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Fantasia 2023: A Disturbance in the Force Review

August 1, 2023 | Posted by Jeremy Thomas
A Disturbance In the Force Star Wars Holiday Special Image Credit: Fantasia IFF
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Fantasia 2023: A Disturbance in the Force Review  

Directed by: Jeremy Coon, Steve Kozak
Written by: Jeremy Coon, Steve Kozak

Bruce Vilanch
Kevin Smith
“Weird Al” Yankovic
Mick Garris
Donny Osmond
Seth Green
Jason Lenzi
Taran Killam
Steve Binder
Craig Miller
Gilbert Gottfried
Kyle Newman
Brian Ward
Miki Herman
Larry Heider
Bob Mackie

Image Credit: Fantasia IFF

Running Time: 87 minutes
Not Rated

Star Wars fans are a contentious lot. You can take any two random fans of the blockbuster franchise together and odds are that they’ll find something to vehemently argue about, whether it’s the prequels, the most recent sequels, the spinoff films, the Expanded Universe and so on. Hell, even among roleplaying game fans you can find people ready and willing to go head-to-head over which Star Wars roleplaying game is the best and which is the worst.

But if there’s one piece of Star Wars programming that can unite the fanbase, it’s the Star Wars Holiday Special. That infamous 1978 television special will almost universally inspire an almost gleeful derision, laughs, and no small amount of fascination in a “how in the Force did that get made?” kind of way.

That is the exact question that Jeremy Coon and Steve Kozak seek to answer in A Disturbance in the Force. The new documentary, which had its international premiere at Fantasia International Film Festival, delves back into the history of not only the Star Wars franchise but also 1970s television. In doing so, it digs deep into the notion of how such a disastrous project has become a Holy Grail for Star Wars fans and the quintessential “so bad it’s good” television special.

There’s a lot that you can talk about regarding the Holiday Special itself, from the bizarre story choices (full scenes in Wookie without dialogue!) and casting choices (Art Carney?) to the fact that George Lucas’ attempts to prevent people from seeing it helped turn it into the legendary piece of forbidden Star Wars fruit it became. The documentary covers all those, but first it has to set the scene.

In order to do so, Coon and Kozak go back to the 1970s and explore the state of the franchise following the first film, as well as a television phenomenon that is largely dead in the musical variety special. Using a variety interviews from those involved with the project and celebrity fans who experienced the phenomenon growing up, they chart how in the post-Star Wars world of 1977, Lucas didn’t have a cohesive plan for what the franchise would be.

Demand for more Star Wars while The Empire Strikes Back was coming together led to the decision to promote the film through variety hour shows like Donnie & Marie and the Bob Hope All Star Comedy Christmas Special. This allowed the studio to boost ticket sales for the still-theatrical first film and satisfy the demand of a hungry public.

All this leads into the Holiday Special itself. New interviews and archival footage of some of the Star Wars cast (and even a bit of Lucas himself) lay out the show’s terrible reputation and how a clash between Lucasfilm executives and a consortium of writers with comedy and variety special experience led to the strange mish-mash that it ended up becoming.

Coon and Kozak take a largely balanced approach to the special itself. It’s refreshing to see that they’re less interested in piling on a program that doesn’t need to be hated more than it already is. Indeed, it’s noted in one interview that there were far worse shows that aired at that time; it’s just none of them were Star Wars. It’s noted that the special was legitimately enjoyed by many kids at the time, and that it was Lucas’ attempts to quash the project that led to it becoming legendary in how bad it was.

At the same time, they’re not trying to pretend that the special was anything it wasn’t (in other words, good). They examine some of the more confoundingly bad moments in the special such as the scene that can only be described as “Grandpa Itchy watches VR porn starring Diane Carrol” and the awful musical numbers.

In terms of the documentary format, A Disturbance in the Force isn’t trying to do anything innovative. It’s very much the typical entertainment doc; you have talking heads intermixed with archival clips to tell the behind-the-scenes story. It’s not the most visually exciting thing by any stretch of the imagination, but where it excels is its usage of the old variety special clips and how it honors some unsung heroes of Star Wars such as Charley Lippencott, Lucasfilm’s marketing man who changed the game regarding how to market films and was instrumental in for much of the first Star Wars’ box office success.

The most surprising thing documented here – which should be obvious in retrospect – is how, despite Lucas’ attempts to murder it, the Holiday Special has proven to be an indelible part of Star Wars lore thanks to The Mandalorian and other project sneaking Easter eggs in. Those little tidbits add some nice trivia value to the documentary, even as it starts to get a bit long in the tooth by the end.

Will we ever get a full, proper release of the Holiday Special? Probably not; as an interviewee notes in the doc, there’s a reason we haven’t had it before now. But A Disturbance in the Force makes a compelling case that, as bad as it is, the special remains an important part of Star Wars’ history and an essential snapshot of a long time ago, though not perhaps so far away as George Lucas wished it was.

The Fantasia International Film Festival takes place in Montreal from July 20th through August 9th.

The final score: review Good
The 411
A Disturbance in the Force admirably performs double duty, examining how the Star Wars Holiday Special came to be while also examining the strange world that was 1970s musical variety hours. While there is nothing particularly innovative on display here, it's an engaging and informative look at how many things had to go wrong to create this terrible-yet-surprisingly crucial piece of one of the biggest blockbuster franchises of all time.