Jar Jar Binks is the misunderstood, unsung hero of the Star Wars saga.
That might seem like an overstatement, but George Lucas created a clear thread of influence for the character from the beginning of Phantom Menace that extends all the way to the end of Return of the Jedi. Taking into account the chronological story of the films, there’s every chance that without Jar Jar’s story thread, the Ewoks might have never gotten into the fight against the Empire on the forest moon of Endor.
I know what you’re asking. How could Jar Jar affect anything beyond Attack of the Clones? I’m glad you asked. It takes a bit of set up, but will pay off.
We start in the swamps of Naboo. Jar Jar Binks, an outcast, is found by a Jedi Knight. In The Phantom Menace, no one wants Jar Jar Binks around. Even Qui-Gon Jinn’s first instinct is to follow suit. And who could blame him? Jar Jar is awkward, clumsy, annoying and of no value to anyone. But Qui-Gon realizes that a life form doesn’t need to have value to him to be worth something. Qui-Gon’s kindness pays off when Jar Jar is able to lead him to Otoh Gunga at great personal risk.
Qui-Gon could have left Jar Jar for dead there with Boss Nass, but he calls in the life debt that Jar Jar pledged to him. Even Obi-Wan is incredulous about this, viewing Jar Jar as pathetic. So why does Qui-Gon keep letting Jar Jar tag along? It’s the same reason he butts heads with the Jedi council: his connection to the living Force. His compassion is greater than the rigid and, frankly, arrogant views of the Jedi.
By keeping Jar Jar around for his goodness rather than potential worth, Qui-Gon enables Queen Amidala to see a side of the Gungans to which the prejudice of her people had closed her off. Because of this, Jar Jar brings her to the Gungans and unites their people. It saved Naboo, Gungans and Humans alike, from Palpatine’s machinations.
This is a classic story in mythology: the creature you’re nice to will unexpectedly help you in the end. Beauty and the Beast teaches the opposite version with the idea that the “worthless” person to whom you’re awful has the power to curse you.
Anyone can learn a lesson from a fairy tale, and Palpatine learns it for his own nefarious goals in Attack of the Clones. He befriends and manipulates Representative Binks and his good and loyal heart into giving the Chancellor unprecedented power that puts the Republic on the path to the Empire.
With Qui-Gon dead, the Jedi are blind to this and Yoda even acknowledges their arrogance in Attack of the Clones, but does nothing to correct it.
By the time Revenge of the Sith rolls around, Jar Jar is as forgotten as the lesson he helped teach Qui-Gon. But during the dark times, what voice is left with Yoda to understand the failures of the Jedi? Qui-Gon.
This is why Yoda acts like Jar Jar when Luke first meets him. He’s the same sort of obnoxious clown whose power Luke doesn’t realize at all. Luke lashes out at him and Luke fails this test. That's why Yoda doesn't want to train him. Because Luke isn't seeing the lessons, let alone learning them. Luke continues to make the same mistakes his father did. He goes to save his friends who he’s more attached to than he should be against the orders of his masters. But unlike his father, Luke works through these failures on his own.
Return of the Jedi shows us this wiser side of Luke. When Han Solo was going to blast every single Ewok on the forest moon of Endor because they were annoying to him, Luke stayed his hand. They could have taken those Ewoks apart, but instead they allowed themselves to be captured and became their allies.
On the set of Return of the Jedi, Lucas explained to Mark Hamill, “You get a sense of the fact that it’s these little funny teddy bears that can destroy the Empire. In a fairy tale, it’s always being nice to the little bunny rabbit on the side of the road that gives you the magic that lets you go and rescue the princess from the evil witch.”
It’s important not to dismiss how Lucas changed the classic trilogy by adding context with the prequels. Some argue that since he didn’t think of it beforehand, it somehow doesn’t count. But as a work of art and storytelling, he set out to add context and meaning to the classic trilogy by telling the story behind it, and his use of Jar Jar Binks in this case does that in a brilliant way.
But it’s even more stunning when you see how he threaded these stories in ways we might not even notice. What two characters in the classic Skywalker saga bear life debts? Jar Jar is the first. The second is Chewbacca.
How does this prove the links Lucas was working to establish? In The Phantom Menace, Jar Jar goes to steal a piece of food from a passing vendor that puts him in conflict with Sebulba. A Skywalker had to intercede in that fight and save Jar Jar so he could unite the Gungans and Naboo. In Return of the Jedi, in a shot from the same angle, Chewbacca goes to steal a piece of mystery meat in the forest that puts him in conflict with the Ewoks. A Skywalker intercedes in that fight to save the Ewoks so they can be united with the Rebellion to defeat the Empire.
Once you notice these visual similarities and story echoes, you’ll never be able to unsee them.
Jar Jar Binks is the lynchpin of the Star Wars universe and we hardly realized it. The only reason Luke learned this lesson was because Jar Jar taught it to Qui-Gon, who taught it to Yoda, who taught it to Luke. They defeated the Empire on Endor because Qui-Gon taught those who came after him you have to be nice to everyone, even if you find them obnoxious. Without Qui-Gon teaching this message of acceptance the galaxy would be a very different place.
It’s a stunning piece of storytelling that almost slid by, right under our noses.