Monday, February 11, 2013

The Golden Automaton

"I think the one thing that has really kept me going is the tremendous affection for the character, for a" character who's just benign, delightful, weird, sad, lonely. I think we'd all be glad to know him.

-Anthony Daniels

The time has come for me to talk about one of my all time favorite movie characters, and a person like me, who's roots are deeply immersed in the cinema, surely has a slew of them. Most of them range from Disney characters to famous comedy trios to supernatural super humans to monstrous, yet benevolent entities. But the character I want to chat about today is a character who often gets a huge backlash from the fan community. Some view him as an symbol of homosexuality, others view him as an utterly annoying bucket of bolts that puts The Phantom Menace's Jar Jar Binks to shame. But I personally view him as a relatable fantasy character, a character with similarities and perspectives to myself. He's determined, he's headstrong, he's mischievous, he's outlandish, he's convoluted minded, and most importantly, he's straight out optimistic. He's a character that's like a mirror (physically and mentally) and we can see a lot of ourselves in him. When the going gets tough, he's always there to brighten the mood a bit and keep our chins up. He's a fantastic specimen (or robot), a wonderful cybernetic creature called C-3P0, and when you hear that name, you can immediately envision this character in your skull. He's THAT legendary, he's THAT iconic, he's THAT relatable.

I remember the first time I saw this character. It was during an airing of Episode IV on television, right around the time when the Special Editions were in theaters. I WAS AFRAID OF HIM. For reasons still unknown to me, I was quite terrified of the golden guy, even to the point where I vowed never to watch Star Wars for the rest of my life. Sure I was afraid of Darth Vader and his dark Mufasa voice, but the way C-3P0 moved and walked about, it just wasn't my sugar coated lollipop. I preferred characters with moving lips and adventurous personalities, not reluctant, stubborn, craven, prissy shiny dudes with British accents. Overtime, my deep fear was conquered, but Threepio still loomed in my mind for many years following. I was not the least bit into Star Wars as I am now, but if there was one thing about Star Wars that stuck out like a Looney Tunes character at Disneyland, it was the metallic man with the luminous eyes and all that he stood for. His distinctive voice, his mannerisms, his persona, it all was fresh in my pink brain, and I soon realized that Threepio was one of my all time favorite Star Wars characters, although, as I said before, I was not really into the Star Wars craze. It wasn't until the release of Attack of the Clone when I really began to taste the Star "Warsness" and everything it had to offer. While traveling to a basketball game with my father, we stopped at a small 7-Eleven like store and he bought my brother and I Star Wars PEZ dispensers. My brother got Darth Vader and I got C-3P0. HOW ABOUT THAT? You can see where my love for the character reached a milestone high level. It was only a matter of time before I got my hands on the Lego Star Wars Droid Escape Pod set while shopping with my mother. Not only did it come with a Lego representation of the Escape Pod and R2-D2 (yes, I love little R2 to pieces as well), but it also came with my very first C-3P0 Lego figure. Still to this day, it is hands down my favorite Lego mini figure of all time, even if better, updated versions of the figure have been released throughout the years along with other sets.

Several times, I have been tempted to buy a C-3P0 action figure, but my temptations subsided as I became more fascinated with Star Wars Lego. One time, I saw a C-3P0 Die Cast figure in a K-Mart, but bought a Disney's Tarzan gift set instead. One time, I was about to buy an AOTC C-3P0 with attachable armor, but I opted for a Qui-Gon Jinn vs. Destroyer Droid Lego instead. Years down the road, I would come to regret not picking up that figure, for it is quite rare and expensive in the world of collecting nowadays. Then, on Christmas 2005 and several months after the release of Revenge of the Sith, I got my mitts on my very first C-3P0 action figure, as shiny as a newly produced coin. Together with the talking R2-D2 figurine, they made for quite a display in my toy room, and even if the figures are several years old now and R2's battery is dead, they still remain some of my most cherished action figures. Later, I was able to get the Vintage Collection C-3P0, a very similar figure to the AOTC C-3P0, for you are able to remove some of his platings to reveal the mechanical, wiry skeleton underneath. There is also his Clone Wars representation where you hold his head up to a light and his eyes light up. That is as Threepio as it gets. Yes, it is quite obvious that I am deeply fascinated with action figures of the golden automaton, but we are barely scratching the surface of why I truly love and admire this character. There's much more to this layer cake.

