Episode 1&2 – Spark of Rebellion – Starts out weak but finishes strong
When the Walt Disney Company acquired the rights to the Star Wars Saga from George Lucas in October 2012 there was an enormous wave of optimism from fans, as well as trepidation. An animated Star Wars program, The Clone Wars was already on the air and entering its fifth season. Concerns emerged that the highly successful show could be on the chopping block as it was distributed by rival studio Warner Brothers on Cartoon Network.
As it turned out, those concerns were warranted, and shortly after Season 5 wrapped Disney announced plans to shift their focus away from Clone Wars on a new series. That series would be Star Wars: Rebels, a new weekly animated series broadcast on the DisneyXD channel. Rebels would be the first project released under the new ownership and would be the first canon television series or film project released without the involvement of Star Wars creator George Lucas. Fortunately Clone Wars Supervising Director, and George Lucas student, Dave Filoni is on board as Executive Producer, as are a number of Clone Wars veterans.
The premise of the show is simple; it’s five years before the events that will take place in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, and a fledgling group of rebels takes on the might of the Galactic Empire on the planet Lothal. Our story opens with our hero, Ezra Bridger, a young teenage street rat (think Disney’s Aladdin) arriving in town to cause his usual trouble.
Along the way he runs into the band of rebels who are in the middle of a heist of Imperial goods, and a classic chase ensues. Our heroes eventually escape the clutches of the Empire and Ezra is left with no choice but to tag along.
We are given proper introductions to the Rebels. The “leader” of the group is a former Jedi Padawan, Kannan Jarrus, who escaped the Jedi purge but is still taking the fight to Emperor Palpatine’s force of darkness. Hera Syndulla, a green skinned Twi’lek hotshot pilot is the real leader of the of this band of misfits and serves as the show’s moral center and ship’s mother. She pilots the Ghost, a beat up tramp freighter and the team’s base of operations. The muscle of the group is the mysterious Lesat, Zeb Orrelios. He’s your typical tough with the heart of gold. Next up is Sabine Wren a young female Mandalorian who has a penchant for explosives and graffiti art. Finally, we meet Chopper, a beat up older model Astromech droid who is willing to help save the crew’s bacon, but more or less on his schedule, and not without voicing his objections.
The mood is kept fairly light throughout the action as our heroes exchange witty banter with mixed results. The producers and writers in interviews claimed the wanted to capture the spirit of the Original Trilogy’s quippy exchanges between our heroes. It’s all well and good, but by the middle of the episode it becomes a distraction as the jokes fly fast and furious, and dialogue becomes almost equally interchangeable between the heroes. And that goes to one issue I’ve had with the show after two episodes; at times the characters are a little too similar. I’d like to see more diversity in these Rebels. As it is they all spout sarcastic banter and are quick with the smart alecky comment.
And that’s where I would disagree with the showrunner; their analysis of the Original Trilogy’s dialogue. While Han and Leia were certainly quick with the wit or a sarcastic comment, that was hardly the case with the rest of the heroes. Luke was the quintessential everyman, the fish out of water. The humor from Luke had more to do with him being uncomfortable in situations and completely out of his element. Obi-Wan’s wit was more observational humor at the expense of the dim-witted Han. Chewie was the loveable family dog who could be fierce one moment, then run simpering in a corner in fear the next. 3PO was the intergalactic straight man to R-2’s sassy funny man… the intergalactic Laurel and Hardy.
Fortunately when the show slows down and gives us quiet scenes both the characters and the show shine. Midway through the episode the crew of the Ghost lands in the outskirts of Tarkintown, a former farming community on Lothal that has been reduced to a wasteland by the Empire, to deliver food to the locals while Hera and Kannan continue on to drop off their stolen Imperial goods, crates of blasters. The importance of the Rebellion is given a face in the starving farmers who graciously thank our heroes for feeding them. Ezera is clearly shaken by this, and finally comes to the realization that there is something bigger than himself out there, and that he needs to look beyond his own selfish interests. One of the most power scenes in the entire episode is also one of its simplest… Ezra sitting alone at the ramp of the Ghost overlooking Tarkintown. He ponders his future, and realizes he needs to make a course correction in his life. It recalls Luke, in A New Hope, looking at the setting twin suns on Tatooine and contemplating his own destiny. Moments like this help elevate Rebels beyond standard DisneyXD fare. You can clearly see the influence of Filoni, fellow producer Simon Kinberg, and writer Greg Weisman. Hopefully the show will continue along this path.
