“Star Wars Rebels” is, admittedly, a relatively small blip in the franchise’s wider universe. Yet the program’s Jan. 20 mid-season return nevertheless reinforces a sense that when it comes to the vast potential of cross-collateralizing assets – with a then-mid-teenage Princess Leia making her debut in this Disney XD series – the studio got something of a bargain in its $4-billion purchase of Lucasfilm.
As has been noted here in the past, the animated, made-for-TV component of “Star Wars” mythology had long been a creative bright spot, from “Clone Wars” into “Rebels.” Now, with “The Force Awakens” shattering box-office records, prequels and spinoffs lining up on the launch pad, and ancillary opportunities piling up – from Disney’s theme parks to merchandising – it’s something of a bonus to see this latest series opening up its playbook, bringing more stalwarts from the original trilogy into the mix.
Set just a handful of years before the events in what has since been subtitled “A New Hope,” “Rebels” previously introduced Darth Vader as a distant threat, and he’s scheduled to be back later this season, which also teases Yoda in its promotion. The kickoff, meanwhile, finds Leia (who must be about 14) coming to Lothal on a clandestine mission, bringing supplies that she wants the core group to steal as she seeks to assist those on the planet.
Obviously, such stunts have to be handled delicately so as not to upset or unduly tinker with the “Star Wars” timeline. As it is, having Leia see the Force put to use feels a little funny – along with all those in “Rebels” who possess Jedi or Sith-like skills – given the dismissal of Vader’s adherence to it as an “ancient religion” in the first film.
That bit of nitpicking aside, it’s still great fun to see the young Leia in this episode, which includes a smashing action sequence in which the Jedi-trained Kanan (voiced by Freddie Prinze Jr.) tackles an Imperial Walker, one of the giant armored tank-like constructs featured in “The Empire Strikes Back.” And the producers of “Rebels,” led by Dave Filoni, clearly harbor enough reverence for the source material to dip into it – incorporating these familiar characters as what amounts to a treat for fans – without creating ripples that would disrupt what’s chronologically to come.
The real challenge, for Disney and Lucasfilm, will be to juggle all these properties as its exploitation of “Star Wars” mushrooms. Done well, the net effect can be additive and pay dividends on a variety of fronts, including making a network like Disney XD – the boy-oriented offshoot from the Disney Channel – more of a destination than it would be otherwise, even for those who are well outside the target demo.
Strictly in terms of the bottom line, Disney is clearly intent on wringing all the value it can out of its acquisition, which is no doubt what prompted George Lucas to refer to the current stewards as “white slavers,” before walking back those comments. (Disclosure: My wife works for a division of Disney.)
However crass the motivation, though, the reality is that Lucas’ galaxy far, far away feels more vibrant and alive than it has in some time – much closer to its corporate cousin Marvel, suddenly, in terms of operating as one big, synergistic organism.
“Star Wars Rebels” is merely one small part of that. But if the studio can keep mining the name with this sort of spirit and flair, then by all means, send in the clones.