Thursday, December 20, 2007

Jar Jar

Someone left a comment on my entry about George Lucas's influences asking about where Jar Jar Binks came from. I can make some observations and guesses about this.

First, Jar Jar's function was comic relief. This function was handled by C3P0 and R2D2 in the other movies but their roles were closer to cameo appearances in Phantom Menace. The movie followed the same basic formula as the previous three movies. Since they had comic relief characters, Phantom Menace had to, also. It is generally conceded that the droids were inspired by a pair of characters from The Hidden Fortress. Lucas himself has cited this film as a major influence on Star Wars.

Note - this contradicts Lucas's insistence that Star Wars was based on classical story-telling traditions. For the life of me, I cannot think of any comic relief characters in any of the classics.

So, Lucas needed someone who would lighten things up. What other influences can we find?

It might be heresy to say this, but Jar Jar was not the first local character with a funny speech pattern and a habit for getting into things in the series. That honor goes to Yoda. When we first met him, Yoda was playing at being a simple local. This also goes back to Japanese tradition where the teacher first appears to be a simple old man. But there is a depth to Yoda that Jar Jar does not have.

There is a long tradition in American fiction of the hero having a native side-kick. This character often speaks in stilted English. The Lone Ranger's side-kick Tonto is a perfect example. While Tono was not played for laughs, he did get into more than his share of trouble.

The comic strip hero the Spirit had Ebony as his side-kick. Ebony started as a short adult but morphed into a youth. He was drawn as an exaggerated black man with thick lips and he talked in what other characters described as a "minstrel show" accent.

Adventure movies often had characters typifying a stereotype. For example, King Kong has Charlie the Chinese cook. The title character Gunga Din played this part for much of the movie. The actor Sabu spent much of his career playing this sort of character.

Lucas would have been familiar with all of this. Remember, his original stated purpose with Star Wars (and Indiana Jones) was to recreate the adventure movies and serials from the 1930s when the comic native side-kick was stock-in-trade.

When Phantom Menace came out, many people noticed the similarity between Jar Jar and the racist characterizations of the past. It didn't help that Jar Jar talked like a cross between stereotype Chinese and African characters.

Lucas got the message. In Attack of the Clones, Jar Jar's role was reduced to the dupe of the future Emperor. By Revenge of the Sith he was down to a cameo role.

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