The episode really picks up steam in the second half with the introduction of the Rebels’ arch nemesis, Agent Kallus, a member of the Imperial Security Bureau. He ruthlessly pursues our heroes from the Lothal system to the Spice Mine of Kessel, the location of the show’s exciting, and extremely satisfying conclusion. There’s a savagery in the way he attacks, and he possesses a keen strategic mind making him an extremely dangerous foe. Kallus, as a character, just screams dangerous lone wolf, and his look reinforces that from his unique uniform to his throwback 70s mutton chops. Kallus is merciless and fiercely loyal to the Empire, and makes a worthy Star Wars adversary.
Of course what would Star Wars be without that mystical energy field that binds the galaxy together? The Force is strong in this show, more specifically in former Jedi apprentice-in-hiding Kannan Jarrus, and in young Ezra, our main hero. As I mentioned before, Ezra slowly comes to realize that there’s something more than his simple ragamuffin thieving ways; something tugs at him to be something better. Ezra is continually challenged both physically and morally by the circumstances around him. It is Ezra who learns the secret location of a group of enslaved Wookiees the crew failed to rescue earlier, and it is Ezra who convinces them, despite the odds to take the leap of faith and try again. In Spark of Rebellion Ezra takes his first steps on the “hero’s journey” which has always been an integral theme of the Saga.
Throughout the episode Kannan also feels this tug toward Ezra, as if the two were destined to have their futures entwined. Kannan comes to realize the Force has brought them together. In a brilliant epilog, Kannan opens a Jedi holocron which contains a message from Master Obi-Wan Kenobi (voiced by the always awesome James Arnold Taylor). Kenobi’s message is both a warning to Jedi to run away, and a message of hope for the future, that despite the bleak circumstances around them “a new hope” would emerge which would bring light back to a universe wrapped in darkness. Kannan finally approaches Ezra with an offer to train him in the ways of the Force, setting in motion their path together as Master and Padawan.
Although we are left with a glimmer of hope, there is always the threat of darkness ahead, and we are introduced to the very manifestation of that darkness in the form of the Imperial Inquisitor (voice by Jason Issacs of harry Potter fame). The Inquisitors are a group of evil Force sensitives tasked with snuffing out the last remaining Jedi and hunting down Force users the Emperor might find to be a threat. Agent Kallus alerts the Inquisitor of this new rebel cell that is led by a Jedi… the Inquisitor will arrive soon.
Hera Syndulla, played by Vanessa Marshall is a great addition to the pantheon of Star Wars heroes, and Hera should have broad appeal among fans. Marshall imbues the character with a seriousness and sense of purpose about the Rebel’s fight against them Empire. She really is the heart of the show and helps add a layer of depth not found in a lot of children’s fare.
I’ll admit, I’ve never really been a fan of Freddie Prinze Jr., but he does a wonderful job on this show. His Kannan has a world-weariness about him when we first meet him rooted in his mysterious past (I highly recommend John Jackson Miller’s novel, “A new Dawn” for more backstory). This slowly fades away as he realizes that Ezra represents a new hope for his future. He finally has a chance to apprentice a future Jedi and truly take the fight to the Empire.
When I first saw the short introductory video featuring our main hero, Ezra Bridger, I rolled my eyes. He came across as nothing more than an Aladdin clone in a Star Wars setting, and at first glance that’s a fair assessment. He’s a “street rat” thief who makes a living stealing from the Empire, all the while dishing out smart alecky comments at the expense of buffoonish Imperials. The only thing missing is a monkey sidekick named Abu. However, there’s a lot more to Ezra, and a depth of character brought by the talents of Disney teen actor, Taylor Gray. While there’s an edge and cockiness there’s also a “golly gee whiz” aspect to him as he takes to the stars for the first time and begins to understand there’s this mysterious energy around him known as the Force. He’s sort of an amalgam of Han Solo and Luke Skywalker, and it works.
