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Star Wars: Rebels 
Spark of Rebellion



Clone Wars always felt like an apology for the Prequels. It's a cartoon, but it's a cartoon in a cinematic style. Jedi swing their lightsabers against a background of galactic diplomancy and politics. Everyone knows what is going to happen to Anakin in the next movie; and everyone knows that it can't happen until then; so we mercifully don't have to worry about story arcs. We can just have adventures. The worst episodes feel like RPG cut scenes or episodes of Thundercats. But the best ones make me exclaim "Now, that's how the prequels should have been done."

There were one or two episodes of the Star Trek animated series that made me say "I wish that had been a real episode, done with actors and special effects." Which is a different way of saying that it was a failure as a cartoon.

Now, Star Wars: Rebels. Star Wars: Rebels is a cartoon that knows it's a cartoon. 

About 20 minutes into the pilot, Ezra the street-smart artful-dodger uses his lock picking powers to get into the Kanan's cabin. Kanan is the leader of the group of rebels who Ezra has temporarily fallen in with. We're in the sort of world where stealing stuff — stealing stuff from friends — shows that you have an endearing disregard for authority, not that you are an ungrateful little toad. He finds a secret compartment under the bed, and takes out what appears to be a silver puzzle box. The audience is meant to know that it is a Holocron — a rare Jedi artifact. It is an interesting fact about the transition of Star Wars from movie to mythos to franchise that something which was only referenced in computer games and derivative novels can still be regarded as something which "everybody" knows about. But it's definitely something Really Important because the Binary Sunset leitmotif is playing in the background. The episode has been playing — not very subtly — with the fact that Ezra presents as a cool street-rat but is actually just an innocent kid. His eyes spend a lot of time literally widening; his jaw spends a lot of time literally dropping. He says "wow!" and "cool!" a lot, which is a marked improvement over "yippee". So while he is still trying to be cynical and worldly about the holocron ("it might be worth something") he discovers that Kanan also has a LIGHTSABER and all pretense drops. "Wow, cool!" 

If lightsabers were real weapons and Ezra was a real boy, then finding one in his host's bedroom would either be like finding a loaded kalashnikov, or else like finding a bona fide holy relic, the Grail or a fragment of the True Cross. But they aren't and he isn't. He reacts to the lightsaber, not as person of a particular age in a particular possible world, but as a Star Wars fan. I said last time that when Obi-Wan hands Luke the lightsaber, we all want to reach out and grab it — not only the lightsaber, but that moment. And that's what Ezra is quite clearly doing: not handling a weapon or an artefact, but playing with the best toy in the universe. Wow. Cool. (Yippee.) But just as he takes up a proper Jedi pose, "reality" intervenes. The R2 Unit has snitched on him. But Kanan is not some Wise Old Man archetype, vaguely representing The Name of the Father in Campbellian terms. He's more like your actual Dad. "Careful, you'll have your arm off.". Kanan doesn't put the lightsaber back in the box, but hangs it on his belt. This is the first time that we know that Kanan is a Jedi Knight. (Not that it's a huge surprise or anything.) Ezra reverts to his "streetwise" persono, jiggling the holocron in his hand as if to say "fooled you!". But Kanan murmurs "Now we will see..." under his breath. Aha. It's a test. 

This kind of thing either appeals to you or it doesn't. There are fans who are biting their hands in disgust: they have taken our sacred trilogy and turned it into a something for kids. It's the most blatant kind of fan-boy wish-fulfillment. By the end of the first episode, Ezra has used his latent force powers to open the Holcron, listen to secret message from Ewan McGreggor, and sign on has Kanan's padawan. Dad says you only get to play with a lightsaber if you take it seriously. But you do get to play with it.

