Star Wars Rebels – Review of “Spark of Rebellion” and “Rise of the Old Masters”

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STAR WARS REBELSStar Wars Rebels is the show fans should be talking about, it proves Dave Filoni and crew can take the tools they developed on The Clone Wars and tell a totally different type of story. Rebels centers around a small band of do-gooders, with no major Star Wars characters in sight. Rebels is entertaining and certainly not just a retooling of The Clone Wars, it’s less about style and more about heart; it’s seat-of-your-pants adventure and developing a classic Star Wars feel. If established fans can get past the new faces, they will find a show worth watching and worthy of the Star Wars name.

Rebels is a very important project for the Star Wars brand, it’s the first major media release to bridge Star Wars creator company Lucasfilm with its new owner, The Walt Disney Company – two masters of cinematic storytelling from the 20th century. Rebels showrunner Dave Filoni feels that it is not only successful in that respect, but the combination has made Star Wars even better. Only time will tell if the fans agree, but there’s already no question in my mind that this series isn’t holding anything back as it goes for that true Star Wars feel.

Star Wars Rebels takes place around 5 years before Ep IV: A New Hope, and 14 years after Ep III: Revenge of the Sith. The show follows the small, rag tag crew of a Millennium Falcon-like starship, The Ghost, as they push back against the Empire, rebelling in their own manner, trying to survive while doing good and keeping one step ahead of every Star Destroyer and Stormtrooper in the galaxy.

There are no famous characters from the rest of the Star Wars universe starring here, making this the first fully stand-alone animated series for Star Wars. Rebels is also the first major media entry in the new Star Wars aligned canon, following only the films, The Clone Wars animated series, and the recently-released Star Wars: A New Dawn novel – which ties directly into main characters on Rebels.

Some spoilers are involved from this point on.

Star Wars Rebels – Spark of Rebellion (parts 1 and 2)

Spark of Rebellion, the two-episode-long series premiere, begins with a cold open. Disney-Lucasfilm released the first 7 minutes of the episode back in early August as an extended preview, and the series doesn’t miss a beat continuing that scene. On the planet Lothal, young Ezra Bridger is a loner scavenging and thieving his way through life when he crosses paths with the crew of The Ghost as they are pulling a heist on some Imperial troops moving crates in the street, and the Force nudges the young guy towards the crew, especially its de facto leader Kanan Jarrus who also has a bit of a connection to that mystical energy field. Ezra uses the distraction of the heist to steal something for himself, which turns into a chase of Ezra by the Ghost’s team, while both are being chased by the Imperials. Soon, the threat gets too heavy and the team whisks Ezra onto their starship for an exciting getaway, followed by adventure and emotional messages about one’s place in the universe being selfish or selfless, and the training of a talented Force-wielder into a Jedi by a former Padawan who survived the Empire’s culling to make his own way rather than follow the Jedi path.

KANAN, ZEB, SABINEThe story has a deliberate pace, it takes its time with the characters so they can serve the story and act consistently within it. Yet there’s something about it that felt merely adequate in the end, the audience I saw it with had muted, delayed applause when the credits rolled, as if it didn’t punctuate its final point sufficiently despite a happy ending and a promise of more adventures; it was clear they liked it, but it didn’t connect as fully as it could have. The episode felt like a mere small victory that didn’t enjoy a big party or heavy finale, Ezra joining the crew as an intimate moment was the true victory, leaving it feeling overly open and unquantified. Don’t get me wrong-o, it’s a solid episode, but it felt like it should have had more to say and more at stake with a nearly bulletproof crew. Perhaps the big final obstacle being so very contrived was a bit of a problem too, a Wookiee child being chased by a Stormtrooper and saved by Ezra only to face a greater Imperial threat just seemed too manufactured to be the big end action piece. Rebels is at least unafraid of Star Wars-esque adventure and action and violence, of killing and maiming its non-droid enemies for the greater good, even when that good seems murky for a moment. Yes, there are more survivors of explosions and gunshots and beatings than a live-action Star Wars movie would show, but people – mainly Stormtroopers and TIE pilots – are biting the dust on this show.

