Looking Back at the Star Wars Special Editions In the Era of Disney

Looking Back at the Star Wars Special Editions In the Era of Disney
A crop of the poster for A New Hope Special Edition. (Image: Lucasfilm)

Twenty-five years ago this week, Star Wars was officially changed forever. On January 31, 1997, 20th Century Fox released the Special Edition of Star Wars: A New Hope, with several additions that would become as controversial as anything in modern pop culture. And while it’s easy to remember the releases for the decades of discussion and argument they inspired, some may have forgotten they were also immensely popular. In fact, we’ve argued that without that renewed success the Special Editions brought the franchise, we may never have seen the prequels or, in 2012, Disney purchase Lucasfilm.

When Disney bought Lucasfilm on October 30, 2012, one of the first things fans speculated about was if the company would bring back the original versions of the original trilogy — to “Despecialize” the Special Editions, as fans have attempted to do so themselves for decades. So far that hasn’t happened, and isn’t looking likely, with the most recent release of the original films remaining the 2006 DVDs. However, in the near-decade Disney has controlled Star Wars, the company has approached the Special Editions in several different ways. Some are good, some are bad, some are surprising, and all of them add up to an rather murky view of the continued legacy of the Special Editions.

The sarlacc fights back! (Screenshot: Lucasfilm)The sarlacc fights back! (Screenshot: Lucasfilm)

How Disney Has Embraced the Star Wars Special Editions…

It’s almost serendipitous that the 25th anniversary of the Star Wars Special Editions is falling when it did. That’s because just last week, Disney had its best Special Edition payoff yet. In the fourth episode of The Book of Boba Fett, “The Gathering Storm,” we watched as Boba and Fennic Shand flew to the Sarlacc Pit to look for his armour. As the ship got closer and closer to the opening, the Pit’s beak and tentacles popped out and latched onto the ship. The resulting action scene was like something out of a Star Wars toy chest as the ship battled to get out of the Sarlacc’s clutches, eventually doing so by unleashing a depth charge.

It’s maybe the most a Special Edition tweak has actually mattered in years. The Sarlacc’s tentacles and mouth were introduced in the Return of the Jedi Special Edition in a bid to make the pit more dynamic and menacing. It was one of those changes purists didn’t love, but kind of were OK with, in comparison to others. And now, years later, the change has actually been used for good. The Sarlacc fought back! Thank you Special Editions.

There’s more too. The Disney+ Star Wars shows have made extensive use of the New Hope expansion of Tatooine. In the Special Edition, George Lucas added CGI extensions that made several cities on the desert planet more expansive and now those vistas have become a key part of both The Mandalorian as well as The Book of Boba Fett. Plus, creatures featured in those scenes, like Rontos, have been used in places such as the Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge theme parks. None of this is game-changing, nor as prominent as the Sarlacc’s recent appearance, but it shows that at times Disney has put the changes to good use — and that, for better or worse, the Special Editions are just what the original Star Wars is to most people at this point..

The Han and Jabba scene. (Image: Lucasfilm)The Han and Jabba scene. (Image: Lucasfilm)

… And How Disney’s Ignored Them

One of the biggest additions, literally, into the A New Hope Special Edition is the scene of Jabba the Hutt meeting with Han Solo. The scene became the first time Boba Fett was introduced chronologically in the original trilogy, and is highlighted by the incredibly awkward moment where Han steps behind, and on top of, Jabba.

Since that moment became part of Star Wars history, the franchise has seen several other Hutts out and about. Most of those were on The Clone Wars (which was not, until later seasons, Disney’s own Star Wars creation, brought into the new continuity retroactively when canon was rebooted) and then recently we saw two new ones on The Book of Boba Fett. And yet! None of the other characters ever step behind or on top of these characters! What the hell? Canon erasure at its most tragic! We’re joking, of course, but there’s also another way Disney is ignoring the Special Editions and it’s that the company has kept them alive in the first place.

Ignoring something by keeping them alive? How does that work? Well, it’s something of a complacency. Disney inherited the legacy of Star Wars, could do anything with it, and still ignored the very sizable fan desire to embrace the original editions. Disney+ streaming, physical releases, every chance that there’s been to bring back the originals has gone unchanged. It’s just the Special Editions, over and over, with no real explanation behind it.

Look, we get it. Those were George Lucas’ preferred versions. You want to honour the Maker. But Lucas doesn’t own Star Wars anymore; for better or worse, Mickey Mouse does. (I think. I get confused). And in an age where Star Wars is trying to cater to its most ardent fans, a proper release of the original, theatrical, unaltered versions of the movies would be one of the biggest pop culture announcements in recent years. We don’t need to erase the Special Editions — just make them their own thing, and give people the option at the least. But it hasn’t happened.

Maybe one day this scene will change again. (Image: Lucasfilm)Maybe one day this scene will change again. (Image: Lucasfilm)

Ways Disney Is Still Engaging With the Special Editions

Maybe the biggest and weirdest cross-section between Disney and the Special Editions happened on November 12, 2019. That was the day Disney+ launched around the world as well as the debut of The Mandalorian. Obviously, The Mandalorian and the streaming service itself were and continue to be cornerstones of how Disney creates Star Wars, with so much of the saga’s future currently wrapped up in series for the platform. But on that day, the Special Editions got a change too. Because that was the day the already controversial Special Edition addition of Greedo shooting Han Solo first in A New Hope was changed with Greedo screaming “Maclunky!”

Now, apparently, this was something George Lucas himself changed during a 4K remaster that took place before the sale to Disney — there just hadn’t been an opportunity to release it beforehand. And yet, now Disney embraces “Maclunky.” It’s used as a running joke, most famously in the The Mandalorian season two end credit scene when a character says it as Boba Fett and Fennic Shand enter Jabba’s Palace. The implication is that these Star Wars Special Editions still haven’t dried yet, even 25 years later. The paint is still wet, they can still be changed, ever so slightly, and even be made to inform future stories.

So is “Maclunky” the end? Are we going to get Ronto: A Star Wars Story? The Making of “Jedi Rocks”? Twenty-five years after the release of the Star Wars Special Editions changed and informed everything that has come since, they remain not just as crucial, complex, and controversial as ever. They’re a living, breathing piece of Star Wars. An excuse to go back into franchise history and add more story, with shows like The Book of Boba Fett or the Obi-Wan Kenobi show. Ultimately, because the Special Editions changed in the first place, they have and can continue to be, a canvas and inspiration for stories of the future.

For more on the Special Editions, check out this piece we did for the 20th anniversary.


Editor’s Note: Release dates within this article are based in the U.S., but will be updated with local Australian dates as soon as we know more.