The Phantom Menace had Anakin: but even if you could swallow the premise of a nine year old racing driver and fighter pilot who says "yippee" a lot, you still spend most of the film saying "No way does that little munchkin grow up to be Darth Vader". The Clone Wars had Ahsoka ("Snips"). But she's already a Jedi, and even though she starts out being even more reckless and irresponsible than Anakin, Clone Wars takes itself Seriously. Before long she is a sensible member of the team, teaching homesteaders to fight bandits on a weekly basis. And before any of that, there was the stroppy, sulky, farm kid. ("It's just not fair!") Even without the Toshi station sequence (chopped out of Star Wars at the very, very last moment) it's clear that Luke's job was to be a teenaged rebel who eventually acquires a cause. Which is why Star Wars succeeds and the other movies, to a greater or lessor extent, fail. They don't have an Everyman figure who is looking out at the sunset on our behalf, wishing he could get off this rock. That is why the Binary Sun theme is sometimes referred to as the Romantic Longing theme, at any rate by me..

Anakin was three years too young. Star Wars: Rebels has the sense to make it's viewpoint character a couple of years older than the target audience -- an inappropriate kid with a lightsaber, no parents, and a vein full of midichlorians. The rest of the cast are just about as generic as they could be — the sort of people you'd expect to meet in any Star Wars RPG or computer game. The strong, cynical one. The spunky, agile one. The sensible one. The Jedi one. (They are twists on Star Wars archetypes, but only in the most trivial way. Zeb is basically Han and Chewie rolled into one. Kanan is actually described by the writers as a Cowboy Jedi. Sabine is a girl who wearing Boba Fett bounty hunter armour, only she's painted flowers on it.) But this works in it's favour. If we're seeing the Star Wars universe from Ezra's point of view (wide eyes, jaw drop, wow!) we don't want any complicated dark twists. We want it to look like we expect the Star Wars universe to look. 

Which it does. I am sure the Clone Wars artists worked real hard to give Clone Wars the look and feel of the prequels. But no-one is ever going to look at an episode of Clone Wars and say "Oh wow (wide eyes, jaw drops) that spaceship which appeared for a few seconds half way through Attack of the Clones." No-one has ever loved the prequels like some of us love A New Hope. (No-one has ever loved anything like some of us love A New Hope.) The first thing we see in Rebels is a Star Destroyer. The second thing we see is a group of TIE Fighters whooshing through the sky — the first TIE Fighters we've seen in 30 years, unless you count computer games. And then we pan down into a street, that isn't Mos Eisley, but very well could be, with a Greedo-alien and one of the little dwarf people from Cloud City (okay, if you insist, a Rodian and an Ugnaught) going about their business. And within five minutes stormtroopers on speeder bikes are chasing rebels round an alien market. 

"But Andrew: a quite good kids cartoon doesn't become a major work of art just because it has stormtroopers in it."

No. No; it doesn't. And the actual story is a bit of fluff about rescuing wookie slaves; and wookie fur really doesn't work in this kind of texture based animation; and the spice mines of Kessel, which we've been building up to for forty years turns out to be a bit nothing. But, I mean: stormtroopers. Not characters which cleverly allude to stormtroopers, or new improved stormtroopers, but actual stormtroopers, with no sense of commentary, re-invention or ironical detatchment, chasing good guys down corridors which look suspiciously like the corridors of the Death Star because that's what stormtroopers do.

At a story-internal level, characters like Anakin and Ezra don't work. Ezra has been cast in the wrong movie. It is hard to imagine him in Clone Wars. Anakin would punch him. He gets away with things that no-one inexperienced street thief should be able to get away with, even in a fairy tale universe. His hair isn't Star Wars hair; it's manga hair. He's not a kid. He's specifically a cartoon kid. And he knows it. "I'm in SPACE!!!....and I'm gonna die." Yippee. 

Star Wars began, as everyone knows, with a twelve second tracking shot of a huge spaceship — what we would now call a Star Destroyer — passing over the audience's heads. Star Wars: Rebels begins with a close up reaction shot as a Star Destroyer passes over Ezra's head. Which is to say: Star Wars begins with us looking up at a Star Destroyer and collectively saying "wow!". Star Wars: Rebels begins with us looking at a cartoon kid looking up at a Star Destroyer and saying "wow!" 

And I am quite sure that the writers and artists knew exactly what they were doing. The cartoon kid is Everyfan. He's done what we wished we could do. He really is "on the inside". He really does get to play with all the cool toys. But he knows it's a movie. He's only playing. It's fun. 

That's a really cool present for all of us incredibly serious old fans. Whether it will mean anything to the actual kids remains to be seen.