Star Wars Rebels Uses A Quite Familiar Plot Setup
Star Wars Rebels mostly escaped my radar during its 2014-2018 run, but it was a positive surprise to explore now. Despite feeling like this franchise is now racing towards oversaturation (if it has not already reached it), Star Wars television shows have—for apparently a long time—been mostly solid little pieces of media.
And I think Star Wars Rebels works because of the universe’s flexibility. I heavily discussed this in my Andor review, but you can do many things with Star Wars and get a solid result. This apparently includes a classic YA found-family story. Because of how Force sensitivity manifests and the Empire’s hunt for those with it, it makes sense that there are teenage characters forced to flee for their lives. And this franchise has enough peripheral content to make that somewhat cliché premise of “special, but the government is chasing me” not nearly as stale.
Sadly, though, this article has to focus on the negatives from here on out. The good stuff is good in the same way that a lot of Star Wars is—and, thus, not interesting to talk about. Most characters are pulpy and likable, the sound design is iconic, and lightsabers and the Force continue to be as cool as ever. If all you want is more space adventures and lore, you’ve found your show. Assuming you don’t bounce off it at the first hurdle.
The Animation Has Not Held Up After All This Time
And I say this because the animation and the pacing are… not ideal. I’m willing to give Star Wars Rebels a lot of slack, but sometimes the animation is distracting. Our main character, Ezra (voiced by Taylor Gray), has a starting design with these long strands of blue hair that wave like they have a mind of their own/are underwater. Everyone’s movements often look somehow wooden and over-emphasized. And any fight scenes that don’t only involve blasters (which are comically inaccurate whenever a villain uses one) seem to pull some animation trick or another to cover up how clunky things look. The battle between two people wielding bo-rifles was cool… if you didn’t look at it too closely.
The pacing has similar problems—likely caused by runtime limitations. Scenes are too short, and they often lack organic transitions to the next scene. I often find it annoying how other shows take time to have characters enter or exit buildings or travel distances (yes, Obi-Wan Kenobi, I know “Ben” rides in a weird bus thing every day, thanks), but it turns out the alternative is worse. It’s like everyone can teleport, and the scene transitions are slightly on fast-forward. Paired with a similar dialog situation, the presentation takes forever to get used to. The most striking instance of this happens in episode two, where some characters say they’re going to get back aboard a ship, and then the next time they appear, they’ve already snuck aboard without issue.
This gives one big benefit to the show, though: Star Wars Rebels has larger plots. A lot is allowed to happen when you don’t bother with much tone-setting. I don’t know if the show falls into episodic adventures going past episode three (a brief look at the episode descriptions suggests it will), but I actually felt like I got a lot of story progression for the time spent. In the first two episodes, there’s a solid little origin story with a cast of characters that at least have interesting basic traits to build on.
Star Wars Rebels Has Very Tropey Main Characters
So far, the best two of that cast of characters are Zeb (voiced by Steve Blum), who fulfills the role of “the muscle” and has a surprisingly morbid backstory, and Hera (voiced by Vanessa Marshall): a badass motherly type who gets some of the best dialog. I’ve yet to see enough of how they’ll narratively utilize the punk-rock Mandalorian, Sabine (voiced by Tiya Sircar), or the Jedi “master” Kanan (voiced by Freddie Prinze Jr.) to pass much of a judgment, but there’s enough already present in their general characterization for entertaining scenes. That all said, there are certainly flaws here. I wish the generic criminal arms dealer didn’t seem based on a cultural stereotype and that the ship’s crew didn’t aggressively hit or shove each other constantly. There’s also a limit to how much you can withhold character history for the sake of avoiding exposition issues without making it harder to connect to characters, and Star Wars Rebels is slightly on the wrong side of that line so far. Case and point, I mostly just know Ezra is a self-reliant orphan—aka, the most generic hero origin in fantasy/science fiction.
As to the plot these characters go through, it’s mostly the adventures you’d expect. They steal something important, save someone in peril, avoid capture, etc., but I must mention something: at the offset, Star Wars Rebels seemed like the most uncomplicated entry in the franchise—I didn’t expect it to talk about or tackle certain subjects—but then it kept having these moments that popped in. Two, in particular, caught my attention, but there were others, and I assume there must be even more in the four seasons Star Wars Rebels got. The first major one references racism with how The Empire treats droids (droids have to sit at the back of the ship). Yes, Star Wars has touched on how droids are treated before, but that’s a very specific parallel to draw from. I leave it to more knowledgeable writers to determine how respectful the scene is, but I’m surprised it got no further exploration in the episode.
The other topics (all featured in the same episode as the other thing) are war crimes, genocide, and the use of inhumane weaponry. Star Wars already has instant-kill weapons. The Empire using an implied significantly more painful weapon to murder a species is brutal and bleak. The way Zeb reacts to seeing a crate of them is striking, especially compared against a show usually full of quips and that rarely treats incoming blaster fire as more than an annoyance (including in the same scene). And this turns his fellow crewmates barely considering his feelings on the matter into practically a plot hole. The whole thing is way more morally dubious than perhaps the script intended.
This Series Doesn’t Always Maintain Its Usual Tone
All of that may give the wrong impression, though. Frankly, those moments seem like outliers. The show stretches little outside the usual action fare everywhere else. Star Wars Rebels is, at its heart, an encapsulation of the standard dream of being a superpowered teenager surrounded by equally cool friends/family members, but this time filtered through Star Wars iconography and lore. It wants to be exciting and escapist. The pace is super-fast, with at least one action scene and explosion in each of its first three episodes. Yeah, it’s part of the Star Wars universe, so it adds more to the now-extremely sprawling story of Jedi and resistance, if that’s what you want, but Star Wars Rebels is mostly succeeding at being a fun Saturday morning action cartoon.
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