Visually, this show shares a great deal of behind-the-scenes technology with Star Wars: The Clone Wars as a lot of that production team has been brought over to Rebels. Yet Rebels also serves to carve out its own visual language that is more grounded and connected to the original Star Wars. The character designs on Rebels are less stylized than Clone Wars, less leggy and angular, with Zeb being taken from McQuarrie’s original designs for Chewbacca, before the Wookiee became a giant dog. Much has been made of Rebels’ art drawing heavily on Star Wars concept artist Ralph McQuarrie’s work and rightfully so, McQuarrie gave us much of the feel of the saga and Rebels draws heavily upon the saga not just in designs but also similar feelings via virtual camera angle choices and character placement. Here’s also that early ’70s sci-fi color palette, it’s very muted in tans and grays, and the universe’s colorful paint jobs have gotten washed out.

HERARebels also is deliberate in tying into the Original Trilogy. Not only are Stormtroopers, TIE Fighters, Star Destroyers, and all manner of Imperial goodies on display here; but visual designs, alien choices, sound effects, weapons (like the sail barge guard pistols), tech (CRT-style monitors), and even camera moves all over this series harken back to the classic Star Wars saga (yes, a Wilhelm scream is heard late in the episode). Some camera angles and moves are as awkward as real camera moves were in the ’70s with simple static shots that aren’t as dynamic as the prequel-era entertainment but show great restraint, and trust in the audience. Rebels is practically a love letter to the way Star Wars used to feel, despite an all-new toolset, and that fits this more-intimate story far better than the excesses of CGI filmmaking might normally give.

Musically, Rebels both lifts music straight from the Original Trilogy and pays homage to it, and it’s a good fit, an entirely welcome return to the best of what Star Wars music has to offer. Interestingly, there’s also some restraint shown on the score with areas that in other shows might be filled with music being unafraid here to be silent at times. At first, it was jarring having an emotional or suspenseful scene not carried by bombastic orchestration, but carrying a scene with mood and dialogue without music can draw the audience in when done right.

While the premiere is an origin story for Ezra, the rest of the characters are already developed and working together so we get to know them through their interactions. Voice direction here is solid, there’s an Imperial Officer that seems almost out of place, but the guy is written as a big bully and voiced to match. Overall there isn’t someone who feels like they’re not pulling their weight or might not fit in Star Wars, each performance is solid or better, and while the voice design on Zeb, the most alien of the group, might seem odd being a very human Australian-like piece at first, it quickly grows on you as the big guy gets more involved with the story. Nobody in this episode felt out of place, like they were slapped together just to move the story along, they all felt like people who really existed and made choices based on experiences and personalities. Where The Clone Wars connected its dialogue heavily to the Prequels, Rebels judiciously touches on Original Trilogy dialogue while avoiding the pitfalls of feeling like awkward cameos.

EZRAEzra Bridger (Taylor Gray) is a natural Force talent and uses it in ways that young Anakin never did in Ep I, Ezra doesn’t win podraces but he does follow his instincts and use talents that late in the premiere expose him as a Padawan to the enemy before he himself knows it, it’s a great moment. The story says that Ezra has no parents, this is both thematic for Star Wars but also overly convenient, it’s something that I hope they’ll touch on later, because how many orphans does this galaxy have at this point? I get it, he’s a kid surviving by his wits and his latent abilities, and he’s perhaps bitter but having a parent back on Lothal would only get in the way of telling the story, still this trope is wearing out its welcome. Based on the 7 minute preview, I didn’t like Ezra at all, he seemed overly sassy and too capable and full of attitude; yet throughout the premiere he grew quickly yet organically enough that he was more than just nasty attitude and youthfulness, he was striving for more, I think that makes him a better entry-point for viewers than The Clone Wars’ Ahsoka Tano. Ezra is ridiculously bold and mouthy at first, but is tempered by seeing the world through new eyes, and his first trip into space voices a moment that carries weight despite being in the middle of a firefight. He also has a thing for crewmate Sabine which is not subtle, but he’s a young teen-type boy, so what are you gonna do?

