*****STAR DESTROYER-SIZED SPOILERS AHEAD!*****
With the recent avalanche of Star Wars product on DisneyPlus since “The Mandalorian” opened the floodgates to the Disney streaming service in November of 2019, there has been an almost nonstop menagerie of new Star Wars content, with a lot more on the way (“The Book of Boba Fett,” “Kenobi” etc). With all of this going on, it’s very easy for older fans like myself to feel a bit overwhelmed by this sudden embarrassment of riches. It’s like craving a late night snack and finding that a personal gourmet chef has prepared a four-course meal–it’s a little more than you might’ve had in mind. But DisneyPlus has to justify both their existence and expense, so I very much understand. In fact, I find their ambitions admirable, if a bit exhausting…
I was actually going to skip Star Wars Visions entirely, since (for full disclosure) I’m not a huge fan of Japanese anime. Oh, I’ve seen some that I’ve enjoyed, and I liked a few of the Studio Ghibli films, particularly “Spirited Away” (2001), but on the whole? Anime is largely something I can easily give or take. However, on the (persistent) urging of my friend of over 35 years, I decided to give “Star Wars Visions” a try. The first three have been, so far, a mixed bag. I haven’t yet decided if I want to return and try the remainder.
Though all nine “Star Wars Visions” short films are currently available to stream on DisneyPlus, I’m only reviewing the first three for this column.
Season 1.1: “The Duel.”
The first episode, “The Duel,” was, by far, my favorite to date. It is a love letter to George Lucas’ original inspirations for his original “The Star Wars” screenplay drafts, dating back to 1974. Lucas was (and presumably still is) a huge fan of Japanese film maker Akira Kurosawa, and “The Duel” mashes together the stories of Kurosawa’s “The Seven Samurai” and “Yojimbo.” Even the name “Jedi” comes from Jedaigeki, which translates loosely as ‘Japanese period dramas.’
Shot mainly in black and white (energy sources provide the only colors), with artificial film scratches added, “The Duel” sees a small village on a backwater planet being invaded by Imperial mercenaries, led by a Sith Lord (voiced in the English dub by Lucy Liu). Various defenders, including a little boy (Jaden Waldman), various droids and aliens, rally to defend their small corner of the universe (ala “Seven Samurai”), but to no avail; they are easily overpowered by the Imperial mercs. A lone drifter named Ronin (Brian Tee) who is just ‘passing through’ with his droid, takes up the cause of defending the town (see: “Yojimbo”). Ronin asks the owner of a cafe to repair his shot-up droid by the time a nearby kettle of water boils–the droid is a vital part of his plan…
Note: The medieval Japanese-inspired planet invaded by Imperial forces dovetails surprisingly well with Star Wars tech, such as droids and lightsabers–the same mix of primitive and high tech we’ve seen throughout various Star Wars locales, such as the western-inspired town of Mos Eisley on Tatooine. And, of course, the name Ronin is the title given to a Japanese samurai with no master to serve–a rogue.
Ronin takes on the Sith leader with his own red-bladed lightsaber (the ornate grip of Ronin’s saber is very much like that of a traditional Japanese katana). The Sith is taken aback when Ronin shows Force powers as well, as he is able to stop her blade from slicing through his face. Their battle moves to a nearby waterfall, where the Sith plans to use her dark powers to vanquish her opponent–who has set a trap of his own…
Note: For clarity, I’ve not seen any of the Star Wars Visions films in their original Japanese language–only the English dubs. I usually prefer seeing (hearing) foreign-made films in the original language, as it helps with the overall ambience, but since this is the Star Wars universe? I made an exception.
Soon, the harried cafe owner finishes repairing Ronin’s droid, and a blue light is indicated on Ronin’s wrist. He presses a button, and the repaired droid races to help. As the Sith finds the glow of Ronin’s blade stuffed in a statue as a decoy, she is then run through by another blade, courtesy of Ronin’s droid. The town is saved, and Ronin gives a valuable red kyber crystal to the brave young boy (the self-proclaimed “village chief”) who stepped up to defend his home earlier. In the classically romantic fashion of jedaigeki cinema, the lone Ronin and his faithful droid depart…
Note: “The Duel” was well worth watching by itself, even if I never saw (or see) any of the others. It’s a real kick to see Star Wars, after 44 years, so thoroughly embracing its earliest inspirations. I’m betting this one put a huge smile on George Lucas’ face…
Season 1.2: “Tatooine Rhapsody.”
By contrast, “Tatooine Rhapsody” is much more modern in its influences, particularly the more heightened, brightly-colored anime of “Sailor Moon” and others. The story concerns a young Jedi ‘padawan’ named Jay (voice of Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who is, presumably, escaping the Jedi purge seen in 2005’s “Revenge of the Sith” (the dreaded “Order 66”) when he is rescued by a friendly, slug-like Hutt named Geezer (Bobby Moynihan) who takes the frightened boy under his wing, and together with a droid guitarist K-344 (Shelby Young) and a tri-bodied drummer, they form a J-pop band…
Note: Joseph Gordon-Levitt (“Looper,” “The Dark Knight Rises”) for an anime voiceover … yeah, Disney’s got deep pockets.
The band is on the verge of becoming a galactic sensation when bounty hunter Boba Fett (Tamuera Morrison) returns to take “rebel bass” (get it?) guitarist Geezer back to Tatooine, where is disappointed Jabba the Hutt wants the younger emo Hutt to knock off his musical aspiration foolishness (these kids today, with their rock and roll…). With the key member of the Star Waver rock group kidnapped, Jay is resigned to the fact that they’re only a music band, not soldiers or commandos. However, their music alone might just be the key to rescuing Geezer…
Note: Nice to hear Tamuera Morrison (fresh off his recent stint as Boba Fett in “The Mandalorian”) return to the role, which he will be reprising again in DisneyPlus’ eagerly anticipated “The Book of Boba Fett.”
