1983 marked the beginning of a love/hate relationship that perpetuates to this day. And it began on a fateful summer day among friends in a movie theater in Duncanville, Texas. It was at the day’s first screening of Return of the Jedi on opening day. The day a silly blue elephant appeared in a Star Wars film and left me in a conflicted state. While there was as much to love about the final chapter of George Lucas’ star-spanning history of some distant intergalactic realm as there was to hate (think Ewoks), the fulcrum upon which that dichotomy pivots in my view was none other than Sy Snootles’ keyboardist!
Max Rebo, accompanist and band leader (though at the time his band was more a combo), instantly found a special place in my heart and mind when it comes to the Star Wars saga. In an attempt to go above and beyond when it came to peopling a scene with bizarre aliens, George Lucas and company cast about in every possible direction for unique designs. Perhaps the sting of using off the shelf masks and cheesy costumes to flesh out Mos Eisley lingered when dozens of sketches and maquettes were produced to conceptualize a richer variety of denizens for Jabba’s Palace. One alien creature presented in a three dimensional sculpture during the approval process was a curious blue elephant who would get the green light for production.
His excessively bright hue and cartoon elephant form was initially off-putting to me. Max Rebo seemed terribly out of place at first pass, especially given the equally difficult to place in the Star Wars universe nature of his band. Droopy McCool appeared to be one of the worst examples of “a guy in a suit” aliens I had ever seen and Sy Snootles exaggerated snout terminating in Rocky Horror Picture Show lips seemed more at home in a B-movie than a George Lucas production! The only saving grace of the Max Rebo Band came in the form of the Ewoks. Somehow everything that was wrong with this musical trio was softened by the unforgivable presence of a living Soft Toys Department on the forest moon of Endor! By the third act of Return of the Jedi, and through subsequent screenings, the little blue guy really started growing on me.
Part of his appeal was a very clever design. Even before images of the pre-production maquette were made public I could tell from the sculpt of the puppet used on set that Max Rebo was designed to be one of the more alien of the aliens in the Palace. One of the reasons a puppet was used rather than an actor in a costume was to allow for a non-humanoid creature to be working the keys of the Red Ball organ for Jabba’s listening pleasure. It was obvious to me from the shape and placement of the character’s “arms” that they were in fact more akin to legs. While it seemed unlikely at the time that the musician would ever become part of the Kenner Star Wars toy line of the day, given unwieldy size of his principle accessory – his organ, it was no less exciting to imagine that there would be a uniquely proportioned action figure in the series. But alas this was not to be the case.
Whether by gross misinterpretation of what was presented on screen or out of the necessities of 80s manufacturing processes, the toy company determined that Max Rebo have a stout body from which a pair of legs, complete with bare feet with toes that mimicked his suction cup fingertips, would protrude from a loin cloth covering his alien shame. Initially I was more than a little disappointed with this adaptation. Making the elephant-like keyboardist humanoid robbed him of much of his mystique after all! That his instrument of choice helped disguise this artistic license was of little consequence to me at the time. It would take years to simply accept this rethinking of the character’s design and enjoy the fact that a means to get him and his band immortalized in plastic was found, even if the approach was personally unappealing. Besides, over a decade later there was hope that Kenner would have a second chance to get it right.
After an absence of about ten years from toy store shelves, Star Wars returned to fulfill my collecting needs in the form of the Power of the Force line in 1995. Initial offerings seemed to meld the artistic sensibilities of Masters of the Universe with the designs of the Star Wars saga, much to the disappointment of fans everywhere. In time, however, Hasbro (now exerting their name over that of their acquisition, Kenner) came to their senses and mandated sculpts more in keeping with the on-screen look and feel of characters. While the Max Rebo Band would be a long while coming to the resurrected line, but when it arrived any hope of a movie accurate band leader were again dashed. Taking their cues too heavily from the vintage line, they simply remade a superior version of the original, right down to the loin cloth (which was at least painted this time). To make matters worse for the cinematic concept of this character, the so-called Expanded Universe took hold of the toy design and folded into the visual canon via Dark Horse Comics publications and illustrations in guide books.
Now identified as an Ortolan, Max and his requisite species were given the Kenner design for reference purposes and the inaccurate design was given precedence in the greater Star Wars universe. This is where the hate side of the relationship comes heavily into play. It was forgivable in the 80s for Max to have legs out of manufacturing necessity. Though less so, some grace could be given to the Hasbro incarnation as a tribute to the original toy, though they were undoubtedly forced by Lucasfilm to use the CG version of Sy Snootles over the original puppet design, so a tribute seems less likely. In fact, to date, only Gentle Giant Studios’ various incarnations of the character in statue and mini-bust form seem to illustrate some grasp of the unique physical anatomy of the character. Otherwise the design put forth by Kenner all those years ago, while obviously wrong, has become the go to version.
But why all of this contention over a 30 year old background puppet character? Apart from the fact that the dichotomy of Max Rebo’s suggested form and that taken on in collectibles and adopted into the Expanded Universe having been contentious in my thoughts for decades, I recently stumbled upon an article that showed I was not alone in my thinking. You can read the inspiration for my own article here and perhaps gain a better understanding of what set me off on chronicling my own long standing doubts about the depiction of the bright blue musician. My sincere thanks to Pablo Hidalgo for penning that article and subsequently inspiring mine. Getting a bit of this off my chest as it were has proven cathartic and helped elevate poor Max to a higher place in the Star Wars pantheon.
At the conclusion of Mr. Hidalgo’s article an illustration of Max Rebo ambulating is included as well as a suggestion that the characters ears might in fact be more akin to forelimbs. In the spirit of that drawing, and inspired by the aforementioned suggestion, I took it upon myself to illustrate the skeletal anatomy of Max Rebo taking the “flipper” concept into account.