Hera Syndula (voiced by Vanessa Marshall) is the Twi’lek owner and pilot of The Ghost, and unfortunately she gets almost nothing to do here but pilot the ship and give orders to Chopper the droid. Her successes flying the ship feel rote, and she doesn’t seem as connected to the TIE Fighter battle elements either. Despite a starring role on the cover of the novel A New Dawn, Hera didn’t get fleshed out there either and it’s a shame that for this premiere episode she chiefly plays the “mom” role while getting leered and flirted at by Kanan, there’s not much for her in the premiere.

CHOPPERKanan Jarrus is played by Freddie Prinze, Jr. in a manner that’s unexpected, he’s brash a la Han Solo but is voiced with a little more gravitas and experience than a 30-something gunslinger/former-padawan might have. There’s also a subtle darkness to the performance that could merely be Prinze’s style or could be touching on the character’s past, watching the galaxy turn against your order and hunt your “family” down one by one while having to hide, this should be interesting to see play out.

Zeb Orellios (Steve Blum, a prolific voice actor) is the muscle, a big alien who isn’t afraid to speak his mind and doesn’t pull his punches with Ezra or anybody else… literally. He’s not always a great guy, some of his choices are unpleasant, and he is very sarcastic, it makes him fun to watch.

Sabine Wren (voiced by Tiya Sircar) is a young Mandalorian woman (the armored kind of Mando, not the boring political kind) who is into explosives and art and sometimes both at the same time. Sabine doesn’t get much to do in this story either, but she is a direct part of the action much more than Hera, and is often paired with Zeb.

C1-1OP aka “Chopper” is the cobbled-together, runty astromech droid mechanic of The Ghost, he comes off crankier than R2-D2 and speaks partly in bleeps and bloops but largely in a new language of grunts and semi-vocalized complaints. Chopper doesn’t get all that much to do in the premiere, but he’s still engaging and I can’t help but dig him.

AGENT KALLUSHasbro’s action figure line has already shown off several characters from this premiere, including various troopers, freed Wookiee slaves, and Imperial Security Bureau agent Kallus (voiced by David Oyelowo) with his scarrrrry mutton chops, but the big bad, The Inquisitor, is absent save for a holographic cameo at the end. Agent Kallus tho’ actually makes quite an effective villain for our heroes to play off of. Kallus menaces via the threat of the Empire’s reach and strength. He isn’t a Jedi or a super soldier, just a guy who leads Stormtroopers and recognizes the potential threat of rebellion seen in the actions of The Ghost… oh, and he’s got an English accent, can’t be a proper Star Wars baddie without one.

Overall, I’d say that Star Wars Rebels’ first outing wasn’t perfect – it was a decent “B”-grade due to a story that felt too much like mere episodic TV and didn’t quite stick a big enough landing – but had enough heart and personality to set the tone and carry viewers into the series. The best element was that Rebels isn’t afraid to go back to the Star Wars saga’s roots as it builds out its own corner of the universe, while still being a quality adventure cartoon that should work for fans both new and established. The characters, music, art, and writing held up, had some nice surprises, and set the stage for another great animated Star Wars series, one that hopefully will get a good, long run on Disney XD.

Star Wars Rebels premieres on Friday, October 3rd at 9pm on the Disney Channel before moving to a regular series schedule on Monday, October 13th at 9pm on Disney XD.

Star Wars Rebels – Rise of the Old Masters

KEY ARTWe also got to view the 3rd episode of the regular series – the 5th episode total, though it was the 6th produced. Another cold open starts with Ezra being taught the Force by Kanan in a manner similar to Yoda teaching Luke in Ep V and Obi-Wan with the remote in Ep IV, but on top of a floating spaceship and with far less experienced of a Jedi teaching, resulting in far less success. Soon after, the crew are watching the holonet news feed (which features a continuity callback to a moment seen in the Comic-Con trailer of the TIE Fighter theft, as well as an example of the Empire perverting the news to suit their message by casting our heroes in a bad light) when a rogue senator hijacks the signal to put out a voice of truth, that Jedi master Luminara Unduli had not gone missing in action and in fact is hidden away in a fortress prison. Kanan knows how important freeing a Jedi would be, and feels Ezra would be better served by Luminara as his master, so he and the crew plan a raid on the nigh-impenetrable prison.

Zeb and Sabine are tasked with holding the escape route, which requires improvisation and action. They don’t get a lot to do, but they have a few fun moments and a great elevator moment.