With a fair amount of Star Wars in my bloodstream, I finally sat down and gave all six films a thorough watch. Unlike most Star Wars fans, who saw the original films then the prequels (or vice versa), I actually saw the films in quite a discombobulated order. I saw The Phantom Menace at a young age, then I saw The Empire Strikes Back, then A New Hope, then Return of the Jedi, then Attack of the Clones, then Revenge of the Sith. So it was time for me to see these films in chronological order to get the story and the entire grasp of George Lucas' vision. Watching the films several bazillion times now, I think C-3P0 is the character that sticks out to me the most. Sure, there are many other marvelous characters in the films, everyone from Yoda to Boba Fett to Darth Maul to Chewbacca and yes, little R2, but if there is one character I can see myself portraying, it's Threepio, the most polite, yet most dumped upon character in the entire universe. He's a guy who's just trying to make his way in the universe as Jango Fett would say, but he always finds himself in some sort of turmoil or disarray. Several things never go as planned and he often finds himself (literally) in pieces.

Luke and C-3PO

Everyone who has seen all the Star Wars films knows exactly what I'm talking about, and it's very hard at times not to feel sorry for the protocol droid, especially when he's running after the mischievous, eccentric R2-D2, the complete opposite of Threepio's character. R2 is like Jerry while Threepio is like Tom. While R2 is getting all the upper hands and shortcuts, poor Threepio is getting beaten and battered by whatever perils he's entangled in. As Threepio follows R2's trail, he falls into a pit of countless miseries, often getting disassembled or just plain out wrecked to smithereens. Another common duo parallel to R2 and Threepio is Laurel and Hardy. Anyone who is familiar with both duos can point out the similarities almost instantly. R2 is obviously like Stan Laurel, an often quite yet "speaks for himself" kinda guy who always instigates a problem bigger than himself. Then there is Oliver Hardy, a perfect match to Threepio, a person who always finds himself at the very center of the mess Laurel started in the first place. If you want a LH film that perfectly showcases this matter, it's the 1934 adaptation of Victor Herbert's opera, Babes in Toyland, more commonly known today as March of the Wooden Soldiers.

In the film, Laurel's character of Stannie Dum wastes all his money on a toy while Mother Peep desperately needs money to pay the mortgage to the wicked Silas Barnaby. Poor Ollie Dee (Hardy's character) has to deal with their grumpy boss at the toy factory and ask him for a raise so he can get the money for Mother Peep. More chaos ensues when one of Stannie's toy soldiers at 6 foot tall reigns havoc on the toy factory, angering the boss to the point where he fires both Stannie and Ollie. Stannie then gets Ollie into Barnaby's house to try and get the mortgage, but he is caught and they are both sentenced to exile in Bogeyland. Before they go, they are to be dunked in a pool of cold water. Poor Ollie is dunked several times and nearly drowns in the water, but Little Bo Peep agrees to marry Barnaby, who agrees to drop the charges against Stannie and Ollie and pay off Mother Peep's mortgage as a wedding present. As a result, Stannie doesn't have to get dunked, much to Ollie's dismay, who pushes Stannie into the water out of anger. You can clearly see how Threepio's characteristics really parallel that of Oliver Hardy. Hardy may be tubby like R2, but he has an act for getting into Laurel's cyclone of terror and dealing with his troubles firsthand, much like how Threepio is always getting raveled into R2's thick web of troubles and suffering tremendously. His anger and frustration is also similar to that of Threepio's, for Threepio is always expressing his angst and disapproval of certain situations. He and R2 are always bickering with one another, again a very similar thing to Laurel and Hardy.

