In just three days, audiences can head to theaters to see the re-release of Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace in 3-D. Regardless of how you feel about the much-maligned prequel, there’s no denying the Star Wars franchise made more than an impression on millions of moviegoers who experienced the magic of the first three films in theaters or on their TV screens. This week, EW‘s writers will be celebrating their complicated relationship with George Lucas’ beloved, yet contested, franchise with a series we call “How Star Wars changed my life.” And for those of you headed to the theaters this Friday… may the force be with you.

I’m just going to say up front: Yoda started it.

Credit: © & TM Lucasfilm, Ltd

It was the summer of 1980, early evening, and my dad and I were walking to Trzeciak’s Market, one of those small-town corner stores that only seem to sell three things: candy, cigarettes, and lottery tickets. At that age, traveling four blocks on foot was an epic journey, even in our quiet, tree-lined western Pennsylvania town of New Kensington. There was no danger, unless you considered squirrels dangerous. I considered myself something of a badass. I still had that little kid swagger (the kind bigger kids knock out of you as soon as you start school).

Three doors down from our house, someone was watching us. A little dark-haired boy was kneeling in the grassy slope of his front yard. As we got closer, I could see he had propped himself up with a stick and had a brown blanket draped over his head, which he clutched under his chin to make a hood.

MMMmmm! Greetings!” the boy declared in a kind of swallowed, falsetto voice. “Me Yoda, Jedi Master!”

I remember stopping as he shuffled on his knees toward us, leaning on his makeshift cane. I looked up at my dad, then over to this unusual kid, who was almost exactly my age, and lived on my block, but somehow thought he was speaking to us from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

“Shut up,” I sneered.

After a moment, I pulled on my dad’s hand and we kept walking.

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Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back | Episode V — The Empire Strikes Back The Rebels had found a pretty decent hiding spot in the ice planet Hoth. At least until those…
Episode V — The Empire Strikes Back The Rebels had found a pretty decent hiding spot in the ice planet Hoth. At least until those giant, elephantine All Terrain Armored Transports started to bear down on the Rebel compound. And you know what, Luke and his boys couldn’t stop them — those AT-ATs chased them right off of Hoth. That stop-motion wizardry, plus Ben Burtt’s terrific sound design, made impending doom completely awesome.

I’d seen The Empire Strikes Back only a couple weeks before, so I knew what Yoda did — and did not — look like. Thank you.

I can still picture pushing through those double doors into the black void of the theater, our eyes blinking to adjust to the shadows… except… Floating before us was a massive rectangle of blinding whiteness.

My family arrived at the multiplex a little late, missing the previews, and the movie had already started.

On screen was the alien snowscape of Hoth, and an epic battle with giant mechanized walkers and little scurrying rebels was playing out. I just stood there, dumbstruck. The air conditioning made it chilly in the theater, adding to the illusion that the screen was a vast window someone had left open, and if we just kept walking we could step out into this ice planet.

After a few moments, our eyes adjusted, and we took our seats, but I never forgot that feeling of actually being there, face-to-face with George Lucas’ fantasy world, not just watching it passively from my seat. I would soon discover that feeling again, but far (far) from the theater.

I was just a newborn when the original Star Wars came out, and I’m not sure I had seen it at all by the time Empire was playing. Maybe I’d caught snippets on TV. But Empire was easy enough to follow along. Do I need to explain why it struck such a nerve with kids from my generation? Robots, spaceships, monsters, laser swords, a huge, humanoid dog-friend, a back-talking smuggler (kids love criminals), a floating cloud world, and a whiny kid who DOES NOT want to listen to his old man. (And, bonus — the kid is right to defy him! AWESOME!)

And of course, it had Yoda, who is like the weird but kindly grandfather every boy wants: one who teaches you all sorts of cool stuff that other grown-ups won’t allow, eats a lot of junk food, and lives in a hollowed-out tree in a swamp.

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Yoda was little (even littler than I was, which was saying something), and wrinkled, and green, with huge, pointy baseball-mitt ears. Yoda did not look like me, and he certainly did not look like that kid down the street who, in my mind, was trying to pull a little intergalactic identity-theft by telling me otherwise.

As a result of my rudeness to Faux-da, the rest of that summer evening’s walk to Trzeciak’s did not go well. Dad was angry and embarrassed. I was living proof that a 3-year-old can be a real a–hole. He kept demanding to to know why I had told that kid to shut up.

It seemed obvious to me: That kid wasn’t Yoda. He was lying to us. Jeez.

Anyway, I was forced to apologize, and that’s the moment Star Wars changed my life. I walked down to that kid’s house the next day, knocked on the door, and told the boy I was sorry for telling him to shut up.

The boy, whose name was Joey Mitchell, wasn’t very phased by my insult, and immediately invited me inside to play. This is where I discovered something that would become a touchstone of my generation: Star Wars toys.

Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC

Years later I would hear about what a shrewd and innovative business move it was for George Lucas to merchandise every corner of his Star Wars universe. Not only did he create action figures of the main characters (Luke, Leia, Han Solo, Darth Vader, and Chewie, whose long paws were irresistible chew toys for every preschooler), but he put out the weird and obscure ones too. They had the kind of names burly Teamsters give to anonymous movie puppets: Walrusman (whose face actually looked like a butt), Hammer Head (who looked like something that came out of a butt), and Lobot (who looked like one of the old-guy ushers at our church — but with a computer attached to his skull.)

Lucas’ willingness to draw deep from the character shelf for these toys was one of the greatest things that ever happened to my imagination. If kids only have the main characters to play with, they just keep re-creating the story they’ve already seen. But…what does Walrusman do? (That is, when he’s not getting his arm sliced off by Obi-Wan Kenobi in the cantina?)

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Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC

Joey Mitchell became my best friend, and whatever Fisher Price-type baby toys I had up until that point were soon replaced by action figures and awesome vehicles. I got the Millennium Falcon for Christmas. He had a giant AT-AT. We spent one afternoon in his front yard turning an empty 2-liter Coca-Cola bottle into a carbonite freezing chamber (the kind used on Han Solo at the end of Empire), cutting off the nozzle and filling the chamber with mud, rocks, grass, pine needles, water, (and probably whatever Coca-Cola remained) to create a thick, burbling, disgusting stew.

Darth Vader was on a rampage that day: not only was Han Solo dunked into the goo, but so were Luke, Leia, Yoda, Chewie, and C-3PO. (Not R2-D2, whose tubular body had a wrap-around sticker that would be ruined in the muck.) All across Joey’s sidewalk were rows of mud balls, baking in the sun, each one containing a different Star Wars character.

The next day, R2 (or somebody –- maybe Lobot?) helped crack open the pre-fossil “carbonite” shells, and rescue the good guys before Boba Fett could fly away with them. Luckily, there were too many frozen rebels for his Slave I ship to carry at once. Darth Vader was loading up the trunk of his AT-AT with the pods when the daring rescue unfolded.

Of course, kids have always had toys, but these were different. G.I. Joe was popular in the 1960s, and little plastic army men date back to decades earlier. Even tin soldiers are sort of early incarnations of these dolls (*cough* sorry — action figures). But there was something far more innovative about Lucas’ Star Wars toys than joint articulation and sculpting. It was their backstories, gleaned from the movies. The original 12-inch G.I. Joes may have eventually come with “life-like hair and beard,” but they were otherwise generic soldiers, sailors, or airmen. Tin-toys, similarly, didn’t come with personalities included.

Yes, Star Wars toys didn’t leave everything to the imagination, but they gave little kids enough of a push to start their own cerebral engines. I would argue that coming up with characters is nearly impossible for a kid under 6. Your knowledge of the world is too limited. Maybe you could come up with a believable (and familiar) Mommy or Little Brother character, but what does a 5-year-old know about the complicated relationships between people? That’s one reason stories are so vital to us as a species.

NEXT PAGE: Star Wars toys were like training wheels for the imagination

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With their broad universe of toys, LucasFilm and the Kenner toy company gave us the characters, and we made up the stories. You can see the ripple effects of this today throughout the Star Wars “expanded universe,” that broad array of comics, books, cartoons, homemade shorts, and video games that tell innumerable yarns beyond the six feature films.

Through his relentless merchandising, Lucas opened up the toy box of the world he created and invited us to play -– much like Joey did when he invited me into his house. Suddenly, I could be Yoda… Or Chewbacca… or Darth Vader, even. (Depending on what kind of dark mood happened to envelope me.)

Joey and I could make the little plastic Yoda figure get stuck in the folds of his play set’s “swamp,” which was a sponge with a crisscross slash in the middle, or…we could stick that play set out in the dirt patch underneath my tree swing, flood it with water, and make a real swamp. (Hey, Dad, welcome home!) From there, it was an easy leap to putting shoes on my knees and declaring: “Me Yoda, Jedi Master!” to everyone who walked by my yard.

You can see the impact of the Star Wars toys on the types of toys that followed: Hasbro imported generic robots that shapeshifted into cars, trucks and airplanes –- then hired Marvel Comics to give each of them personalities, teams to fight on, leaders to admire, villains to loathe. The Transformers were born.

Similarly, G.I. Joe was resurrected, but instead of being just some random guy with Kung-Fu Grip, each character had a distinct skill, a particular personality, and a dynamic they fit into among the group. All of this, by the way, was reinforced by now-beloved cartoons that were derided by critics as 30-minute toy commercials.

They were toy commercials, I guess –- but then so were the Star Wars movies, if you want to reduce them to that. The fact that they made kids say “gimme, gimme” at the K-Mart didn’t make the stories less amazing (or cheesy), or less invigorating to kids making up their own episodes of these programs. Mister Rogers taught us to embrace our imaginations, and these toys were tools for expressing them.

Not every kid who played with Star Wars, M.A.S.K., G.I. Joe, or Transformers toys went on to write novels or screenplays or TV shows, but for a while there, burying those toys in mud forts in the backyard or flying plastic vehicles over the grass, we were all creators, as powerful in those worlds as George Lucas.

Star Wars toys showed me Yoda didn’t have to be just a character on the screen.

He could be your best friend from three doors down.

On Twitter: @Breznican

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