Two years ago, Lucasfilm and everything Star Wars-related was sold to Disney, which promised a slew of new films and television all lacking one crucial ingredient: George Lucas’s involvement. Star Wars Rebels, an animated TV show airing on the kid-focused channel Disney XD, is the first such creation, and soundly confirms what many a disillusioned Star Wars fan might hope: that shedding George Lucas was just what this moribund franchise needed.
After serving as the driving force behind six films Star Wars films and many related spin-off properties, in 2012 Lucas said he was tired and ready for semi-retirement (that $4 billion from Disney probably didn’t hurt his decision either). The immediate excitement around the sale reflected the general feeling among fans that losing Lucas could be addition by subtraction, despite the fact that Star Wars was his total brainchild. While his prequel trilogy was a monstrous financial success featuring many an epic lightsaber battle, it came across as wooden anytime it attempted real character development.
I’ve heard arguments for the value of the prequels, particularly the final, most tragic chapter (Episode III: Revenge of the Sith) but I was certainly not the only grown-up who felt they devalued the films I grew up watching. Lucas would occasionally counter, in interviews, with the notion that the prequels were more aimed at children, as the original films had been, and remained a rousing success by that standard. Star Wars Rebels inadvertently serves to disprove that argument—it’s entertainment resolutely aimed at children, but it could easily be enjoyed by anyone.
Rebels is set a few years before the original Star Wars film and focuses on the origins of the Rebel Alliance that Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia and all the others will one day fight for. It features the same 3D CGI animation style employed for former TV spinoff Star Wars: The Clone Wars but clearly places a higher value on playing homage to the original films. The backgrounds, landscapes and even some of the character designs are based on unused Ralph McQuarrie concept art for Star Wars, and the CG sets have the simpler, blocky look of the original trilogy, reflecting the wide reach of the Galactic Empire that Luke and company will one day defeat.
Our hero is a wiseacre 14-year-old named Ezra, but you might as well call him Space Aladdin—he’s an orphaned thief who sneaks around markets, steals to survive, and might just have a magical secret (in this case, that means he can use the force). He quickly gets hauled onto the crew of the Ghost, a rag-tag spaceship populated by a crew of fellow disenfranchised sorts, including a Jedi Knight in hiding and a brawny alien who survived the Empire’s genocide against his species. The show is in its early days—its fourth, most exciting episode airs Monday—but the title makes it clear this crew will help start the galaxy’s formal rebellion.
At least some passing interest in Star Wars is probably required to buy into Rebels—but that’s about all you need. All of the nostalgic aural elements that might stir a dormant fan’s heart (lightsabers vooming, TIE fighters screaming around, that incomparable blaster noise) are there, but the prequels had plenty of that. What those films lacked, and Rebels immediately shows off, is characters you can actually buy into. Yes, they’re all very broad types, but executed perfectly. The renegade Jedi Kanan (voiced by Freddie Prinze Jr. of all people) is not the monastic bore of every Jedi in the prequel trilogy; and Ezra might be a rebellious teen, but not like the gratingly moody and whiny Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) so many fans grew to hate long before he turned into Darth Vader.
It’s incredible how much of a difference it makes to see Star Wars characters talking like human beings, not robotic information delivery systems spewing monologues on their feelings to justify whatever plot twist loomed. Early episodes of Rebels do a fine job laying character groundwork (Ezra’s induction into the tight-knit family of the ship is not easy) with larger plot arcs (the crew, and Kanan in particular, are being chased by a nasty Empire intelligence officer and a far scarier chalk-faced Sith “Inquisitor” who hunts surviving Jedi).
The Empire’s evil is even given some nuance. Conditions on the planets our heroes visit seem oppressive, but stable, and the Empire’s yoke is clearly just beginning to chafe. One of Lucas’s greatest achievements in his original trilogy was to make the Empire an intimidating but almost banal presence—yes, the Star Destroyers and Stormtroopers are scary, but the guys in charge were in plain uniforms that belied the darker, more frightening image of Vader and the Emperor that they largely hid from view. Rebels seizes on this concept well. Our heroes are usually skirmishing with tiny Empire detachments, hijacking piddling shipments or disrupting small-scale intimidation efforts. But behind all that lurks something more frightening that they’re just beginning to grapple with.
Rebels is great, but probably won’t have much impact on the Star Wars universe at large. It’s serving to set up the events of the original trilogy, which we already know very well. The real test for the Disney/Lucasfilm alliance will come with J. J. Abrams’s Star Wars: Episode VII, currently filming and due for release in December 2015. Written by Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan (who scripted The Empire Strikes Back), Episode VII has to deal with simultaneously rock-bottom low and impossibly high expectations. Exceeding the quality of the prequel trilogy shouldn’t be hard for Abrams and company, but coming anywhere near to matching the beloved original trilogy is impossible to imagine.
But given the quality of Star Wars Rebels, perhaps Abrams’s task isn’t as tough as one might think. Rebels is written and produced by competent Hollywood vets: Simon Kinberg (who wrote a couple X-Men movies and Sherlock Holmes) and Greg Weisman (who has worked on many popular animated programs). I wouldn’t call either a great artist, but they’re both competent professionals who know how to make good entertainment and write dialogue that doesn’t sound completely tin-eared. That, coupled with the inherent magic of the Star Wars universe, was enough to get me starry-eyed. If a children’s cartoon could do that, who knows what a new $200 million blockbuster trilogy could pull off?