Another character Threepio can be compared to is Zazu from The Lion King. Poor little Zazu, a doubtful, by the book hornbill is crushed and mauled and BOILED by several animals while young Simba (much like little R2) journeys through the pride lands and the elephant graveyard. It's obvious that The Lion King came out a long while after the first Star Wars trilogy was released, but one can't help but feel that Threepio was one of the many inspirations for Zazu's character. He's a big headed bird with good intentions, but in the end, he always gets a good bite taken out of him. He also (much like Threepio) can't really defend himself against adversaries, and often finds himself at the mercy of the enemy, but with a little luck and wit, he always manages to weasel his way out of the peril. He's also very formal and outspoken, very much like Threepio, and when someone is looking for something he knows will be troublesome, he's the first to express his objection and fears of the situation. Like Threepio's companions in the Star Wars universe, the characters of The Lion King could give two farts about Zazu, as Simba and Nala leave him behind as he is crushed like a nat between the ground and a hippopotamus buttocks. They are constantly annoyed by Zazu and don't really care what becomes of him, similar to the characters in Star Wars, who wouldn't care if Threepio WAS sent to the spice mines of Kessel and smashed into who knows what.

Now you're probably asking yourself how this relates to me, and why I think I can see myself playing Threepio throughout each Star Wars chapter. Well I, like many of us living on mother Earth, have had some pretty similar experiences to Threepio, experiences of chaos and displeasure. I myself have been the annoyance of people at times, and when I had things planned out from head to toe, things would go haywire and backfire in my face. People would chastise me, make me feel like a crap sandwich, and then I would self loath to myself, much like how Threepio self loathes about not saving Luke and his companions in the trash compactor in A New Hope. Of course Luke and the others turn out alright in the end, but in the grand scheme of things, Threepio felt pity and regret, like I would at times, like a lot of us when things don't go as we plan them. In his own way, Threepio is the most human out of all the characters in the Star Wars universe, for he is flawed, like all of us, and really does his best to make something of himself, even when everyone turns around and takes a dump in his golden face. Threepio represents the doubtful, yet determined side of the human and shares a lot of the customs and perspectives we earthlings shed from our brains each and everyday. Some days we can have a feeling of warm and profound confidence, other days we can have a feeling of worry or inferiority. It all depends on the situations we are in at the moment, and Threepio certainly expresses his feelings and doubts in whatever situations he is in. This is the prime reason why we either love him or hate him, because although he is a robot who was assembled out of the blue by a young slave boy, he acts very much like an average everyday human, an average everyday human with a purpose and a way of looking at things. He's a small sliver of a much larger world, or in this case, a much larger galaxy, but he really pulls through in the end, and some of the most important events in the Star Wars story wouldn't unfold the way they did if it weren't for Threepio's actions, accidental or intentional.

The main reason why I like Threepio so much is because he's so formal and straight forward. His design, while very detailed, is simple and to the point, and the fact that he was based upon a character in one of my all time favorite sci-fi films makes him even more memorable in my eyes. The Maschinenmensch Maria in Fritz Lang's landmark sci-fi thriller Metropolis was the prime inspiration for C-3P0's design, right down to Ralph McQuarrie's legendary concept drawings for the very first Star Wars film. You could also root the overall design and mannerisms of C-3P0 back to the year 1900, when L. Frank Baum wrote the classic child's tale The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, later adapted into the famous 1939 MGM musical starring Judy Garland. The Tin Woodman (played in the movie by Jack Haley), moves in a slinky, robotic, mechanical way and expresses mixed emotions in certain parts of the tale, again very much like C-3P0 in each Star Wars film. He also has a tendency to rust or have his joints harden, much like Threepio, who always needs an oil bath to clean him of harmful dirt clotting and caked platings. I also can't help but feel that young Anakin Skywalker is very much like young Dorothy Gale in Baum's masterpiece, for he assembles Threepio out of his own wit and curiosity, much like how Dorothy and the Scarecrow help get the Tin Woodman back on his feet after several years of rusting. It's a pity though that Anakin treats Threepio like stinking garbage later on in life, like he is ashamed of creating the protocol droid and wishes he could go back in time and prevent his younger self from building him in the first place. It's very much how Dr. Victor Frankenstein is ashamed of creating the monster, abandoning him soon after creating him because he is horrified by his own monstrosity. But Threepio is certainly no monstrosity.

