When Disney purchased Lucasfilm in 2012, it seemed like the whole world reacted with both relief and indignation. Taking Star Wars out of George Lucas’ hands gave fans hope that the property would be given a new spark, but placing it into the hands of Disney gave those same fans pause. A franchise ruined by inexplicable edits to the original trilogy and terrible prequels now belonged to a company generally (and disingenuously) known for childish pablum. One of the results of the purchase was the effective cancellation of The Clone Wars, which aired on Cartoon Network for five seasons. By all accounts it was a fairly decent show, with strong arcs interspersed with generic stories, but the question remains: Could Star Wars Rebels be a worthy replacement?
The seven-minute preview of the premiere that aired a few weeks earlier didn’t inspire much confidence; the two shorts I managed to see (there are four total), were well done but unimpressive. “The Machine In The Ghost” is a cute but one-note joke for the most part, and “Entanglement” is just Zeb (the muscle of the crew, voiced by Steve Blum) beating up Stormtroopers. These are meant to be character introductions, but they don’t really introduce the characters; their character designs (based on the original Star Wars concept art by Ralph McQuarrie) alone tell us who we’re working with.
Star Wars Rebels’ official premiere, “Spark Of Rebellion,” should assuage any fears left lingering from the Disney merger or those preview shorts. It’s a surprisingly tight, focused story clearly backed with a budget way beyond other CGI action cartoons like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and The Clone Wars, and it’s helmed by talented producers Simon Kinberg (who wrote the premiere), Dave Filoni, and Greg Weisman. It keeps the childish gags to a minimum and maintains a solid direction through both parts, with impressive (and fairly brutal) action sequences and even the occasional bit of pathos to give the characters life.
Not to say that that first seven-minute segment is any better in context; it’s by far the weakest part of the premiere. It’s definitely a bit rushed and somewhat lazy, with the protagonist, Ezra Bridger (voiced by Taylor Gray) rushes after an Imperial space freighter to steal some goods. Part of the issue is that we barely get a real glimpse of Ezra before the rebels arrive and the action begins. He turns up in town and tricks a few of the Empire’s goons away from harassing a merchant, only to steal that merchant’s goods. All the merchant can say is “Who was that boy?”, a running bit that fortunately ends within the first act.
Once the episode gets off Lathos, things really come together, as the premiere establishes the crew’s group dynamics. The hostile relationship between Zeb and Ezra is the most interesting, as it’s the one mined for the most gags, but it also triggers a key plot point. Kanan (voiced by Freddie Prinze Jr.) and Hera (voiced by Vanessa Marshall) are, respectively, the leader and pilot of the ship, dubbed the Ghost; good on Kinberg’s script to ensure the two are constantly on top of Ezra’s antics and not easily fooled. The show establishes them as both parental figures and indirect guardians, testing Ezra’s Force skills and guiding him in the right direction. Sabine (voiced by Tiya Sircar) is the weakest link here, if only because as of now she’s just Ezra’s potential love interest. She seems oddly disconnected from the crew: She barely interacts with Kanan, Zeb, or Hera in any significant manner.
Good plotting keeps “Spark Of Rebellion” lively and moving at a good clip. It gives Ezra the chance to see a universe beyond his own worldview, literally opening his eyes to both its wonders and its dangers. It also allows Ezra to grow and change into a more focused, mature hero; his high jinks aid the crew of the Ghost, rather than causing them trouble. The episode’s strongest moment takes place in Tarkintown; a random citizen thanks him for the food aid that he admits to himself he took no part in acquiring. The show doesn’t shy away from lingering, quiet moments to let the pathos and more dramatic moments settle in, a far cry from most cartoons needing to force action or wackiness into every scene.
Strong visuals also help things along, with great direction by Steward and Steven Lee. Action sequences are clear, concise, and thrilling. Establishing shots of the various locations like Lathos and Tarkintown really create a sense that each planet is distinct and unique, and not simply reused animation assets. The episode uses two strong montage sequences: First when Hera pleads with Ezra to save the crew as they walk into an Empire trap, and second, as Obi-Wan Kenobi’s voice narrates over the various characters at the end of the episode. Both montages come at a point where Ezra has to make a choice, effectively using the cuts as a visual cue to the personal stakes involved.
It’s clear that Kinberg, Filoni, and Weisman are more focused on telling a solid, serious story in establishing the birth of the Rebel Alliance and not using the show as an excuse to create goofy aliens (no Jar-Jar-esque creatures here). Disney seems to be putting a lot behind this show (and its filmic counterparts), so there’s a pretty good chance that Rebels will grow into something special. The seeds have been planted for future storylines: Tarkintown and its oppressive relationship with Governor Tarkin; the history and backstory of Sebin, Zeb, and Ezra; the super-evil appearance of “The Inquisitor” at the end. As long as the writers and producers keep Ezra away from “bone-headed teenager” territory, it should be both fun and rewarding to see him actually grow into an actual Jedi.
- The key plot point I mentioned between Zeb and Ezra? During the escape from the Empire’s trap, Zeb pushes past Ezra in a careless, seemingly non-meaningful way, which indirectly leads to Ezra’s capture. Zeb knows it’s his fault and feels appropriately guilty, and I love how the episode subtly plays with this guilt without Zeb directly saying this.
- Another bit of great subtlety: The Empire playing dumb to lure the Ghost crew on board to set the trap. They give just enough pushback to make Hera think she conned them before letting them on board. This also means the two Stormtroopers that greeted the Ghost crew were bait. Those poor, poor guys.
- A bit of an in-joke: Zeb pretending to be a Wookie. Apparently, Zeb’s design was one of McQuarrie’s original concepts of the hairy beasts.
- Those of you concerned about Ezra’s laser slingshot? Don’t worry. It’s clear that the creators were too, and its use is kept at a minimum. The two times it is used are actually kinda great: Once to blow up a control panel to knock out some Stormtroopers, and another to knock a Stormtrooper off a platform. This actually leads to the show’s most hilarious and most morbid joke: Agent Kallus (the episode’s villain) kicking said Stormtrooper to his death after his smartass Jedi comment.
- As always, raise your voices if you want regular coverage of this show. We’re also looking into a broader way to cover current animated shows, at least those that don’t get regular coverage. Any suggestions would be helpful!