Star Wars Rebels: Spark of Rebellion Review by Jason Ward.

Star Wars Rebels is new Star Wars. But I already love it. Yeah, I’m the guy that passionately loves all six Star Wars films and notes The Clone Wars as his favorite show. But I also felt like The Clone Wars was a series made for me. I’m the right age to have experienced the original trilogy at a very young age, grew up with it, embraced the prequels just as I was nearly an adult, and see it all as “my Star Wars.” Star Wars Rebels really could have been the first Star Wars that wasn’t “my Star Wars.” However, I left the theater as SDCC nothing short of elated and buzzed, having just seen something that transported me to the Galaxy Far, Far away…. Then I saw it again, also theatrically, in Burbank at Disney Animation Studios. I still loved it. Then I watched the screener on my 52 inch television via AppleTV and it wasn’t as great as seeing it theatrically, but I still loved it.

When Star Wars Rebels begins, as you’ve seen in the 7 minute clip, Ezra speaks to himself a lot. When my sister saw the opening “movie of the week” with me, she also noted it. Its a little annoying, truth be told. But its a necessary story function. Star Wars Rebels is made for the Disney XD audience but also designed to resonate with Star Wars fans. So that means in the opening of the story, Ezra is forced to think out loud to explain to the audience what the average Star Wars fan will surely take for granted (note: a follow up episode not being reviewed here does not feature any of this expositional dialog). Up front, that’s what irks me about the first “movie of the week” and its minor and downright necessary. Star Wars Rebels aim is to grow Star Wars not preach to the choir.

The first two episodes of Star Wars Rebels premiere is about a created family coming together. It is about the first steps if building a new life after the destruction of a past life. Ezra Bridger is an orphan that can feel the Force even though he doesn’t know what it is. He finds a Jedi in hiding that pulls him into a family of people that will challenge him and make him a better person. Star Wars Rebels stands on its own. You can never have seen anything Star Wars and pick up and begin your adventure with it as you follow Ezra Bridger down the rabbit hole. After trying to rob the crew of The Ghost, Ezra joins them and even ends up inspiring them to save a group of Wookiees taken captive on “Spice Mines of Kessel” something we’ve heard about in Star Wars but have never really seen before. The adventure is non-stop action and it barely gives you a chance to stop and catch your breath unless its to expand on the emotional connections between the characters which are forming on screen. Thankfully all of the connections between characters work in amusing ways.

You’ll often hear people who are fans of one trilogy and not the other (yes I know people in both camps) try and explain the differences between trilogies. They can never seem to put their finger on the differences. You’ll see them struggle with it and usually flounder. Take for instance, an original trilogy fan. This person will say Star Wars only worked because it was in the wilderness. Well, Star Wars Rebels taps into the 32 flavors of Star Wars and picks “original trilogy” ingredients. Star Wars Rebels to me proves the difference between the original trilogy and the prequel trilogy was the focus upon individuals instead of societies. It also proves there’s no one right way to do a Star Wars tale. The genius of Star Wars Rebels is it focuses on the characters but still manages to tell the story of Lothal, of the society from from which the Ezra is brought to us. In this way, Star Wars Rebels pulls from the best of the original trilogy and prequel trilogy and manages to make itself fresh and captivating to both demographics of Star Wars fans.

Ezra is the key to the heart of this show. He’s a “Loth-rat,” and no one believes in him. He’s a thief, out for himself, and damaged. It gives his character a sensitivity we haven’t seen in Star Wars so overtly. In fact, that’s the interesting part of the series. Everyone is damaged goods, products of the Empire. But unlike the casts we’ve seen in Star Wars before, it gets brought up. You quickly get the sense that bad things have happened to everyone on the crew and you understand the quests they are clearly about to embark on and why. It means when they do any rebel mission, it doesn’t matter what it is, it is personal. Sometimes in the The Clone Wars the characters were asking themselves why they fought the war when they had nothing to gain from it. It was making a statement on power and politics. Star Wars Rebels understands the personal is political. They fight because they’ve been wrong and the injustice needs to stop.

I like Ezra. There are so many great moments with him as the “us” of the narrative. There’s a moment where he’s on the ship “The Ghost,” which is the Millennium Falcon of this series and Ezra first notices he’s in space. “I’m in space!” he mutters to himself and if you’re new to Star Wars it is your first in space too. We get to experiences everything for the first time via Ezra. He finds a lightsaber and activates its and marvels at the beauty and awe of the weapon. These are things we haven’t got to experience for the first time in over 30 years.  Ezra questions things (a future episode has him question a Yoda slogan in a smart way and then understand it by the end of the story). Ezra acts as the avatar of the viewer and he’s solid. There isn’t anything embarrassing or bad about his personality. The animation team does a wonderful job with him too. There are just little subtle moments where he swivels in his chair that let us remember this is a 14 year old kid. He has personality. He is attracted to a girl in the series and he tries to impress her in the kind of ways such a boy would. He works so the show works. Voiced by Taylor Gray, Gray manages to make Ezra fall within the parameters of a youth finding his way in a convincing and endearing manner and delivery.