The man behind Threepio's gold plating is Anthony Daniels, an interesting stage and movie actor who still is devoted to the role this very day. He, along with R2-D2's Kenny Baker, is one of the very few actors to be involved in all six Star Wars films. But would you believe that he never really wanted to be in Star Wars to begin with? Daniels hated sci-fi and has stated several times that he never wanted to meet with George Lucas to talk about the role of Threepio. He was appalled by the idea of playing a robot and when he finally decided to play Threepio, he was in a state of extreme discomfort, for he had to work in the hot Tunisian desert while wearing the Threepio armor and he couldn't sit down while he was in the costume. Nevertheless, Daniels prevailed as Threepio and Daniels' distinct mime abilities, which he often used on stage, made the automaton more believable in many ways. The way Threepio walked, moved his arms and walloped really made you think you were watching an ACTUAL robot, not an actor wearing a robot costume. Threepio, in his own way, is like the lost star of the Silent Movie Era, living in the footsteps of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. The silent movie stars of the early days of cinema also played a huge part in the development of Ahmed Best's infamous character in The Phantom Menace, a character met with just as much venom as Threepio. But when Threepio gets criticism from the media for "being gay" or just "plain out annoying, I always like to remember one little thing. You all know that Christopher Lee not only played Count Dooku in the Star Wars prequels, but he also played the wicked Saruman in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and recently The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. But would you believe that Anthony Daniels was also involved in The Lord of the Rings universe? He played the voice of Legolas in Ralph Bakshi's 1978 animated adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's first two volumes in the LOTR story. THAT'S RIGHT. In it's own way, Threepio is the Elven archer Legolas. So every time someone criticizes and makes jokes about the golden automaton, you just tell them that Threepio and Legolas are one in the same. That will make everyone fly through the roof faster than you can say Bob's your uncle. Orlando Bloom, eat your heart out!


And of course Threepio has had many outgoings these past 35 years since Star Wars' debut. He's had his own cereal, he's been part of the Star Wars radio drama, he's a part of the new Star Tours ride in Disney World, he's in both Clone Wars animated series, he's in the cult classic Droids cartoon, he appeared in an episode of The Simpsons getting clobbered by a Cylon from Battlestar Galactica, he appeared in all three Family Guy Star Wars parodies played by Glenn Quagmire of course, he appeared in two episodes of Sesame Street teaching children about numbers, he appeared in The Muppet Show, he appeared in the appalling Star Wars Holiday Special, and of course, he's one of the very few characters to appear in all six Star Wars films. Hopefully, he will be making an appearance in the upcoming Disney trilogy directed by J.J. Abrams, for to have Star Wars films (set within the Anakin/Luke time period) without Threepio would be like to having Star Trek (set within the original series time period) without Spock. He's the voice of the entire saga and the most recognizable character in the series, even if the series doesn't entirely focus on him. When you see Threepio, you immediately think Star Wars, and he's one of the many elements of the series that makes it fun, exciting and thrilling as thrilling can get. He's also one of the many elements the audience can relate too and sympathize with. That's the reason why I think he's my second favorite Star Wars character (the first shall remain unnamed...for now) and the reason he means so much to me. Sure he's flawed, but that's the exact reason why I like him. He's flawed, just like you and me, and it makes him more than just a robot. He's like a standalone being in many ways. He's just the kind of guy I would like to sit down and have lunch with. I mean, come on, WHO WOULDN'T WANT TO HAVE A CONVERSATION WITH THREEPIO? It certainly would be something!

I just hope he doesn't kick me and call me an overweight glob of grease.

Threepio, we love you.

1 comment:

  1. I know exactly what you mean. I feel the same sort of "That's Me!" connection to Jar Jar (though he's only my 4th-favorite). Great piece.