There was a palpable disturbance in the Force in late 2012, when Disney announced that it had acquired Lucasfilm, including the expansive Star Wars franchise, for a hefty $4.05 billion. What in the name of Obi-Wan would this mean for the series, including the Expanded Universe? You got your first taste of it last week, when the Disney Channel animated series Phineas and Ferb unleashed a Star Wars crossover episode. But the first real test will come in October with the unveiling of the CGI animated series Star Wars Rebels, also airing on the Disney Channel.
Unlike the complicated plot lines and massive scope of Star Wars: The Clone Wars, this animated series cuts a clear path through the galaxy. Set 14 years after the events of Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith and five years before Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, it traces the exploits of a ragtag band of rebels aboard the spaceship Ghost who square off against the Galactic Empire. If that all sounds familiar, well, it’s meant to. Series creator Simon Kinberg, the writer/producer of X-Men: Days of Future Past, and executive producer Dave Filoni (supervising director on Clone Wars), want it to recapture the magic of the original 1977 Star Wars film.
“It’s really about five people on a ship that takes place against the backdrop of this massive galaxy of characters and villains and Stormtroopers and battleships—but it is ultimately a little story,” says Kinberg, who’s also serving as a creative consultant on J.J. Abrams’ upcoming Star Wars Episode VII.
Rebels is also lighter in tone than the more politically complex Clone Wars. “It’s not as political in terms of government politics as the prequels, it’s more political in the sense of morality, like the original movies,” adds Kinberg.
The show also introduces several new characters to the Star Wars Universe. It centers on Kanan Jarrus (voiced by Freddie Prinze Jr.), a wisecracking AWOL Jedi and leader of the Ghost crew. He’s joined by a 14-year-old street urchin, Ezra (Taylor Gray), who’s unaware of his hold over the Force; Zeb (Steve Blum), the group’s muscle—and resident Chewbacca; Hera (Vanessa Marshall), pilot and owner of Ghost; Sabine (Tiya Sircar), a Mandalorian explosives expert and Banksy-esque graffiti artist; and a grumpy, pessimistic droid named Chopper. Both Zeb and Chopper were modeled on Ralph McQuarrie’s conceptual designs for Chewbacca and R2-D2, respectively.
Rebels is set during the dark days of the Empire’s fascist expansion, as they track down and kill the last of the Jedi Knights. Meanwhile, a tiny rebellion is brewing—the kernel, it seems, for the future Rebel Alliance. According to Kinberg, it’s a bit like the American Revolution. “You had this tiny little group of people rebelling against an empire that had basically colonized most of the known world,” he says. “The insanity of that! The notion that a couple people could turn into a bunch of people, a bunch of towns, and eventually actually take a country back.”
Weighing in on the dark side is the Inquisitor (Jason Isaacs), a double-bladed lightsaber-wielding Pau’an who’s dispatched by Darth Vader to pick off Jedi’s, and Agent Kallus (David Oyelowo), a Gestapo-esque agent from the ISB (Imperial Security Bureau). In Rebels, the Jedi are in hiding after the enforcement of Order 66—legislation pushed forth by Chancellor Palpatine calling for the extermination of all Jedi officers “acting against the interests of the Republic.” The Empire has manipulated the general populous into believing that the Jedi are traitorous terrorists. “The Empire manipulates the truth in Rebels,” says Kinberg. “They are actually using the media around the galaxy to manipulate events and make people feel they have more power than they do.”
Jedi Kanan is also in hiding after his master was killed due to Order 66. “What they’re doing with Kanan is risky,” says Prinze Jr. “He’s cocky, he’s arrogant at times. That’s not the Jedi way! He was a teenager when his master was taken away. At that moment, his growth in the force? Stunted! His emotional growth? Stunted! Mental growth? Stunted! All he did was grow vertically. He’s undisciplined, and makes mistakes that he pays for every single time.”
Prinze loves Star Wars and has a big scar on his chin to prove it. He needed stitches after a lightsaber battle with his brother when he was in the third grade. “I jumped off my roof when I was 10 because I was sure that The Force would stop me,” says Prinze. Originally, Prinze says he thought he was auditioning for a show called Wolf Pack. “I saw the character art and I realized this was Star Wars… I was like, Oh My God!”
And Rebels is in good hands with Kinberg, who’s not only one of the most in-demand screenwriters in Hollywood these days, writing and producing X-Men: Days of Future Past and the upcoming flicks X-Men: Apocalypse, The Fantastic Four, Magic: The Gathering, and Gambit, but also a massive fan of the original films. “Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back is the best Star Wars movie and it’s my favorite movie of all time,” he says. “I think there was a sophistication to those movies and a complexity to them emotionally that was unique—the density of those characters, the complexity of the backstories. If there’s an original story that’s touched culture in the last 100 years, you’d be hard-pressed to think of one that has a broader reach than Star Wars.”
In fact, Lucasfilm trusts Kinberg so implicitly in terms of storytelling that they don’t lay a finger on his scripts. “In movies and TV that doesn’t happen because of the million executives that all want their finger on it, and they all have really bad notes,” says Prinze Jr. “They really screw up TV shows and writers get the blame. But they trust Simon and rightfully so. It’s really, really good. I don’t sell crap that I don’t like.”
Clips of Rebels, which will premiere with an hour-long episode in October, were shown last weekend at San Diego Comic-Con to a rapturous reception. The animation possesses the high production quality you’d expect from a Lucasfilm product, and should hold you over ‘til J.J. Abrams’ space opera explodes onto screens on Dec. 18, 2015.