By Lisa Richwine
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Furry, wide-eyed and winged critters called Porgs are invading the "Star Wars" galaxy, and Walt Disney Co hopes they will soon be roosting under fans' Christmas trees.
Porgs make their debut in "The Last Jedi," the new "Star Wars" movie that reaches theatres Thursday. Film trailers have offered only glimpses of a single Porg that rides shotgun on the Millennium Falcon and, in one scene, lets out a squawk.
The limited view of their role has sparked questions: are the Porgs sweet or sad? Funny or irritating?
Cuddly creatures are rare in a movie franchise better known for metallic droids and the grotesque Jabba the Hutt, and their occasional appearances haven't always pleased fans. Many filmgoers believed the teddy bear-like Ewoks ruined the ending of 1983's "Return of the Jedi."
"'Star Wars' fans, understandably, always have suspicion about anything that's too adorable," said Rian Johnson, who wrote and directed "The Last Jedi," in an interview with Reuters.
But, he added, "I think the Porgs have their proper place in the movie. I think they fit."
Fan reaction was mixed after a Porg appeared in a "The Last Jedi" trailer in October. Many embraced the creature as cute and huggable, but detractors speculated that Porgs might become the next Jar Jar Binks, a much-derided character from 1999 film "The Phantom Menace."
"I hate porgs," one Twitter user wrote in October. "I don't think they're cute at all, and I dislike how blatantly gimmicky they are."
Cast members have joined the debate. John Boyega, who plays Finn, likened Porgs to cockroaches in an interview, while Luke Skywalker actor Mark Hamill has rallied to their defense on Twitter.
When Disney showed "The Last Jedi" to more than 6,000 people at the movie's premiere on Saturday, the Porgs seemed to captivate audience members, who laughed at their playful scenes with Chewbacca. Comments on social media were largely positive.
Sales of "Star Wars" toys are important to Disney, which bought the franchise in 2012. "Star Wars" items were the U.S. toy industry's top-selling line in both 2015 and 2016, with $1.5 billion in sales over the two years, research firm NPD Group said.
Disney licensees are already selling plush Porgs of all sizes, including one that measures four feet (over one meter) tall, to holiday shoppers at malls, online and at theme parks.
If the Porgs take off, they could boost sales of plush toys, which accounted for just 2 percent of "Star Wars" U.S. toy sales related to 2015 film "The Force Awakens," according to NPD toy industry analyst Juli Lennett. A Hasbro Inc Porg is the best-selling "Star Wars" plush toy in the 13 weeks ending Nov. 25, Lennett said.
Porg is the most searched for "Star Wars" character on the shopDisney website in December, Disney said.
Jim Silver, editor-in-chief of toy review website TTPM, predicts Porgs will be popular with younger children, as Ewoks were. "As much as people criticized them, they sold a gazillion of them," Silver said. "The collectors say they didn't like Ewoks, but the kids thought they looked cute."
(Reporting by Lisa Richwine; Additional reporting by Rollo Ross; Editing by Sue Horton and Rosalba O'Brien)