First Lucasfilm and now parent Disney have been clever about using animation as a means to keep the “Star Wars” franchise alive between movies. But as the dazzling, action-packed one-hour finale of “Star Wars Rebels” – the series set between the movie chapters titled “Revenge of the Sith” and “A New Hope” – made clear, the producers of those programs harbor higher creative aspirations than merely killing time or reminding kids to ask mom and dad for action figures.
Operating with the equivalent of a gloved hand tied behind its back, “Rebels” (and before that “Clone Wars,” also under the stewardship of Dave Filoni, who directed the finale) has deftly interwoven key elements and characters into the narrative while establishing its own core cast. That all built toward a showdown in the March 30 episode (and SPOILER ALERT if you haven’t watched) that not only significantly incorporated the character of Darth Maul – the most visually striking component of the otherwise disappointing “The Phantom Menace” – but delivered a bracing fight between Darth Vader (voiced, gloriously, by James Earl Jones) and his one-time padawan, Ahsoka Tano (Ashley Eckstein).
In the course of the battle, Vader delivered one of the most sobering lines he has uttered regarding his descent to the dark side of the Force, saying of his alter ego, “Anakin Skywalker was weak. I destroyed him.” The fight produced another jarring moment, when Ahsoka managed to damage Vader’s mask, leaving one beady eye exposed amid all the black metal. (In an interview, Filoni said Vader’s design for the series was derived in part from artist Ralph McQuarrie’s renderings of the character, and it’s fair to say he’s never looked better.)
These animated series have always played to a fan base that extends well beyond the customary target audience for their kid-oriented networks (in this case, synergistically, Disney XD), but the “Rebels” finale felt especially dark and adult in tone. That said, while potentially giving younger kids nightmares might not be ideal, aiming high – and letting children keep up, steeped as many already are in “Star Wars” mythology – is infinitely preferable to self-consciously dumbing down the material, a road that leads to the (gasp) Jar Jar Binks side.
When they weren’t fighting, the characters advanced on other fronts as well. That included the gradual attempt by Maul (Sam Witwer) to seduce young Ezra (Taylor Gray) to the dark side, during a battle that discretely resulted in the death of three Inquisitors. The show also set up several juicy threads for the coming season, with Ezra being tempted, while his mentor Kanan (Freddie Prinze Jr.) has at least temporarily lost his vision, a byproduct of their encounter with Maul, who will clearly be a lingering presence.
While Filoni and his team had plenty of room to operate in the old days, the Disney acquisition – and the studio’s aggressive plans to exploit the “Star Wars” timeline in feature films – has made navigating that asteroid field a bit trickier. It’s not like the show can keep trotting out Vader to threaten the heroes and have them battle to an inconclusive draw, with Ahsoka’s status left vague as he limped away.
Nevertheless, “Rebels” continues to demonstrate admirable inventiveness, while serving up muscular action sequences in ways that have ably differentiated themselves from, and expanded upon, the movies. Moreover, with Filoni pledging that the show will bring the story to some kind of close – it seemingly comes with an inevitable expiration date, inasmuch as that wasn’t Kanan barreling down the trench in “A New Hope” – more darkness almost surely lies ahead. Still, in terms of where the series goes story-wise in the immediate future, after that rousing finale, it’s hard not to have a good feeling about this.