The band offer to play a pro-bono concert at Jabba’s palace on Tatooine in exchange for a chance to see Geezer before he (and they) are executed. Well, of course, their music brings the house down–even Jabba is tapping his fat, slug tail in rhythm. The song ends and the crowd soon begins to chant for another.
Note: The actual rock performed during Star Waver’s concert isn’t particularly dynamic or interesting, and it feels a bit too contemporary to fit smoothly into the Star Wars universe, which has traditionally featured more exotic sounding music inspired by our own world (the use of Caribbean steel drums mixed with big band-swing in the 1977’s film’s cantina band, for example). Hell, even the Ewoks’ “Yub Nub” song at the (original) end of 1983’s “Return of the Jedi” was more memorable…
Jabba, pressured by his peeps, gives in, and the band is allowed another song. Once again, the uninspired J-pop seems to bring down the house, but soon the song is over–and the question of whether they are to be executed or not is left ambiguous (do it, Jabba–just do it!).
Note: The style of this particular anime is very Sailor Moon/J-Pop, so if those inspirations aren’t your thing, either? Don’t bother. My wife is very much an anime fan (she’s the one who got me to watch some of the Studio Ghibli movies), and even she was a little bored by it all.
Season 1.3: “The Twins.”
Next up is the much more traditionally “Star Wars-y” story called “The Twins,” which almost feels like a redux of the “Force dyad” concept explored in “The Rise of Skywalker” (2019).
Note: For full disclosure, I was one of the few people on the planet who seems to have enjoyed “The Rise of Skywalker” (2019). Yes, it’s a flawed film, but considering its central story was wildly derailed by events of Rian Johnson’s “The Last Jedi” (2017) and was further hobbled by the death of star Carrie Fisher? I think it was okay. Perhaps not the galaxy-shattering success it might’ve been under better circumstances, but I enjoyed it well enough for what it was, not what it could’ve been. Let’s face it; no ending to the nine-movie Skywalker saga was ever going to please all Star Wars fans, not even the much ballyhooed Colin Trevorrow version of the script that would’ve required a much greater involvement from Carrie Fisher.
In a flood of expository dialogue, we learn that Karre (Neil Patrick-Harris) and his twin sister Am (Alison Brie) were created in a lab by harnessing the dark energy of the Force (it’s a midichlorian thing–don’t ask). We also learn from Am that they were raised to serve the Empire in leadership capacities aboard a “Gemini-class” star destroyer–two star destroyers joined together by a giant, planet-buster cannon. Unbeknownst to Am, her brother Karre has gone off-script–turns out he isn’t so evil, after all. While his sister sits smugly on the bridge of her half of their conjoined starship, Karre sneaks away and steals the kyber-crystal power source of the massive superweapon that bridges their ships–a weapon that is capable of destroying a planet, ala “the Death Star” (and the planet-killer star destroyer fleet seen at the end of “The Rise of Skywalker”).
Note: Once again, a Star Wars story hinges on the idea of a planet-busting weapon capable of obliterating entire worlds; this was used in “Star Wars” (1977), “Return of the Jedi” (1983), “The Force Awakens,” (2015), 2016’s”Rogue One” (which admittedly was a prequel to “New Hope”) and yes, “The Rise of Skywalker.” It’s time to retire this way-overused idea in the Star Wars universe.
Well, Karre is eventually captured (after wiping out a squad of troopers with the Force), and confronts his evil sister in the main hangar of their star destroyer, where he faces execution. After shedding his evil outer garb, he is then rescued by his faithful astromech droid, who saves the day by piloting an X-wing fighter into the bay and allowing him to hop into its cockpit and escape.
Note: Once again, executing a prisoner is a giant hangar open to space always makes for a nice, easy escape (see: “The Rise of Skywalker”).
As Karre tries to escape (he’s not a Resistance member, he just wants to be free), his sister Am pulls him back to the outer hull of the ship(s), where they are forced (hehe–see what I did there?) to hash out their family issues in the vacuum of space, which doesn’t seem to cause any breathing difficulties for either of them, let alone their immediate deaths from explosive decompression (?). The two engage in a really long and frankly dull force-lightning duel (once again riffing on Rey’s battle with Palpatine in “The Rise of Skywalker”), which sees Am trying to snatch the stolen kyber crystal from her brother, who’s now running it through the weapons system of his X-wing fighter, which he uses in a counterattack. Turns out much of this was just a ‘Force vision’ to show his sister the error of her ways, but she is undeterred.
Note: There is nothing in this short film that we haven’t seen (and handled better) elsewhere in the Star Wars universe. Once again, kudos for Disney for securing the voice talents of Neil Patrick Harris and Alison Brie (whom I loved in “Mad Men”), but there is little else to recommend about this wholly unoriginal and uninspiring piece of Star Wars fluff. It’s utterly inconsequential in every way. Younger fans might like the color and the energy, but longtime fans have seen all of this before–I guarantee it.
Do Or Do Not–The Question, That Is…
So far, these first three have been a genuine mixed bag. “The Duel” is my easy favorite, with the other two being more hit than miss. I’m also impressed by the high-caliber voice talent used for the English dubs. I haven’t yet decided if I want to try the remaining six, but if any readers care to drop their impressions of episodes 4-9 in the comments section below? I might just watch them, and perhaps do a follow up to this column. I’m always open to changing my mind.
Where To Watch.
All nine “Star Wars Visions” are available to stream exclusively on DisneyPlus. To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current COVID pandemic. The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States are over 682,000 as of this writing (over 4.5 million deaths worldwide), so please wear masks and get vaccinated as soon as possible to prevent infections and protect your loved ones.
May the Force be with us all.