Tuesday, October 20, 2015

'Star Wars Rebels' - Season One (2014)

Starring Taylor Gray, Freddie Prinze Jr. and Vanessa Marshall
Created by Dave Filoni, Simon Kinberg and Carrie Beck
Based on "Star Wars" created by George Lucas

Fifteen years after the fall of the Republic, teenage orphan Ezra Bridger ekes out a living on the planet Lothal, stealing and scamming for food and collecting different stormtrooper helmets whenever possible. One day he attempts a bigger score, stealing a crate of unknown loot from some imperial couriers but runs afoul of another group trying to steal the same crate: point man Kanan (Freddie Prinze Jr.), pilot Hera (Vanessa Marshall), muscle Zeb (Steven Blum) and explosives expert Sabine (Tiya Sircar).

Ezra soon falls in with this gang of thieves aboard their ship, the Ghost, and discovers that there's more to them: they're actually rebels. More than that, Ezra discovers that Kanan is a former Jedi, and that he wants to train Ezra in the ways of the Force. But Ezra is used to being on his own, only having to think of himself. He doesn't understand what it means to be a part of a family, or to work toward a larger cause.

And he doesn't know that the crew of the Ghost is wanted by more than just the local Imperial authorities: The Inquisitor (Jason Isaacs) has been dispatched by Darth Vader (James Earl Jones, reprising his world-famous role from the films) to hunt down any remaining Jedi... and Kanan and Ezra have made it onto his radar.
I was a big fan of "Star Wars: Clone Wars," a lavishly animated series taking place between "Attack of the Clones" and "Revenge of the Sith" and managed to be better than all of the "Star Wars" prequels combined by leaps and bounds. It was sad, then, that with Lucasfilm's multibillion-dollar sale to Disney that "Clone Wars," produced by Warner Bros., ended up on the chopping block.

"Star Wars Rebels" picks up some fifteen years after "Revenge of the Sith," and, thankfully, has decided to pick up unfinished threads from "Clone Wars" while charting new prequel territory between "Sith" and the original "Star Wars" film.

The main problem with "Rebels" is that the quality of animation isn't as high as it was on "Clone Wars." This feels like a budget issue — while Lucasfilm and Warner Bros. seemed content to throw as much money at "Clone Wars," Disney seems a little stingier. This mostly rears its head in how many characters or ships the show has on screen at any given time. There are scenes that take place in what ought to be crowded marketplaces that look like a ghost town. It's also rare to see more than a half dozen stormtroopers or TIE fighters on screen at once, making the imperial threat seem... somewhat limited. "Rebels" feels small-scale not because it takes place mostly on one planet, but because the animation isn't ambitious enough.

The show manages to stage some impressive fights and battles in the latter half of the season, but the first half struggles. Even the editing feels slightly off, like shots last half a second too long and interrupt the flow of a scene.

But the writing makes up for the lacking animation in most respects. For one thing, the crew of the Ghost all have pretty excellent chemistry. More than once I was reminded of "Firefly" by the dynamics at play. Filoni and his writers have gotten much better at writing banter than they were in the early seasons of "Clone Wars," and there's a much warmer and friendlier atmosphere among the close-knit characters of "Rebels" than there was among the admittedly somewhat distant Jedi and Clone Trooper cast of the previous show.

A big bonus for "Rebels" is that it weaves its new original characters into the "Star Wars" tapestry by including characters and themes from other productions. Billy Dee Williams and James Earl Jones reprise their characters of Lando Calrissian and Darth Vader, respectively, while Frank Oz appears (sort of) as Yoda, and there's a surprise reveal of a popular and pivotal "Clone Wars" character in the season finale that opens up the potential in the show's second season to go farther and bigger.

"Star Wars Rebels" struggles through its first few episodes, and doesn't quite overcome the limitations of its own animation even when the stories improve in the latter half, but it still proves to be a fun and worthy entry in the "Star Wars" franchise — with promise of better things to come.