As Star Wars: The Last Jedi finally makes its way into theaters, moviegoers are lining up all over the world to see the next chapter in the massively successful saga unfold, and to catch their first glimpse of a variety of new characters. But while many newcomers to the series, such as Benicio Del Toro’s DJ and Laura Dern’s Vice Admiral Holdo, have caught viewers’ attention in a positive sense, there are a few individuals who have fans divided – the porgs.
Fans first spotted one of these tiny, feathered creatures in a behind-the-scenes reel from the production of The Last Jedi, which was initially screened at Disney’s D23 Expo last July. The animal, which looked something like a penguin crossed with a Furby, was initially referred to as a porg in an interview with Pablo Hidalgo, a creative executive and member of the Lucasfilm Story Group.
This division of Lucasfilm Ltd. (Star Wars creator George Lucas’ production company, which he sold to Disney in 2012) comprises a team of 11 individuals who are tasked with keeping track of all elements of the Star Wars universe and ensuring that any new content (including the porgs) fits into the established Star Wars canon.
The Last Jedi writer and director Rian Johnson later elaborated on the porgs in interviews published in a variety of magazines, including Vanity Fair. He said that he was inspired to create the characters after visiting Skellig Michael, the Irish island that serves as the shooting location for the planet Ahch-To in the Star Wars universe. This was the planet where Jedi hero Luke Skywalker was discovered by new hero Rey at the end of previous franchise entry Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and where much of The Last Jedi’s action occurs.
While on Skellig Michael, Johnson couldn’t help but notice the puffins that were native to the island dotting the picturesque cliffs and flying over the water. He decided to include an alien version of the puffins on Ahch-To in order to create a realistic ecosystem for the fictional planet.
According to Johnson, the porgs can fly and build nests, and their babies are known as porglets. They were brought to life in the film using a combination of digital effects, animatronics, and puppetry (not unlike the ball-shaped droid BB-8).
While hardcore Star Wars lovers have long been aware of the porgs due to the D23 clip and the interviews with Johnson, the majority of fans got their first look at the creatures in a trailer for The Last Jedi that premiered roughly two months ago. The preview featured a brief shot showing lovable pilot Chewbacca growling while flying his iconic spaceship, the Millenium Falcon, accompanied by a squawking porg. Immediately, internet chatter concerning the new trailer was dominated by discussion of the tiny animals.
Some casual viewers were thrilled to see such an adorable creature joining the Star Wars universe, and seemed to have suddenly gained an interest in The Last Jedi purely due to the introduction of the porgs.
But many longtime fans argued that the porgs and their apparent cuteness represented a tasteless addition to the Star Wars universe, nothing more than an excuse to create and sell adorable merchandise for the film that kids would eat up. They saw the creatures as a clear side-effect of Disney’s ownership of Lucasfilm – a symptom of the “Disneyfication” of Star Wars.
These fans let their voices be heard, blasting the porgs in social media posts. Some even edited the Last Jedi poster, replacing every character’s face with a porg head to mock the trailer’s unnecessary emphasis of the seemingly unimportant animal.
Indeed, porg stuffed animals and electronic toys soon popped up in stores, constituting a significant portion of the merchandise produced for The Last Jedi. A children’s book was even written entitled Chewie and the Porgs, chronicling Chewbacca’s adventures with the small birds.
A photo from the set of the film, however, seemed to show a porg feather sticking out of Chewbacca’s mouth, suggesting that his relationship with the creatures may be less than friendly. Several cynical fans voiced their support of this image of a classic Star Wars character doing away with new, Disney-created characters.
But upon closer examination, the arguments of such fans appear misplaced. The inclusion of cute, fluffy characters meant to appeal mainly to children and perhaps to sell merchandise is nothing new to the Stars Wars saga, and it certainly isn’t an element introduced by Johnson or Disney. Long before The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi had even been dreamed up, George Lucas was using the same strategy in the original Star Wars films.
Many Star Wars fans seem to forget that 1983’s Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi has long been criticized for its porg-like creatures – the short, furry forest dwellers known as Ewoks. These cuddly aliens were devised by Lucas himself as an attempt to both further the film’s plot (by providing the small group of Rebels on the forest moon of Endor with an additional army, allowing for a more evenly-matched battle between the rebels and attacking Imperial forces), and lighten up a fairly intense conclusion to the original Star Wars trilogy.