Once again, Hera gets virtually nothing to do, she pilots the Phantom – the Ghost’s small fighter shuttle – down and hides against a wall until the ship’s cloaking signal draws the amorous attention of some Aihwa-type creatures. It’s a shame she doesn’t get more as she seems like her passion is supposed to be a driving force of this crew.

Kanan partners with Ezra to free Luminara. Ezra keeps getting the idea that Kanan doesn’t want him as a padawan, but tries not to voice his feeling rejected. Unfortunately for our heroes, The Inquisitor (voiced by Jason Isaacs) intercepts them; he is cruel and driven and full of himself to the point where he doesn’t need to rush, portrayed as the cat playing with its prey. The Inquisitor is very knowledgeable and astute of his enemy, he has studied as much as he can of the Jedi temple’s texts and is able to parry every move thrown his way, he would be a devil to our heroes even if he weren’t also a Dark Side Force user.

The episode feels somewhat similar to the series premiere, Spark of Rebellion, in a number of ways:
– our heroes raid a seemingly impenetrable target to rescue someone,
– Stormtroopers fooled by a misdirect,
– a trap is sprung,
– and the end moment has our heroes using the Force to escape the enemy.
Yet Rise of the Old Masters seems like it handles everything better, and I wasn’t alone in that feeling as the audience burst into enthusiastic applause at the end credits, which should give fans hope that this series can really deliver on its intents even when they are familiar ones.

KANANThere is some very dark stuff going on in this episode, and yet it never loses its sense of humor or its heart. On the issue of “heart”, the episode ends with Kanan and Ezra coming to an understanding of where they stand with each other, and it essentially ends on baseball: a clear metaphor delivered visually of a dad pitching rocks to a son batting with a lightsaber. This twist on the A New Hope lightsaber remote training concept is a true revelation, a unique take on something fans have seen a lot over the years, and that’s an impressive feat.

This episode doesn’t shy from the elements taken from the prequels, yet it takes great care to have that Classic Trilogy core group dynamic, that humor offsetting action, that sense of narrowly surviving the overwhelming odds, that sci-fi setting with only a touch of mystic Force elements, and even that look of something simple like a lightsaber blade delivered with that odd pointy Original Trilogy look and the flicker (which was caused by the blades’ spinning reflectors in A New Hope as that film’s in-camera optical lightsaber blade effect), who would do that in a CGI cartoon if they didn’t have to? People who really care that Star Wars is the sum of a vast array of parts, not all perfect, but just the right ones for the job.

If Rise of the Old Masters is any indication, Star Wars Rebels has a bright future ahead of it. The story pulled no punches and delivered lots of Star Wars style adventure while still having new ideas to convey. I’d give this episode a contented grade of “A”, it delivered on the Original Trilogy and on the Prequels without selling its soul or going too big to get there.
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Star Wars Rebels premieres on Friday, October 3rd at 9pm on the Disney Channel before moving to a regular series schedule on Monday, October 13th at 9pm on Disney XD.

Rebels will also be available early to verified users of the Watch Disney XD app and the WatchDisneyXD.com website, as well as on Disney Channel SVOD (subscription video On Demand) on Monday, September 29th.

October 4th, Spark of Rebellion will be available on Disney XD VOD and for purchase on iTunes, Google Play, and Amazon Instant Video.

October 6th, Spark of Rebellion will air on Disney XD at 8pm.

October 14th, Spark of Rebellion will be available for purchase on DVD at retailers nationwide. The DVD includes the movie, a free Ghost 3D model ship, the 4 Star Wars Rebels shorts, plus a never-before-seen piece that takes you deeper into the world of Star Wars Rebels and its upcoming season.

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5 COMMENTS

  1. I really enjoyed SW Rebels, I know there’s a lot of review there but it’s only because I’m more passionate than I expected about the series already, the premiere hit me where that kid who just saw ROTJ for the first time in theaters lives, and Rise of the Old Masters told an even bolder story confirming this show has somewhere deep to go.

    Now to keep it on the air, because the last Disney XD series I felt this way about, Tron Uprising, only got a single season, and Rebels is even better than that one.