Star Wars in the new century is scorched earth. That’s not even strong enough - it felt like salted earth, a patch of ground that had been so abused that nothing could ever grow there again. Star Wars - even the first two films - made me roll my eyes.
When Disney bought Lucasfilm, and with it all things Star Wars, I thought it was only going to get worse. The Mouse House would run this thing into the ground in ways that even George Lucas, the man who actually ruined his own older films, couldn’t imagine. And I was cynical. And I was snarky.
And I was wrong.
I’ve already written about the way that recent behind the scenes information has changed my feelings about the future of Star Wars, especially the word that Disney is turning the Star Wars universe into a canon-driven piece of multimedia storytelling where every element matters. Now, with the release of Star Wars Rebels, my feelings about the present tense of Star Wars has changed. Star Wars is standing on healthy, fertile ground for the first time in decades.
Star Wars Rebels is the perfect mixture of Original Trilogy spirit with modern storytelling sensibilities. It evokes what makes the original Star Wars a classic without going through the motions of replicating it. This is not a retread or a rehash of what came before, but its own thing that is set in a universe that is clearly the one we love from those first great films. That’s what makes this show special - it is clearly of a piece with the Original Trilogy while not aping it in any significant way.
Set five years before the events of Star Wars, Star Wars Rebels follows the crew of the freighter Ghost as they lay the early groundwork for the rebellion against the Empire. The leader of the group is Kanan, one of the last Jedi (whose existence, by the way, can be argued to be alluded to by Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars, when he tells Luke the Jedi are “all but extinct.”), but a Jedi who tries to keep his powers as much of a secret as possible. Hera is the Twi’lek pilot of the Ghost, and along for the ride are Zeb, a rough-and-tumble muscle-bound alien based on Ralph McQuarrie’s original Chewbacca designs, Sabine, a Mandalorian warrior and Chopper, an astromech droid.
Each of these characters feels unique and not, as I feared going in, like rehashes of the OT icons. Zeb, for instance, isn’t lovable in the way Chewie is, and Chopper, being grumpy and difficult, is quite unlike R2D2. And Kanan is an intriguing character, a strong and righteous leader who has the weight of the past on his shoulders. When Kanan finally opens up with lightsaber in Spark Of Rebellion, the pilot movie, you get the sense that it’s a relief for him.
And then there’s Ezra. If any of the characters in Star Wars Rebels was going to be a problem, it would be Ezra, the young audience-identification character… and yet he’s great. A street kid from the planet Lothal (it’s the little things, like having it be a new planet, that I like about Rebels), Ezra meets the crew of the Ghost when they’re hijacking an Imperial arms shipment. He in turn hijacks it from them, but his spunk impresses Kanan enough that he saves the kid from the storm troopers and keeps him around a little while. Ezra, it turns out, is Force sensitive, and could be a Jedi. The basic arc of Ezra’s character is that he’s a Han Solo-ish rogue who is learning to be part of the Ghost family and to find something bigger than himself in the universe. Ezra, it turns out, is a terrific character.
What makes Rebels feel so particularly Star Wars-y is the fast, fun nature of the action scenes. There’s a bit of Prequelness to them - chase scenes go on for a while, and there’s a final battle between the crew of the Ghost and Imperial slavers on Kessel that triggers Prequel feelings - but in general there’s an inventive energy to each of the sequences. What’s more, the characters bounce off each other in intriguing ways that hint at larger story possibilities.
I recently rewatched the original Star Wars and I was taken by what great friends these characters were, even immediately upon meeting. You don’t get that same feeling in the Prequel films at all, but you do get it in Rebels. This is what I’ve missed from Star Wars for so long, the sense that the main characters like being together, and that they care for each other. That feeling comes from every moment of Rebels - even when the crew of the Ghost is slow to accept Ezra. It isn’t that Zeb hates the kid, he’s just unsure of how he fits into their dynamic. I already like these characters, and I'm excited to spend more time with them - even if they are cartoon characters.
It isn’t that I’m inherently anti-cartoon, it’s just that I’m spectacularly prejudiced against them and it takes a lot to make me like them. I think that Rebels’ low-key animation style - a lot of it looks like cut scenes from a video game to me - works in its favor here. The animation is good enough, the character designs enjoyable if very basic, and the basic filmmaking is strong enough, but it’s clear that the story and the characters come first. And these characters are well-conceived, and the story is intriguing already.
It was Lucasfilm’s promise of a truly connected universe that led me to Spark of Rebellion; I wanted to see if any of these characters could become prominent in the Sequel Trilogy (Ezra is of the age that he could show up again for sure). But it’s the quality of these characters, the way the familiar world of the original Star Wars is evoked without being milked and the basic understanding of the sense of fun we got from those movies that will keep me coming back every week for Star Wars Rebels.