The Ewoks have divided the fanbase, with some (particularly those who were young when Return of the Jedi was released) appreciating their cuteness, and many arguing that the extended sequences in which they babble in an indecipherable language that none of the human characters can understand and later attempt to cook and eat our heroes are a vast waste of screentime. This vocal faction of Star Wars fans also mocks the somewhat absurd sequence in which the Ewoks are able to use rocks, vines, and swinging logs to decimate heavily-armored stormtroopers carrying guns and cannons.
The debate over the Ewoks has become such an established element of pop culture that in an episode of the popular sitcom How I Met Your Mother, Star Wars-loving character Barney proposes an “Ewok Line” theory. He claims that any person who was younger than 10-years-old when Return of the Jedi was released loves the Ewoks because the fuzzy aliens reminded them of teddy bears, while those who were older than 10 in 1983 hate the Ewoks because they were too old to appreciate creatures that pandered to kids.
Beyond the Ewoks, there have been other instances of Star Wars characters that seem to offer little more to the franchise than cuteness. In the original 1977 film that kicked off the series, the Jawas serve as one such example, albeit a less blatant one.
Although these small, robed aliens technically play a significant role in the movie’s plot, capturing the droids C-3PO and R2-D2 (who contains vital information concerning the Empire’s secret weapon) and selling them to Luke Skywalker’s Uncle Owen, thereby folding Luke into the story, they are featured in many scenes that simply show them communicating with each other in excited squeaks and gesticulating wildly. The hooded aliens are also featured in 1999’s Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace as background characters in scenes occuring on Anakin and Luke Skywalker’s homeworld, Tatooine.
Even the most hated character in all of Star Wars was originally created to appeal mainly to children and to offer a sense of comic relief. Lucas has said that he devised the gangly alien Jar Jar Binks as what he considered to be a Star Wars equivalent of the Disney character Goofy.
Jar Jar was meant to function as a source of comedy in The Phantom Menace, a film fraught with serious and dark issues, including Senate debates, trade negotiations, child slavery, and warfare. Instead, the vast majority of moviegoers found the character’s offensive dialect and absurd antics to be annoying, distracting, and insulting. Almost everyone involved in The Phantom Menace was shocked by the backlash the film received regarding Jar Jar, including the actor who portrayed the character, Ahmed Best.
Lucas later tried to redeem Jar Jar by downplaying his role in sequels to The Phantom Menace and making him a representative in the Galactic Senate. The animated Star Wars series, Star Wars: The Clone Wars also attempted to lend further credibility to Binks and make him less of a buffoon by sending him on important missions for the Galactic Republic. Still, most Star Wars lovers maintain a passionate hatred of Jar Jar, and The Force Awakens director J.J. Abrams once remarked that he wanted to include Jar Jar’s skeleton in a background shot in the film as a nod to fan sentiments.
Lucas has also been slammed for inserting additional digital creatures into the original Star Wars films over the years for several DVD and Blu Ray releases of the movies. Fans have long clamored for a DVD or Blu Ray release of the unedited theatrical cuts of each of the three original Star Wars films (free of the additional creatures), but we have yet to see this dream become a reality. Interestingly, now that Disney has purchased many of 21st Century Fox’s assets, there is a chance that the company will finally release remastered versions of the theatrical cuts (since Fox holds the rights to the theatrical versions of the first three Star Wars films).
Considering all of the trouble fans have had with past creatures in the Star Wars universe, perhaps the porg complaints should come as no surprise. Still, the Star Wars franchise is known for its relatively family-friendly tone and its distinct brand of light humor. Many argued that The Phantom Menace and its two direct sequels (some of the worst-received films in the series) took themselves too seriously and lost the quirky sense of humor that made the original trilogy so great.
Hopefully, most viewers will be able to recognize the porgs as a sign that Disney’s new Star Wars movies are aiming for the same lighthearted elements that resonated with fans of the original films. And with any luck, maybe the hardcore fans who have hated the porgs since before The Last Jedi was even released will be able to fairly judge their involvement in the new film, while also remembering the fact that divisively cute creatures are as much a tradition of the Star Wars franchise as the opening title crawl and John Williams’ iconic score. For those who refuse to stop criticizing the porgs, they should count their blessings. For all we know, Rian Johnson could have been considering bringing Jar Jar Binks back.