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Thursday, 31 March 2016

Star Wars: Rebels S2

Star Wars Rebels
Series 2

You know, while I do enjoy Star Wars, I've always enjoyed it as a fairly distant, fairly casual fan. I very nearly didn't watch The Force Awakens in cinemas, I never watched The Clone Wars, my exposure to the books was almost entirely composed of about three Aaron Allston books, and I can count the Star Wars video games I've played on the fingers of one hand (and they overwhelmingly come from two series). Rebels kind of skimmed the bottom of my radar for a while: I was aware of it, but I had no particular interest in watching it, and it was really only boredom that prompted me to start watching.

Set in the early days of the Rebellion, years before the Battle of Yavin, Star Wars Rebels follows Ezra Bridger, a young Jedi, and the crew of the Ghost, a Rebel ship currently searching for a place for the Rebellion to set up a base. To make things more difficult, Ezra and his master, Kanan, are being pursued by two of the Empire's Inquisitors, Dark Jedi who are set on killing or capturing them.

We'll start with a technical angle first, because Rebels excels from a technical standpoint. 

Recurring character Rex was apparently a character in Clone Wars.

The 3D animation is fluid, interesting to look at, and has a unique art style to boot, and does an excellent job at rendering faces with a wide variety of emotions - and, happily, every character is animated with their own unique mannerisms, with none of them reacting to anything quite like anybody else. The fight scenes are gorgeous (and the dogfights in space often heartstoppingly beautiful), and the character designs are simple but visually interesting. 

The only place the animation ever falls down is on landscapes, and even then, only on episodes with an obviously lower budget, as those are the episodes that tend to dump the cast in a flat wasteland or in some blandly designed space station - but the animators definitely aren't incapable of rendering beautiful landscapes, as evidenced by the one hour finale, which brought back Malachor in its second visual medium appearance, and animated it beautifully, as a dark, scorched, dreadful place that oozed malevolence and dread from every rock.

The voice acting is strong, with some relatively new faces (such as Taylor Grey as lead character Ezra) joining a handful of well-established actors, including Freddie Prinze Jr as Kanan, Vanessa Marshall as Ezra, and Steve Blum as Zeb. We also get some really big names joining the cast from time to time in brief roles, not least of which is James Earl Jones returning to voice Vader in the handful of episodes he appears in. All of the voice actors do a superb job, and there's nobody whose acting can really be faulted in the show. 

Vader is never more intimidating than he is in Rebels.

The music direction is solid as well, with a soundtrack heavily loaded with classic Star Wars melodies.

In terms of plot, the series is heavily episodic, and while that works great for showcasing each of the individual characters, in a twenty-two episode series it can make it feel like they're never really making any progress. It isn't until almost the end of the series that the crew actually finds a base, making most of the series a recurring instance of 'we thought we had a base, but it didn't pan out,' and the early part of the series especially has the Inquisitors showing up almost constantly, fighting the group to a standstill, and then being escaped from. It's tiring, after a while, as it increasingly starts to seem like nothing really happens, with villains and heroes both failing to make any ground against their enemies.

(The show even seems to recognise this, especially in regard to the Inquisitors, as they don't end up being the villains of the end of their own storyline - instead, Maul and Vader take that role, as if the showrunners had realised that the Inquisitors had lost any scare factor by this point.)

See, the landscapes here are lovely.

That's not to say that those episodic plots aren't enjoyable, though: Each episode is nicely paced and well plotted, with a perfect mix of action to humour to, on occasion, tragedy. They're enjoyable romps, even if there could have done with being a few more arc episodes thrown into the mix. When the show is able to  make big changes, however, it does astoundingly: The hour-long finale is some of the best television I've seen in a while, as the writers let themselves go crazy with making massive sea changes to the show's status quo, allowing them to ramp up the drama to nail-biting levels.

I personally can't wait for the third series, due to start airing later this year. I'm fascinated to see where this series will go - and if I'm being entirely honest, I'm a little bit worried, given that the end of series two seems to have marked the show's inevitable descent into tragedy. With luck, it'll all pan out into at least a happy-ish ending.

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