A peculiar thing happened while I was watching the premiere episode of Lucasfilm’s new animated series, Star Wars: Rebels Just Like Darth Vader aboard the first Death Star in 1977’s Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, I too, sensed something, a presence I hadn’t felt since…well, since I sat and watched the first teaser for The Phantom Menace I suppose? The point is, it’s been a long time since a Star Wars film or other form of media instilled that very specific sense of awe and wonder in me, but about five minutes into the Rebels pilot, that old familiar tingling surged through my body — the “Star Wars feeling” was back. It’s hard to say what exactly triggered that sensation; there were plenty of “classic trilogy” Star Wars elements to be sure—stormtroopers, sneering British-accented Imperial officers, TIE fighters, star destroyers, and that goosebump-inducing John Williams music—but the Star Wars magic, like the Force itself, has always been an intangible thing, and I’m happy to say Rebels successfully taps into that elusive quality.
One of the first things you’ll notice about Star Wars: Rebels is its retina-shattering color palette; a dazzling array of yellows, oranges, blues, and purples. Bright colors are something not usually associated with Star Wars, which has led to much bellyaching among fans looking to drag Star Wars further away from the light and down deeper into the grim and girtty muck currently staining inspirational superheroes like Superman. This vibrancy, along with a perceived lack of texture and over-simplified, “cartoony” character designs (cartoony design in a cartoon? Go figure!) led legions of joyless hacks to declare Rebels “too childish, “too Disney-fied,” and “not as dark or cool as The Clone Wars” before seeing a single frame of animation.
What these humorless curmudgeons stuck in the carbonite-freezing chamber fail to realize is that Rebels is still under the creative stewardship of director Dave Filoni and the majority of his Clone Wars crew, and if they deign to come off their high horses (high tauntauns?), they’ll see the fluidity of the animation and the quality of the storytelling is up to par with their beloved prequel-era clone exploits. This is a new post-Lucas, post Disney-acquisition era for everyone involved, so it would be foolish to expect the show to be a clone (pun intended) of that long-running fan favorite. The bold colors and smooth features of the characters are a breath of fresh air, and help differentiate Rebels from its predecessor.
From a narrative standpoint, The Rebels pilot, dubbed “Spark Of Rebellion,” gives us a simple, yet compelling introductory storyline mostly set on and around the planet Lothal, which could easily be re-labelled “Planet McQuarrie,” because almost everything about it, from the architecture down to the natural scenery is culled directly from the late, great Star Wars conceptual artist Ralph McQuarrie. We meet Ezra, the young audience surrogate character, on a beautifully-painted McQuarrie-esque spire in the middle of a grassy steppe. A star destroyer cruises high over his head and we’re off and running when the youngster scouts out the marketplace in a nearby town and comes across some Imperials shaking down a local fruit merchant, giving us our first in-canon taste of some post-Revenge Of The Sith pettiness and tyranny from those familiar jackbooted galactic jerks. Ezra, being the tricky, street-savvy kid that he is, pickpockets a commlink from one of the officers and diverts their attention to the main square, so he can bail the merchant out (and help himself out to some fruit, of course).
Ezra has been the primary target of fans’ ire since the announcement of the series, with most of critiques leveled at his head of blue hair, goofy “ion slingshot,” and his similarity to Disney’s version of Aladdin (apparently no other character is allowed to steal food and climb on things). I’ll admit it was a risky maneuver by Filoni to make the protagonist a kid with the wound of Jake Lloyd’s Anakin still not fully healed , but thankfully, Ezra isn’t precocious or annoying, and despite being left to his own devices in a harsh environment – isn’t overly moody or sullen, either. His character bounces nicely off of the rough-and-tumble crew of a smuggler craft called The Ghost when he interrupts the team in the midst of stealing some supply crates from the Imperial forces. After a spirited speeder bike chase through Lothal, Ezra ends up aboard the ship and is formally introduced to the crew: Kanan, the ponytail and goatee-sportin’ leader of the gang; Hera, the fiery female Twi’lek pilot of The Ghost; Zeb, the alien muscle of the crew, whose design is reminiscent of McQuarrie’s original Wookiee concept; Chopper, a grumpy astromech droid who communicates with guttural electronic babble, and Sabine, a Mandalorian with a penchant for explosive devices (and day-glo splatter paint jobs for her armor).
The crew is terrific; ever since getting hooked on Star Wars and Battle Of The Planets as a kid, I’ve been a sucker for narratives about rag-tag spaceship crews—Firefly and Guardians Of The Galaxy being the most recent standouts—and Rebels looks to be another successful entry into that sci-fi niche. I won’t spoil the remainder of the plot, but suffice it to say that, by the end of the episode, lessons about letting go of old habits in order to trust others and work as team are learned, friendships are forged, and the dying flame of the Jedi order is a step closer to being rekindled. Oh, I didn’t mention that? Yeah, there are Jedi on this show. It turns out Ezra is Force-sensitive (he sensed Kanan’s presence right before the big speeder bike chase/crate theft job), and Kanan is a full-fledged Jedi, who is kinda/sorta in hiding since Order 66 went down and only breaks out his lightsaber in the most dire situations – like the one that unfolds in the climax of the pilot, which involves a devious Imperial commander named Kallus and the rescue of some poorly designed and rendered wookiees.
If there’s a flaw inherent to Rebels (aside from those wonky Wookiee designs) it’s that Rebels takes place six years after Episode III, and thus, about 14 years before Episode IV, so I’m not sure how much sense it makes to have a Jedi and a young potential apprentice still running around the galaxy, especially since Luke Skywalker was supposed to be the “last hope of the Jedi” and the way everyone in the original 1977 classic referred to the Force as ancient religion with only one known practitioner (Vader). This is where problems with ret-conning the Star Wars canon always rear their ugly heads; both Kanan and Ezra are young characters, so where are they during the timeframe of Episode IV: A New Hope? The only answer, sadly, is dead or no longer practicing the Force. Bummer. Frankly, the whole concept of characters swinging lightsabers around in this series is a little messy and certainly won’t help those suffering from Jedi fatigue.
Still, I honestly didn’t expect to like Rebels as much as I did; it’s a real testament to Dave Filoni and his crew that they were able to deliver a Star Wars show that’s fresh, fast-paced, and FUN; incorporating classic trilogy touchstones and tropes without it feeling like empty nostalgia or fan-wank. Rebels is simple, but certainly not childish or intelligence-insulting in any way; it already feels like one of those rare animated series that’s easily followed by children, yet contains enough stakes to appeal to adults as well.
For films, I dole out star ratings, but for some reason I like to give TV shows letter grades, so Star Wars: Rebels gets a solid B+