If you love the production design work of Ralph McQuarrie and Joe Johnston, designers for the Original Trilogy, you will be absolutely thrilled by Rebels. Star Wars Rebels uses many discarded McQuarrie designs, or preliminary versions of final designs to create a visual aesthetic that feels like the evolutionary design step before what we see in the Original Trilogy. The Imperial speederbikes are based off sketches from pre production on Return of the Jedi, and one of the crew, Zeb, is based on an early McQuarrie production sketch of Chewbacca. It makes for a wonderfully consistent vision for the show, and I’m looking forward to
While the Stormtroopers in the Original Trilogy would rarely hit our heroes with blaster fire, and could be tricked from time to time, I never got the impression they were total dunderheads. After all, they were supposed to be the Emperor’s shock troops that took over planets and ruled through fear, and I really didn’t see that in the pilot. In general these Troopers appear clueless, bordering on incompetent. I understand this is a kids show, and keeping the Troopers light helps offset some of the darker themes of slavery and starvation presented in this episode, but reducing the Troopers to comic relief could impact the dramatic tension of the show down the road. Also it creates a situation where you almost always need Agent Kallus or the Inquisitor show up to create any sense of danger, eventually undermining the gravity of an appearance by them as they become nothing more than the villain of the week. I hope they can find a happy medium of keeping the Troopers dangerous but not too dark. Maybe these bucket heads are poorly trained local recruits and in a future episode Kallus shows up with “real” Imperial Stormtroopers.
Let me get this out of the way first; I love the work of Rebels composer Kevin Kiner. His scores for Clone Wars were top notch, and some of the themes he wrote for that show are as memorable as John Williams work. I also love the music he has written for Rebels. My main problem with the score in this first episode is the OVERUSE of John Williams. Look, John Williams is one of the greatest film composers of all times, and Rebels should make liberal use of the themes he created for Star Wars. But, Rebels needs to find its own way and Kiner needs to be given moments to shine, not be reduced to Williams’ re-orchestrator. Action scenes borrow heavily from queues in A New Hope, Empire, and Jedi, re mixing them into a veritable best of John Williams. While that’s fine, sometime too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. Unleash Kevin Kiner, let him explore new themes and develop his own music using Williams as a guide. To borrow a phrase from Dirty Dancing, “Nobody puts Kevin Kiner in the corner.”
Sabine; where do I start? The character was clearly designed to appeal to young girls and bring them aboard as viewers, and that’s great. But if you are going to create a character with an interesting design, and hints of an interesting background you may want to consider actually using her instead of just saddling her with throw away dialog any other character on the show could have uttered. There’s also this one note aspect to her that I find a little off. Sabine seems very flat and without a lot of emotional depth. I used to think this was a acting performance issue by actress Tiya Sircar, but after subsequent viewings it became apparent it was a writing issue. Sabine simple does not have much to do other than lob her bombs and comment on the beauty of her explosions. Fortunately this does get much better in the next episode, but I could see her character easily becoming the disposable crew member much like Sulu, Checkov, and Uhura on Star Trek. I’ll hold off judgment for a while.
Star Wars Rebels is off to a solid start, and while there are some missteps during the first half of Spark of Rebellion, the show quickly finds its footing and ends in a rousing conclusion. If the show continues along this path it will definitely take its place as a worthy successor to Star Wars The Clone Wars.
The show has a lot of heart and there’s definitely a nostalgic feel to it. I would caution Dave Filoni and crew not to rely too much on call backs to the Original Trilogy as the show and the characters need to find their own voices, and at times I found myself taken out of the episode recalling memories about something I’d see or hear onscreen. However, Rebels works extremely well as a bridge between the Prequel and Original Trilogies, and I hope the show continues to explore the state of the galaxy and leaves us with more clues about what has happened in the 10 years since the events of Revenge of the Sith.
Star Wars Rebels hits the viewer sweet spot with a look and feel that will bring back fond memories for older fans while introducing new characters and adventures that will attract younger fans. There are still plenty of stories to be told in the five year gap between Rebels and A New Hope, and the show “pilot” lays a great foundation for a rousing action-adventure show that should tide us over until Episode VII’s release in 2015.
7 .5 out of 10
Stay tuned for my review of Star Wars Rebels: Droids in Distress