“Star Wars Rebels: The Siege of Lothal” launches the animated program’s second season heading into Comic-Con and in advance of the next eagerly awaited live-action chapter of the franchise, and brings with it a major event for a little Disney XD series: Darth Vader, with James Earl Jones providing the Sith Lord’s voice. Once again hewing closely to the spirit and template of the original, the show continues to revel in the latitude afforded by animation to dole out bountiful helpings of action, garnished with considerable wit and a welcome sense of fun.
Taking place between the events of “Revenge of the Sith” and the movie since rechristened “A New Hope,” the series centers on a ragtag crew of rebels, whose number includes the Jedi knight Kanan (Freddie Prinze Jr.) and the hotheaded youngster he’s seeking to train, Ezra (Taylor Gray). Their band – united at the end of season one with Ahsoka Tano (Ashley Eckstein), the one-time Padawan to Anakin Skywalker from the animated “The Clone Wars,” all grown up – is being drawn further into opposing the Empire, thus earning the attention of Vader, who seems less interested in crushing the nascent rebellion than ascertaining just how significant the threat is.
Even with that as a backdrop, introducing such an iconic character requires surgical delicacy thanks to his pivotal role in the “Star Wars” universe. To their credit, showrunners Dave Filoni and Simon Kinberg (and Henry Gilroy, who wrote the premiere) have pretty successfully navigated that asteroid field, providing excuses to see Vader confront the rebels both on the ground and in space, while offering a reminder of just how formidable he can be.
Indeed, thanks to the crispness and slightly stylized nature of the animation, it’s almost fair to say that Darth Vader has never looked better. And while the show’s presence on a kid-oriented cable channel (owned, naturally, by Lucasfilm’s new “I am your father,” Disney) somewhat curbs the content, “Rebels” doesn’t stoop to conquer, including not just dazzling action but cleverly knowing wrinkles, such as Ezra’s difficulty getting his Jedi mind tricks to work the way in which they’re supposed to.
If there’s a quibble here, it’s the understandable tendency to essentially replicate sequences from earlier movies with the smallest of tweaks, such as Vader dispensing orders to Imperial underlings who have a bad habit of disappointing him; and nick-of-time space escapes, usually involving a convenient jump to lightspeed. That said, it’s all very much in keeping with the tone of the original “Star Wars,” delivering ample appeal to fans whose kids (and, yikes, grandkids) are being newly introduced to it. (As a further come-on to another quadrant of the geek galaxy, Prinze’s wife, Sarah Michelle Gellar, will join the cast later in the season.)
Inevitably, Disney’s determination to wring all the value the studio can from its Lucasfilm acquisition is going to produce some misfires. But with season two ratcheting up the heat on what was already a pretty well-oiled machine, “Star Wars Rebels” won’t be one of them.