind, and one of the most visionary and inventive films of all time.
Return of the Jedi also has a very strong and compelling narrative to tell, and in parts, that story is executed and brought to screen with nearly as much skill. There is nothing more fun in any Star Wars film than the fight on Jabba’s sail barge. The technical effects created in Jabba’s puppetry and the speeder bike chases on Endor and the space battle around Death Star 2 are still a sight to behold. The film’s camerawork is brilliant throughout.
And of course, the scenes between Luke and Vader and the Emperor are among the most emotionally compelling in the entire trilogy.
But unfortunately, Jedi has slipped to a distant #3 in my rankings, because it shows its prequel-era Lucas character at times. As good as the production values are in some aspects (which I mentioned) there are other scenes and sequences where Lucasfilm clearly cheaped out. There are of course the Ewoks, which at times range from endearing to bearable, but at other times turn the movie into an eye-rolling farce. And of course, the acting from the supporting case is probably the worst of all three films.
If I could sum up Jedi’s biggest flaw in one phrase, I would say it possesses at times a clear lack of restraint. And yet, even when Jedi is at its weakest, its heart and execution are still demonstrably better than anything offered in any of the five other films.