SXSW Film Review: “A Disturbance in the Force” Showcases the Who, What, Where, When, and Why of “The Star Wars Holiday Special”

Ackmena, Trader Saun Dann, Mermeia, Chef Gormaanda, Malla, Itchy, and Lumpy are probably not your favorite Star Wars characters. In fact, there’s a very good chance you’ve never even heard of them and if George Lucas had his say, you never would. Unfortunately, the internet exists, and with its presence came the wider circulation of The Star Wars Holiday Special. Still, even amongst the most diehard Star Wars fans, claiming to have successfully endured the entire 2-hour special in all of its commercial-filled glory is a rarity. And so it came as no surprise that during the premiere of a documentary film about the special at SXSW, more than half of the audience confessed by a show of hands to having never seen it before. But after seeing A Disturbance in the Force, they not only felt like they had but did so in a way that gave the even more intriguing story behind the special.

There are some geek-culture names attached to A Disturbance in the Force via talking-head interviews, including Seth Green, Weird Al Yankovic, Kevin Smith, Taran Killam, Paul Scheer, and the late Gilbert Gottfried. But the real draw is fresh interviews with some of the people who actually worked on the special, including writers Bruce Vilanch and Lenny Ripps, Lucasfilm liaison Miki Herman, second director Steve Binder, costume designer Bob Mackie, camera operator Larry Heider, stage manager Mike Erwin, R2-D2 operator Mick Garris, and performers Rick Wagner, Yuichi Sugiyama, and members of The Wazzan Troupe.

Having seen The Star Wars Holiday Special numerous times, what was most enlightening for me was a deep dive into television specials of the 1970s. In the context of the typical variety show of the era, this special doesn’t seem as peculiar as it does against the original trilogy. Among the interviewees is Donny Osmond, who looks back on a Star Wars segment from Donnie & Marie that was used to help promote the original film in 1977, tapping into a family audience that George Lucas was hoping to attract to the theater. Pop Culture Historian Brian Ward also furthers the conversation about 20th Century Fox’s fear that audiences would forget about Star Wars in the years between the original film and its first sequel, pushing for a way to keep the property relevant with audiences. And then there was the fact that the Winter of 1978 was the first holiday season in which Star Wars toys were readily available, with the special also used to introduce a new character and toy, Boba Fett.

A Disturbance in the Force is really the story of the evolution of modern film marketing and corporate synergy. It sings the praises of the original Star Wars marketing guru Charles Lippincott, who arranged for both Ballantine Books and Marvel Comics to have Star Wars content in the months leading up to the original film’s release, with The Star Wars Holiday Special devised as a way to bridge the gap between films. And now, more than 40 years later, it looks at how fans have lovingly embraced the absurdity of the special, with Life Day celebrations on November 17th to commemorate the date it aired.

As for the George Lucas of it all, A Disturbance in the Force makes the case that the visionary behind a galaxy far, far away had more to do with the project than he’d care to admit. A personal vendetta with former Disney President Frank Wells, then at Warner Bros., distributor of THX 1138, is cited as a potential reason for the special’s existence. Artwork was found in the archive of designer Ralph McQuarrie to support a treatment penned by Lucas himself, which was just as variety-showy as the final product. And George Lucas even left the project in the hands of his own hand-picked director, David Acomba, who was fired after three days when CBS realized that filming was already well behind schedule and going over budget. And so, while the actual special has been locked away in a vault-like Animaniacs, A Disturbance in the Force is here with a reminder of the who, what, where, when, and why behind it all.

I give A Disturbance in the Force 4 out of 5 mind evaporator grunts.

A Disturbance in the Force is currently seeking a distributor and seems like a no-brainer acquisition by Disney for streaming this upcoming Life Day season.

Alex Reif
Alex joined the Laughing Place team in 2014 and has been a lifelong Disney fan. His main beats for LP are Disney-branded movies, TV shows, books, music and toys. He recently became a member of the Television Critics Association (TCA).