A couple weeks ago, STAR WARS: REBELS aired its season finale on Disney XD, and I can officially declare that I'm hooked. It's been a while since a new series -- especially a new animated series -- has caught and held my attention so dramatically. Last October, when the show premiered, I gave my initial impressions. In short, I felt it had promise but I was uncertain about some of the creative choices and I didn't think the animation lived up to that of its predecessor, STAR WARS: THE CLONE WARS.
Well, most of those concerns have been addressed as of the season finale. I'll state up front that the animation still looks too simplistic to me. CLONE WARS set an extremely high bar which REBELS hasn't even come close to yet -- and I've since learned that part of the reason is REBELS having a much smaller budget than did CLONE WARS. Say what you will about George Lucas, but by most accounts he treated every arc of CLONE WARS like a small-scale feature film, and budgeted accordingly. I assume Disney simply looks at REBELS as just another weekly cartoon series. So if the producers are doing the best they can with what they've got, I must reluctantly give them a pass on the animation.
The voices, which I originally felt were a bit plain, have mostly grown on me. The actors have, as I'd hoped, grown into their roles and have developed some chemistry -- and the character interactions are that much better as a result. Guest performances are generally fine and occasionally outstanding. The musical score from Kevin Kiner, adapting vast swaths of John Williams' original film cues, continues to impress as well.
And the story--! This is where I had some concerns, originally. The earliest installments of REBELS felt like a kiddie show, with minimal continuity and pretty basic plots. Oh, what a difference a season makes. It took CLONE WARS two or three years to find its balance and reach a level of maturity that could engage adults while remaining straightforward enough to appeal to kids. And it took even longer than that to really start developing ongoing, overarching storylines. It took REBELS only about half a season to accomplish both those feats. Beginning with their mid-season finale and continuing through to the end, this show grew up in a major way, both in tone and in terms of serialization. It still has all the action, excitement and color that kids' show needs, but at the same time it has become -- for me, anyway -- as engrossing as any drama I watch regularly on TV.
One thing that really helped this show develop so quickly was its relatively small scale. Where CLONE WARS traversed the galaxy and told mostly epic, sweeping tales of high adventure against the backdrop of an intergalactic war, REBELS spends much of its time on one planet, Lothal. Lothal is our heroes' home port and there's something comforting about seeing their ship, the Ghost, always planted in that same field at the start of most episodes. The Lothal setting allowed the REBELS producers to create a strong cast of recurring supporting characters and ongoing plotlines, something of which CLONE WARS had a bit of a dearth.
And the small scale allowed for small stories to really sell the characters' personalities and motivations. CLONE WARS dealt mostly with characters established and already defined in George Lucas's prequels, so viewers knew much of what to expect from them going in. REBELS has a wholly original cast, so this sort of fleshing out was needed. In a way, the entire first season of REBELS feels almost like a "pilot season", carefully introducing the characters, their friends, foes, and conflicts.
But, as of the season finale, things have been ramped up. REBELS is poised, possibly, to become just as grand as was CLONE WARS. Our heroes have drawn the attention of Grand Moff Tarkin, Darth Vader, and the Emperor himself. But they've found new allies as well, in the form of the fledgling Rebel Alliance, led by Senator Bail Organa. And, perhaps best of all, we've learned that the mysterious contact, "Fulcrum", from whom the group has received missions all season, is actually Anakin Skywalker's former apprentice, one of the core protagonists of CLONE WARS, Ahsoka Tano.
Ahsoka's appearance in the final moments of the season finale was a big deal for me, even moreso that the arrival of Darth Vader a few minutes later. With CLONE WARS showrunner Dave Filoni guiding REBELS as well, I harbored hopes that CLONE WARS characters and continuity might work their way into the new series. But at the same time I was concerned that Disney's recent focus on the Original Trilogy era, practically ignoring the Prequel period, might mean that such things were off limits. Look -- I know we're all supposed to hate the prequels, but I just can't do it. Those movies expanded the size and scope of the STAR WARS galaxy beyond anything we had ever seen before onscreen. The prequels, and CLONE WARS, made Coruscant my favorite planet in the canon. And CLONE WARS expanded the mythology of the prequels immensely, making it a very fun and exciting STAR WARS era.
So, to see Ahsoka show up in REBELS served as a sort of validation for me, confirming that Disney has not swept the Prequel Era entirely under the rug. Since her appearance, I've also learned that venerable voice actor Jim Cummings has verified that CLONE WARS' Weequay pirate, Hondo Ohnaka, will also put in a REBELS appearance down the line. Dare we hope to eventually see Cad Bane return as well, and perhaps an onscreen resolution to the dangling Darth Maul plot? (I know Maul's story was told in a comic book mini-series from Dark Horse, but I don't believe that's canon any longer.)
Time will tell. But for now, after a low-key, personal "pilot" season, as its characters have linked up with the larger Rebel Alliance and Ahsoka Tano, it seems STAR WARS: REBELS is about to explode into a series steeped in the STAR WARS mythology of all eras, and I couldn't be happier about it. Bring on the confrontation between Vader and his former apprentice!