Perhaps the “Star Wars” franchise’s worst-kept secret during the second-trilogy era is that its best screen depictions have come via TV animation. Inaugurating the Disney-synergy juggernaut before director J.J. Abrams can get there, “Star Wars Rebels” continues this trend, offering a sly, stylish offshoot — introducing a new lineup of characters very much in the “Clone Wars” tradition — with scads of action, beautiful animation and fidelity to the original’s spirit. Premiering on Disney Channel with a one-hour launch subtitled “Spark of Rebellion” before settling in as a series on boy-oriented Disney XD, the Force is indeed strong with this one.
Set during the period after “Revenge of the Sith” and prior to the original “Star Wars” (a.k.a. “A New Hope”), “Rebels” essentially reboots the first movie, albeit with a new small band of rebels leading an incipient fight against Imperial forces. That begins with their introduction to Ezra (voiced by Taylor Gray), an inordinately resourceful teenage thief, taken in by Kanan (Freddie Prinze Jr.), his alien pilot Hera (Vanessa Marshall), warrior Sabine (Tiya Sircar) and the powerful Zeb (Steve Blum), a Wookiee-like creature, except he can articulate his bad attitude, which includes taking pleasure in knocking Stormtroopers’ helmeted heads together.
Ezra combines elements of Han Solo and Luke Skywalker, since he’s hostile to authority and risking his neck to help others, as well as young and hotheaded. The project also showcases a sensationally striking villain known as the Inquisitor, voiced with appropriate menace by Jason Isaacs.
Though not having access to many well-known “Star Wars” figures would seem to put “Rebels” at a disadvantage relative to “The Clone Wars” (also overseen by Dave Filoni, who shares exec producer credit with “X-Men” scribe Simon Kinberg and Greg Weisman), it actually proves oddly liberating — or at least, less confining than knowing the best they can do is fight Count Dooku to a draw. Part of that has to do with the way these dense half-hours are driven by action, which in the premiere includes a way-cool fight sequence in zero gravity, as well as the expected narrow escapes and — for those who haven’t read up on the show — one very clever twist.
“Rebels” also exhibits some genuine wit, such as a second-episode rumination about Yoda-speak that should put a smile on the face of anyone who can quote freely from “The Empire Strikes Back.”
Disney, naturally, has been eager to wring value out of its Lucasfilm acquisition, which along with Marvel infuses a powerful boy- and teen-oriented element into its marketing and merchandising apparatus, complementing all those princesses and faeries. In that respect, the Disney Channel-to-Disney XD baton pass represents a shrewd way of helping establish the series, given all the mileage Cartoon Network got out of “Clone Wars.”
Viewed through the lens of the Disney empire, “Star Wars Rebels” offers a reassuring reminder that there’s plenty of room to operate within George Lucas’ far, far away galaxy. And in terms of succeeding creatively, they haven’t just tried; done it, they have.