Star Wars Rebels will be better than The Clone Wars, in part because it has The Clone Wars behind it.
At the Rebels screening in New York City on Sept. 9, it seemed evident that Lucasfilm wanted the new show, like the Force, to be in balance. Fans of The Clone Wars will see familiar names like Dave Filoni behind the scenes, but Rebels is very much an original trilogy creature. It could introduce someone to Star Wars, or satisfy longtime fans. Rebels has cute nods to the movies, but those nods sometimes lead to more plot points or character details, adding something to chew on after the laugh is done.
While the heart of the show will probably be the characters, the animation has a lot of character itself. Skies and landscapes have a painterly feel that looks like a Ralph McQuarrie painting come to life. The colors are pleasing and vivid – only hero Ezra’s extremely blue eyes stand out as rather artificial.
Comparing Rebels to The Clone Wars, especially to the earlier seasons, one can see how much more detail the present animation allows. Characters’ skins are textured or rubbed with dirt. The quality use of lighting and glow seen in The Clone Wars was probably not fully shown in three episodes of Rebels, but seems to still be present.
Zeb Orelios was a stand-out character, not only because of Steve Blum’s voice acting and an excellent balance between orneriness and reluctant kindness, but also because of the way he moves. A simian alien, he fights more like an animal than like a human sometimes, making use of clawed feet and acrobatics. Details like his ears moving really sell him as an alien character, moreso even than a Wookiee.
In the episodes which were screened, Ezra and Kanan got the most screen time. I look forward to seeing the relationships between the other characters established.
The story’s emotional hook in the early episodes comes mostly from Ezra, and even though he’s a rogue with his own place instead of a rather banal moisture farmer living with his aunt and uncle, the same sense of adventure that is synonymous with Star Wars surrounds Ezra when the story gets going. Rebels does what The Clone Wars sometimes struggled to do, tying the characters’ emotional journeys in with their physical ones. It also takes its time, ramping up in action scenes but allowing for smaller moments where characters simply look, at their surroundings or each other. The strength of the animation means that their expressions convey their emotions well, and makes the fictional world feel like it has more impact.
Of course that fictional world is the one Star Wars fans are familiar with, and 14 years after A New Hope the Empire has familiar hardware. Some settings will be familiar to both Star Wars and expanded universe fans, and I think that the exploration of how Rebels and the new universe differs from Legends will be interesting instead of semantic. New settings, especially the already varied planet Lothal, help show what exactly the Empire has done to the galactic economy.
Rebels also has more potential than The Clone Wars ever realized because of the focus on the team. Characterization for Anakin, Obi-Wan, and Ahsoka was difficult when the show focused on other characters for long periods of time, and while Ahsoka especially grew during long arcs, the team dynamic couldn’t hold the show together when the team wasn’t often on screen all at the same time. Rebels seems to be going for a more streamlined, linear approach which I think will be its strength. Already in the early screening, characters have grown and changed in rich ways.
Rebels doesn’t look perfect – some moments seem forced, some colors garish – but it’s pointing in a good direction, combining the best aspects of The Clone Wars with a more measured type of storytelling. I think the Force might just be with this one.
Rebels premiers on Oct. 3 on the Disney Channel.