When the Walt Disney Corporation purchased Lucasfilm in 2012 and announced it would release a new Star Wars trilogy, many (including me) were a bit leery of what the house that Mickey Mouse built would do with the franchise. After all, “Disneyfication” is not generally considered a term with positive connotations. But if Star Wars Rebels is any indication, Disney understands exactly what made the original trilogy so great.
The Disney Channel’s animated series debuted, in a sense, on Aug. 11 with a five-minute mini-episode that introduces some of the eponymous rebels. Three more mini-episodes followed before a 44-minute movie Spark of Rebellion first aired on Oct. 3. ABC plans to re-air Spark of Rebellion on Oct. 27 with an additional scene featuring Darth Vader voiced by James Earl Jones himself. The actual 22-minute animated series has aired three of the seven episodes scheduled for the first season.
As the Jones cameo suggests, Disney’s approach to this series is grounded in the classic trilogy and not the much-maligned prequels. Star Wars Rebels takes place in between Revenge of the Sith (2005) and the original Star Wars (1977, retitled A New Hope in 1981). The protagonist is Ezra Bridger (Taylor Gray), a teenage thief whose attempt to steal an Imperial shipment in Spark of Rebellion brings him into contact with another group of thieves, Kanan Jarrus (Freddie Prinze, Jr.) and the crew of the Ghost. But these thieves are motivated not by greed, but rather a desire to weaken the Empire. And so Ezra joins the nascent Rebellion five years before Luke Skywalker will leave Tatooine.
This series has caused me to ponder what is essential to the Star Wars story and how the prequel trilogy missed the mark. A major part of the appeal of the first film was the triumph of good against overwhelming odds. Luke was a farm boy taking on an all-powerful Intergalactic Empire led by a psychic black knight. And if the overwhelming nature of the odds was not clear enough in A New Hope, George Lucas made sure we got the picture in Empire Strikes Back (1980), where the Rebellion gets routed, Han Solo gets frozen in carbonite before being sold to a bounty hunter, and Luke gets his hand cut off by Darth Vader, who also happens to be his father.
Since the prequels deal with the fall of the Republic, evil had to hide in the background until the last third of Revenge of the Sith which, not coincidentally, contained the best moments of the trilogy.
But Star Wars is not just about the triumph of good over evil. It is actually about good-hearted scoundrels like Han and Lando Calrissian (set to make an appearance in the series with the voice talents of Billy Dee Williams) triumphing over evil. The prequels lacked a good scoundrel character. Rebels is full of them. Indeed, the Ghost’s crewmembers often seem more like juvenile vandals than noble freedom fighters. In one of the mini-episodes, Sabine Wren (Tiya Sircar) tags an Imperial TIE Fighter with graffiti before blowing it up (blowing up TIE Fighters is a weekly event in this series). The rebels are outlaws who must mix with criminals in order to subvert the Empire. This occasionally raises ethical questions, such as when they steal a shipment of powerful weapons from the Empire and try to sell them on the black market to fund their operations.
Another important element of Star Wars is the coolness of Jedi fighting with lightsabers. Each film in the franchise culminates in a lightsaber duel (Revenge of the Sith actually juxtaposes two duels). But the original series used light sabers far more sparingly than the prequels. This is understandable since the prequel trilogy showed the Jedi Order at the peak of its power. But after The Phantom Menace (1999) opened with two CGI-enhanced Jedi flipping through the air, the awesome power of the Force became routine. In Rebels, a lightsaber does not make an appearance until the climactic scene in Spark of Rebellion. A little Jedi goes a long way, and sometimes less is more.
Star Wars Rebels demonstrates that Disney understands what the franchise is really about. Although this a cartoon series aimed at children, writer and executive producer Simon Kinberg knows what long-time fans like me want: likeable scoundrels taking on a nearly-invincible Empire with a just a little help from a lightsaber. So far, the Force is strong in this one.