Review by C.J. Bunce
This year for its annual Star Wars Day (May the Fourth) Lucasfilm upped its game for the second season of the animated anthology series Star Wars: Visions, tapping some incredible stories with some particularly strong heroines in new environments that could change the course of the Star Wars brand if anyone is paying attention. Just like Star Trek seems to be stuck mining the same old villains for new stories, Star Wars is plagued with the Empire as its go-to villain, in what is supposed to be a giant-sized galaxy of storytelling opportunity.
This season provides eight stories from international creators that prove compelling, engaging Star Wars tales don’t need to rely on Tatooine and its denizens and visitors being the center of the galaxy time and time again. Any one of these stories could ignite its own series in the galaxy far, far away. It’s easily a contender for the year’s best anthology series, and certainly one of the most imaginative creations this year, although one strange choice is the recurring, sad theme of separating families across the films.
The first film is titled Sith and comes from Rodrigo Blaas at El Guiri. Remember the lyrics, “I met him in a swamp down in Dagobah…”? This story doesn’t star Yoda, but Lola, a fantastically badass new cyborg, exciting enough to merit her own adventures. She is what we’d call a modern artist, stuck alone except with the camaraderie of a tripod droid called E2, with daily missions that evoke the Tom Cruise character in Oblivion. To pass the time she creates Jackson Pollack-inspired artwork in amazing colors, which continue to be effused by darkness, telegraphing a hidden story of her past. She has made some type of devil’s bargain, and viewers learn this when a group of Sith come to seek their payment. The key Sith is a lifelike rendering, a truly chilling character to start off the series. Viewers are treated to a literal battle of light and darkness (which also lets the audience know this anthology is probably too violent for little kids).
Next is Cartoon Saloon’s Screecher’s Reach, which features an art style with the primitive touch of a children’s picture book. It’s about a group of preteens (like we can imagine of Luke, Biggs, and his friends) finding something to occupy their time. It’s that trope of kids wanting to leave their planet behind for something more. They visit a dark cave called Screecher’s Reach to see a ghost. But what dark force lives within? Meet a new character named Daal in a Miyazaki-inspired fantasy world, with the voice of Anjelica Huston unfortunately under-utilized, although this is probably the least spectacular entry of the season.
Punkrobot’s In the Stars is devastatingly bleak and melancholy, illustrating both the hopelessness of being on the laser side of the Death Star, mirroring the imperialist overtaking of Mesoamerica with the Empire’s destruction of a planet for its water. It also could be a tale of Mandalore’s fall. A girl named Tichona tries to use the Force to defeat a TIE Fighter. Older sister Koten tries to teach survival to a younger sister. But can the last two survivors of a doomed planet make a mark against the mighty Empire?
I Am Your Mother is the eagerly awaited entry of Academy Award winning Aardman Animation in the world of Star Wars. And it does not fail to dazzle, complete with that dry British humor and an over-the-top Denis Lawson back as the voice of a Wedge Antilles who is a little infatuated with his own success (he did help destroy that first Death Star, after all). It’s a Hanna City flight academy celebration inviting not just kid podracers but families to compete for fun. Anni, her mom, and droid Zed Z-1 take center stage. Anni’s mom has a hunk of junk space tug and Anni doesn’t tell her about the contest, but the bad attitude of a cocky and posh mom and daughter bring daughter and mom together. It’s exactly what you’d expect from Aardman. Good stuff.
Journey to the Dark Head hails from Korean Studio Mir. As a child, young Asa believes something quite unusual–that the giant Argonath-inspired statues control the power of light and dark, and that if she could cut off the dark head she could change the world. She never veers from this view and later in life she is paired with a young Jedi to fulfill her mission, only to come face-to-face with the Dark Side. This story has the least of the scripts of the season, but offers some interesting visuals. Daniel Dae Kim is the voice of a Sith Lord.
French studio La Cashette leans into all things France in The Spy Dancer. A heterochromic cabaret dancer named Loi’e is really a spy, established to infiltrate Imperial guests or “Imps” in this Casablanca-esque short feature. This is the most Disney-looking of anything we’ve seen from Disney animators in a while, with that classic fantasy of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (also France), Aladdin, or Tarzan, just with the addition of an evil droid. The characters also have a Don Bluth look in what amounts to a flip of the Skywalker story. It’s another entry that merely overlays historical events over a Star Wars character set, here the French Resistance during World War II.
The Bandits of Golak was created by 88 Pictures, a Snowpiercer meets Star Wars. It’s a beautiful story using Pakistani or Indian cultural influences and voices with impressive visuals. When a girl named Rani exhibits skills with the Force on a train, she’s seen by the wrong people. A boy named Charuk helps when Rani is pursued. There’s good imagery that evokes the heist from Solo: A Story Wars Story and the desert train of The Mandalorian, with lots of expendable stormtroopers. It makes for a nice vintage action serial, with one of Star Wars’ best lightsaber duels yet.
The final two films home in on mining kyber crystals–the gems that Jedis use to power lightsabers. The Pit was created by both D’Art Shtajio and Lucasfilm, featuring a young boy named Crux who is one of many forced to dig for kyber crystals (think blood diamonds). It sports an anime, Miyazaki vibe, and its highlight is a nice use of time lapse in animation. When the dig site has been exhausted, the slave labor is left with no food, water, or shelter, and must decide their own fates. Story-wise, this is the most cryptic, sharing more of an idea than a fleshed out plot.
Aau’s Song was designed by South African and Ireland-based Triggerfish Animation Studios. Lucasfilm may have saved the best film for last, although this film is the least Star Wars-y. A girl named Aau is prevented from singing in the kyber mines in this quaint and cute stop-motion animated story made with fuzzy, fabric, kawaii anthropomorphic figures. The story includes a woman named Kratu who looks like a female Cad Bane, with a presence on par with striking figures of Star Wars animation’s past, like Asajj Ventress. Tumisho Masha is the standout voice actor of the season, putting power into the character Abat. The visuals here stand out more than anything else in the season–truly spectacular with the feel of 3D. It carries the most imaginative music of these nine films, with the cutest character since Baby Yoda in its young star Aau.
Aau’s Song, Sith, I Am Your Mother, and The Bandits of Golak top our list for the season, but all the films are worthy of your time and the Star Wars mythos. Full of good ideas and great characters, and fodder for Disney and Lucasfilm to start thinking outside the box and expanding the galaxy into places beyond Imperial Nazi-types and stormtrooper variant bad guys, Star Wars: Visions is streaming now on Disney+.