REVIEW Star Wars: Rebels “Spark of Rebellion”

The main cast of Rebels. Photo from starwars.com

The main cast of Rebels. Photo from starwars.com

Want high-flying, swashbuckling fun? How about a team of likable characters? Combine that all with a return to the familiar world of classic Star Wars, and you have Star Wars: Rebels!

While the series premiere wasn’t perfect, it was certainly a great watching experience, and it represents an exciting direction for future Star Wars productions.

I won’t waste your time with a wall of text, so let’s take a look at the Rebels premiere in some neat categories.

 

STORY

Arguably, the most important aspect of any production is the story. Is the story good? Does it make sense? Is there a natural progression or rise-and-fall of action? For the Rebels premiere, the story side of things tended to be a little bit of “yes and no” for just about any question you could throw at it.

While not entirely original, the premise is solid. We find ourselves following the exploits of a ragtag crew on a run-down spaceship –  a story that follows in the footsteps of popular shows like Cowboy Bebop and Firefly, and that’s certainly not a bad thing. However, the actual plot structure of the premiere was a little all over the place. The premiere whooshes by at a breakneck pace of nearly non-stop action. Consequently, many of the quiet moments felt like mere bridges between action scenes.

I’ll forgive many of the story flaws, as the premiere seemed to be aimed more at setting a tone, introducing characters, and introducing locations than telling a compelling story. Doing all of those things at once is certainly a challenge, and it’s one that the writers tackled fairly well. After all, the story was enjoyable – just a little confused and ill-paced.

The chief triumph of the writing in “Rebels” is that it doesn’t pander to children. Instead, the show emulates the tone of the original 1977 film: appropriate for all audiences. To those worried that the movie would be too neat-and-clean because of Disney’s influence, I can say we see plenty of death and destruction on-screen. The episode also deals with slavery and arms smuggling – something that you wouldn’t expect in a children’s show. But the characters aren’t serious all the time, either. They’re free to joke around – and the jokes are actually funny. I laughed aloud many times in the episode. The original movies were funny, and Rebels follows that tradition brilliantly.

 

CHARACTERS

Closely linked with the story is the cast of characters. Are the Rebels characters any good?

The premiere introduces us to six primary characters, as well as a villain, and I can honestly say I loved them all. Despite many of the characters appearing at first glance like two-dimensional archetypes, they were mostly surprisingly detailed – as well as a lot of fun. Let’s take a quick look at each of them.

Ezra: Both the first character on the screen and the focus of much of the episode’s action, Ezra is an orphan who likes to make trouble for the Imperials on his home planet of Lothal. While immediately appearing like a simple troublemaker/urchin character, Ezra surprised me on several occasions. He was funny and bold, and was clearly his own person. He had his own goals and motivations that quickly developed him beyond his “role” as the street-rat-turned-hero.

Kanan: To imagine Kanan’s character, mix Han Solo with Obi-Wan. Kanan is clearly a swashbuckler, but he has a touch of Jedi wisdom and patience to him. The balance of the two makes his character fairly compelling. While he seems very straightforward and practical, he is occasionally mysterious and introspective. He has some strong, goosebump-inducing moments when he discusses the Force with Ezra, but he also has some fun gunslinger moments as well.

Hera: I personally love Hera, and in my opinion, she is likely one of the most promising female characters to appear in a Star Wars production. Capable, confident, and – at times – somewhat stern, she commands an awful lot of respect. In the original 1977 Star Wars film, we usually had to be told to respect Princess Leia. She was a princess, she was a senator. She hobnobbed with the celebrities of her world. And because of that, we were supposed to respect her, even though she was really just stuck-up, rude, and – with the exception of a few blaster-wielding moments – mostly helpless. Concerning Hera, her character and presence herself makes us want to listen to her. She doesn’t need a rank or a fancy title to make us respect her. At the same time, she’s not a one-beat “strong, confident woman” either. She has some soft, maternal aspects to her as well. Indeed, she holds a sort of stern taskmaster, yet loving mother position in the team.

Zeb: When I first saw promo material for Zeb, I was a little worried. He seemed like the typical brute/muscle character who relies on his brawn to get through situations. Couple that with the fact that he’s a big, strong-looking alien, and I was afraid we just had a talking Chewbacca. Turns out, Zeb is a detailed and complex character – a far cry from the “intelligent pet” vibes we get from Chewbacca in the Original Trilogy. Sure, Zeb is powerful and prefers to beat his enemies with his fists, but he’s also very thoughtful and clever. He probably sees the most development in the 40-minute premiere. He goes from hating Ezra to developing a fond, older-brother stance towards him. Altogether, I was pleasantly surprised by Zeb’s character, and I look forward to seeing him developed more in the future.