Kanan is probably the most “prequel” of the characters in the series. But what I love about him is that he’s been through a lot and it shows. He’s not a Jedi that was properly trained. He was about Ezra’s age when Order 66 came down and his life was changed forever. So we see some of that Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi Jedi posturing in him but we also get the indications he doesn’t have all the answers. I also like that he uses a gun in a way I haven’t seen since the old original trilogy, Buck Rogers, and the original Battlestar Galactica. But Kanan is elevated by the fact Ezra needs him. We care about Ezra pretty quickly and that in turn means we care about Kanan. Freddie Prinze Jr. in Star Wars was a head scratcher. The guy from the teen movies and Scooby Doo that married Buffy? He’s really good as Kanan. You never think about it being him when you’re watching it, he’s Kanan. He nailed it.

The opening film makes it pretty obvious that Hera is the heart of the crew. She seems to understand her team’s flaws or unlike the others, she acknowledges that they have quirks. Because she’s the pilot, she’s functionally the getaway driver in the three episodes I’ve seen. But she also is the only member of the crew that admonishes wrong doing, errors, and is the moral compass of the crew. Vanessa Marshall effortlessly plays the part of Hera in the first Star Wars Rebels story we see. She clicks, we get her, what we she does and how she does it. I look forward to more of her in the future episodes.

Zeb and Chopper are pretty much the comedy of the crew. You’ll always see Zeb doing something funny in the background, trying to use his brute force to destroy something or beat up Stormtroopers. He’s kind of what Mr. T was to to the A-Team for the crew of The Ghost. Chopper doesn’t have a lot to do in the first opening film but in a follow up episode you see the groundwork that is laid down for his character is pretty solid. Steve Blum excels at making Zeb a lovable character. When he accidentally leaves Ezra behind, the guilt seethes through the performance and you actually feel that this purple monster feels bad about abandoning a kid on a Star Destroyer, even though he tries to justify it, you know he doesn’t believe it.

Tiya Sircar as Sabine is interesting. She doesn’t have a lot to do in the first film but focus on the action. I was really surprised she was played more tough. That’s not a bad thing. But she’s a Mandalorian. Her character, as an artist, sets her apart from whatever the dominant cultural ideas are for her home planet. I do feel that Sabine is the most under-developed character on the crew. That will likely be rectified on future episodes. But we get the sense that she’s been screwed over by the Empire and she’s a love interest for Ezra. If the opening film of Star Wars Rebels was longer, I would say her character needed a lot more work. But considering the parameters of the series and the time slot, it is easily forgivable and Tiya Sircar does a great job with the material she’s given. I do like that she likes blowing stuff up but I hope we get to see more of her character in a deeper way up front in the series.

The Ghost is kind of a character in the series too. Besides Lothal, it is our primary setting for the series. Functionally it is the same as the Millennium Falcon. The lighting and feel is nearly identical at times. It helps give the series a familiarity we sense without having to articulate mentally. I dig the extra features of the ship has over the Falcon, mainly the little sub ship called The Phantom that detaches from it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have a huge part to play in the series until a later episode.

David Oyelowo is great as Agent Kallus, but the character is kind of one dimensional. He’s a total jerk but you never get the sense of why or what he’s about. He’s an effective bad guy in that he’s always in the hero’s path blocking them from their quest. When we look at imperials in the films like Admiral Piett, you know he wants to do his job well because he’s afraid of the guy in black that will choke him out. Kallus is just mean and we don’t know why yet or what his goals are. For that reason, I don’t love Kallus yet. Sure, his chops are awesome. He’s a scary interrogator but it isn’t until the end of the film that we see the Inquisitor and the threat gets real. Unfortunately, the Inquisitor has one scene and we saw via promotional stuff some months back which kinda takes the wind out of the sails of that reveal.

There are times I love the look of the show. I love the designs. They’re all top notch. The new imperial troops and walkers are all great. They are either McQuarrie or Johnston sketches brought to life on the screen or they are in the “spirit of.” Things looks really great from far away. I do not like how things look up really close. There are some interior shots of The Ghost where the patterns on the walls remind me of old video games. From afar, it doesn’t matter, but up close it does. That said, this is probably as bad as it will ever be and I imagine the series will just continue to look better and better as we move on.

Kevin Kiner’s score is fantastic. If John Williams were a band, Kevin Kiner is like a John Williams cover band that started writing originals. Unlike The Clone Wars his hands aren’t tied and he is free to channel great Williamseque cues that remind me of bits of the Cloud City escape in Empire Strikes Back to Indiana Jones. The dude just rocks it and we’re lucky to have it writing Star Wars music on this series.

The story beats are all hit rather well. Ezra is transformed from a “Loth-rat” into a young Jedi with purpose we believe in and it happens in 45 minutes. When he risks his life to save a young Wookiee at the end of the story, we see the kid is a hero and he is worthy of being our guide on this adventure. What the show does really so far is it manages to finally show us “the Spice Mines of Kessel” and that excites fans to no end. However, the bit stands on its own without that connection or history. For the new fan, it means the same things functionally speaking as it does to a die hard old fan of the films themselves. It is a place where slaves go to die. So fans get a multilayered experience.

As an Episode VII obsessed fan, Star Wars Rebels is the only thing in the world that has been able to distract me from the new films and it earned it. It is the Star Wars show I always wanted. The Clone Wars was so original and different every week it was fun and challenging. But Star Wars Rebels is the show I always dreamed of. It has heart, spirit, and its a lot of fun.

The worst part of the opening film for Star Wars Rebels is having seen a follow up episode that is SO GOOD it takes the series up another notch. I’m not kidding, the bar has already been raised on this show. As a Star Wars fan, I could not be happier.

 

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