Have no fear, the future of Star Wars is here and it couldn’t possibly be more awesome.
Back in March 2013, when it was announced that Star Wars: The Clone Wars was to end its award-winning five season run, fans were stunned. And although it was meant to be exciting, the announcement of a new animated television series to replace The Clone Wars ended up feeling like little more than a consolation prize.
Fast forward to more than a year later, on the eve of the Star Wars: Rebels premiere last night on the Disney Channel. The Star Wars buzz is alive and well, with Episode VII deep into production and a slew of novels and other content announced and on the way. Rebels has been given the honor – and the daunting responsibility – of being our first exposure to the new, post-Lucas landscape of the franchise. So how does the show hold up?
After seeing an advance screening of the premiere entitled “Spark of Rebellion” last Saturday, I can honestly say that we’re all about to be blown away.
Let’s start by talking about the animation and visual effects. Simply put, the animation is on par with what fans of The Clone Wars came to expect, especially by the time that series reached its later seasons. In this writer’s opinion, it is light years ahead of every other CG animated show on television right now, just as its predecessor was.
Rebels shares a lot of visual DNA with The Clone Wars, but don’t expect it to look and feel the same in every way. Most notably is the degree to which the squash and stretch technique is used. Oftentimes Clone Wars character models were criticized for their stiff, wooden look both in the actual model and in the way they moved on screen. Rebels character models are far more flexible, if only in body and facial movements. As is usually the case with television animation, you won’t find any Pixar-quality hair and clothing movements.
Also striking is the color palette. Despite being set in the “dark times” of the Star Wars galaxy, Rebels uses a very bright color scheme. Characters’ eyes have an almost luminescent quality to them. Costume designs and settings pop. Blaster bolts generally have adopted the same opaque red of the original Star Wars film, with some exceptions here and there.
In fact, callbacks to the originals are a huge part of this show visually speaking. The effects on Kanan’s lightsaber are one. Rebels’ VFX supervisor Joel Aaron (a Clone Wars veteran) went as far as to bring in “A New Hope” visual effects wizard Roger Christian to recreate that thin, quivering blade style as seen in the first film. Other examples, including ship designs and the familiar whine of TIE fighter engines, had me practically swimming in nostalgia.
The show opens by introducing the audience to 14 year-old Ezra Bridger, an orphaned street rat (any Aladdin fans in the house?) who lives in a communications tower on the city outskirts on a backwater planet called Lothal. Ezra is shown to be a kid who’s learned to fend for himself as the Empire tightens its grip on the farming world. Though he occasionally helps others, Ezra is depicted as a Han Solo-like character who almost always is concerned for his own well-being and not for anyone else’s. He comes into contact with Kanan and the rest of the rebels when he steals a crate of supplies from them (which the rebels are in turn stealing from the Empire). An exhilarating speeder bike chase scene ensues, ending in a TIE fighter attack and Ezra performing a very Jedi-like jump onto the loading ramp of the rebel ship The Ghost.
The danger doesn’t end there though as the rebels and their teenage tagalong are pursued by more TIE fighters. The writing starts to really pick up at this point as we get our first bits of real dialogue. Hera, the ship’s green-skinned pilot playfully grills Kanan on his turret-shooting skills. Meanwhile, in the back of the ship, Ezra (and the audience) meets Zeb, a brutish ****neyed alien with a particular disdain for the kid. Also on board are Sabine, a female version of the bounty hunter Boba Fett and Chopper, a stouter, more irritable version of R2-D2.
No sooner are these characters introduced then do they start to become interesting. Kanan is more thoughtful and wary than he seems from the trailers. His Jedi past, though light on any actual details, is conveyed through distant looks and subtle vocal tones. The rival sibling dynamic between Ezra and Zeb is downright hilarious at times. All the voice acting is spot on and you can feel the chemistry going right from the get-go. It’s not easy to do that in the space of 40 minutes.
Unfortunately, the aspect that does suffer a bit is the portrayal of our villains. Aside from the mutton-chopped Agent Kallus (voiced by David Ayelowo), the bad guys are basically flat. The stormtroopers don’t appear especially menacing and Imperial officers all have typical stuffy British accents. One guy in particular seems to have an inexplicably grayish-looking skin tone that felt almost too Snidly Whiplash. I’m excited to see where they take this Kallus character and I hope they really explore the shadowy Imperial Security Bureau (ISB) that he works for. I just don’t want the show to suffer from bumbling bad-guy syndrome. Also worth pointing out that they held back the Inquisitor from the premiere episode!
“Spark of Rebellion” is basically the first two episodes of Rebels cut together into an hour-long special. Despite the awkward cuts where commercial breaks are added, it plays out just about how you’d expect a feature-length film would. In some respects, I almost wish this was the Star Wars animated feature that we could have seen given a theatrical release, as opposed to the oft-lamented Clone Wars debut. With the changes in storytelling format, Rebels simply has more room to breathe and it’s this quality that makes it really shine.
Canonically speaking, this era of the Star Wars timeline is one that remains almost wholly untouched. This is the first time we’re introduced to Kanan, Ezra and the bunch and, although we know Luke Skywalker and company burst onto the scene in a big way just a few years after Rebels takes place, we don’t know what our new heroes’ fates will be.
That fact alone is a breath of fresh air, but it’s also understood that Rebels will follow a more traditional format of chronological, episodic storytelling. This is a marked difference between it and The Clone Wars. Whereas the former was originally envisioned as a series of quick, 1-2 episode war stories in seemingly random order, the story in Rebels unfolds gradually, week to week.
It’s made very clear early on that Star Wars Rebels is all about Ezra. The premiere alone evolves his character so much from point A to B as he discovers that there is more to life than taking care of himself. There’s a feeling that he’s “taken [his] first step into a much larger world”, to steal a quote from ol’ Ben Kenobi. I absolutely love that the Kinberg and the rest of the crew made this decision. To the new generation of Star Wars fans, they are right there with Ezra. They’re just as amazed at new experiences (“I’m in space!”) and they wear the same look of wonder as they make the jump to lightspeed or gaze up at Kanan, lightsaber in hand.
After the screening, I stopped in the lobby to observe the kids’ reactions upon walking out of the theater. “That was sooo awesome!” said one child, practically bouncing, clutching a balloon lightsaber in one hand and his dad’s hand in the other. Both had big smiles on their faces. The kids ate it up in a big way, one that will no doubt blow open the merchandising gold mine that Disney has been sitting on for the last two years. But more importantly, I had confirmed for me what I’ve always known, ever since my own father introduced me to that galaxy far, far away all those years ago:
Star Wars, much like the mystical Force itself, brings people and families together. And that is a very good thing indeed.
I hope you’ll join me back here each and every Tuesday (starting 10/14) as I recap weekly episodes. I’d also like to feature feedback from readers in each week’s posts so please leave comments or tweet at me @dtippetts or @rotoscopers to get in on the discussion. May the Force be with you!