Sabine: Among the most underdeveloped characters in the show, there’s not much to say about Sabine. She has a sort of fun, “art student” vibe to her that I enjoyed. At the same time, she’s a (self-professed?) demolitions expert, which is a somewhat common character trope, but one we haven’t seen in Star Wars. I’m interested in learning more about Sabine, but we didn’t get much of her in the premiere.

Chopper: Many were afraid that Chopper would be a simple clone of R2-D2. And while there are definitely some similarities, Chopper is more of an anti-R2. In the Original Trilogy, R2-D2 was usually cheerful and optimistic, if not a little mischievous. Chopper, on the other hand, has no trouble being a grouch. All his sound effects are grumbles and groans, and his little arms express annoyance and exasperation perfectly. Chopper definitely had a personality unique from R2-D2, and he was a joy to watch.

Agent Kallus: A member of the “Imperial Security Bureau,” Agent Kallus is a cunning, everyman kind of antagonist. I say “everyman” because he’s a very normal kind of guy. He’s not Darth Vader or some other galactic-scale villain. He uses a blaster the same as the stormtroopers under his command, and he has no special powers – only his wits and the resources given him. Kallus isn’t terribly detailed or complicated, but he’s a pretty compelling bad guy with a cool design. I particularly like his Roman-style helmet.

VISUAL STYLE

Rebels really hits the mark with its visual style. The color choices, vehicle/ship designs, and landscapes all heavily evoke a feeling of the Original Trilogy. The space scenes are unsaturated – largely black-and-white, and even the explosions have that endearing poorly-keyed look of the 1977 Star Wars film. One thing that really stood out to me was the blasters and lightsaber effects, which are very clearly styled after 1970’s visual effects. The blasters look solid and painted-on, just like the original films, and the lightsaber effects have returned to that sporadic, hand-drawn look. Even the stormtrooper armor retains that original feel, brilliantly textured to look like the plastic costumes from the films. I honestly have no complaints with the visual feel. It’s exactly like good, old-fashioned Star Wars.

Plastic-costumed stormtroopers are a clear visual reference to the look of the original films.

Plastic-costumed stormtroopers are a clear visual reference to the look of the original films.

ANIMATION/TECHNICAL ASPECTS

Many people have complained about the animation of Rebels, saying it’s “worse” or a “cut below” the Clone Wars television series. I think people are referring to the character models and overall detail, rather than the animation. The Clone Wars had several years to develop their models, which went from atrociously ugly to pretty good-looking. Environments, too, went from under-detailed to complex, lush locations. Rebels suffers somewhat from its completely blank slate. The environments are great, and the character models are very good-looking, but in some ways, we’re clearly looking at a first season that we’ll look back on as looking worse than later episodes. Hair looks a little awkward, and some textures are somewhat low-resolution. Despite that, the animation itself is very good, and on-par or better than the Clone Wars in its final episodes. The characters are well-rigged, and highly expressive. Also, pay attention to the physics on Hera’s head-tails. Mesmerizing! We never really saw that sort of thing in Clone Wars.

All that being said, Rebels is without a doubt starting on stronger visuals in the outset than Clone Wars ever had at that stage. The models and environments are a huge step above the Clone Wars in its first episodes. Clone Wars took maybe five seasons to reach the level of detail and sophistication that Rebels brings to the table.

"Rebels" clearly has a more put-together look than "Clone Wars" did at the beginning.

“Rebels” clearly has a more put-together look than “Clone Wars” did at the beginning.

MUSIC

The music written specifically for Rebels was pretty standard fare, though clearly about as good as any show on television. We have a clear and unique theme for the main crew, and it fits in very well within the world of Star Wars music. While Kevin Kiner’s music is great, the score really shines when we get some moments of John William’s original score. Hearing music from the original 1977 Star Wars film – one of the most unique of the Star Wars films – really helped transport me into that Original Trilogy world. While I’m looking forward to hearing more of Kiner’s music, I hope we still see some of Williams’ music shine through.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Star Wars: Rebels “Spark of Rebellion” was a highly entertaining watch, and some of the most fun I’ve had with Star Wars in years. While the premiere had some flaws – chiefly in plot pacing – I’m hoping these issues find themselves resolved in future episodes of the series. I’ll definitely be watching this show, and I would encourage any Star Wars fan to give Rebels a chance!