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Disney+'s Star Wars: Visions is proof that IP-bound franchises can successfully take risks

  • "In a world where recognizable characters and IP are all the rage, Visions is all the better for how little it tries to pander in that direction," says Karen Han of the series of nine Star Wars Japanese anime short films. Han adds: "Most of the spin-offs, sequels, and reboots that have become de rigueur in modern pop culture have failed to distinguish themselves as anything but capitalizations on nostalgia. Star Wars: Visions, on the other hand, blows any and all expectations out of the water. The new series, a collection of nine animated short films from some of the biggest names in anime (Kamikaze Douga, Geno Studio, Studio Colorido, Studio Trigger, Kinema Citrus, Science SARU, and Production I.G. were all involved), is a breath of fresh air, proving just what is possible when creators are given the freedom to break the rules rather than forced to stick to an established template. Each short tells a different story, from that of a droid who longs to be a Jedi to a Tatooine rock band struggling to achieve fame. Some broad themes overlap—a few of the shorts involve villages under the thumb of the Empire—but the distinct visual styles and narrative focuses (a wanderer helping struggling townspeople versus a conflict between family members as to how to deal with occupation, for example) keep Visions from feeling repetitive. On a purely visual level, Visions is breathtaking. These shorts show us the Star Wars universe in a way that we’ve never seen it before. The short 'The Duel,' for instance, is almost entirely black and white, right up until lightsabers are drawn, and the characters are rendered so stylishly (with crosshatching and superimposed film grain) that it does almost feel like you’re watching an old samurai movie. It’s impossible to imagine any Star Wars movie taking such risks with its visuals, let alone allowing the shenanigans that ensue with said duel. One of the characters wields a device that divides the beams of their lightsaber, turning it into a sort of deadly umbrella. In another short, a character is capable of wielding her lightsabers like whips. That is to say, these artists are taking full creative license, playing fast and loose with the Star Wars universe’s lore in favor of telling as dynamic a story as possible."


    • Star Wars: Visions is proof that the Star Wars franchise can go beyond the Skywalker saga: "In its 44-year history, Star Wars has spawned more offshoots and spinoffs than clone troopers on Kamino," says Toussaint Egan. "But since acquiring Lucasfilm in 2012, Disney and the new Lucasfilm regime have struggled to pin down, let alone expand on, the definition of Star Wars. The struggle is most evident in the troubled productions and scattershot reception of Rogue One and Solo. Audiences want more Star Wars stories, but what 'more Star Wars' means has never been as clear as, say, the Marvel Studios equation. As a whole, the series is defined as much by its iconography as it is by its unifying themes of hope, perseverance, familial love, and bravery in the face of temptation and self-doubt. While those core tenets are more or less uncontested by the fanbase, the specifics of the stories in which those themes manifest creates contention. There is a vocal base of fans who simply want new stories featuring Luke, Leia, and Han Solo, and if not that, then stories that intersect or hew close to the established lore of the Skywalker Saga stories. Even Jon Favreau’s space western TV series The Mandalorian, which began as an episodic story focused on wholly new characters to the franchise, inevitably circled back to incorporate Luke Skywalker and Boba Fett in its second season. There are others who believe that the Star Wars universe’s future lies at the fringes of the unknown and unfamiliar, stories that feature all-new characters whose arcs elaborate on and dissect the foundational elements of the series. Many of those people are involved with Star Wars today; the impetus of Lucasfilm’s High Republic publishing initiative was to carve out space on the galactic timeline that could be wholly original and free of the burden to connect back to a core story. With how prolonged and embattled the debate between these two camps of thought has been in the wake of the aforementioned sequel trilogy, the only thing that anyone can seem to agree on anymore is that lightsabers are cool. Each installment of Star Wars: Visions splits the difference between these polar interpretations of the franchise, telling stories that feel deeply rooted in both the conventions of anime storytelling and the animating principles of Star Wars itself."
    • Star Wars: Visions is one of, if not the best, titles — television, film, or otherwise — to come out of the sci-fi franchise’s era under Disney ownership: "It’s a beautifully animated and smartly written homage to everything that fans love about Star Wars, as well as the rare kind of installment in a multi-billion dollar IP that doesn’t feel like it was created by committee or focus-tested until all the artistry has been stripped away," says Tyler Hersko. "If you’re a Star Wars fan who has become apathetic toward lightsabers and the Force in recent years, Visions could remind you about what made you love the franchise in the first place. That’s a lot of extremely high praise, but Visions earns it over the course of its nine brief episodes." He adds: "Visions excels at getting viewers emotionally invested in each character they meet despite their limited screen time. That’s all the more impressive, given the series’ brevity; the episodes are short — ranging from around 13 to 21 minutes each — and though some of them are bound to leave viewers wanting to know what happens next, they all tell satisfying, self-contained stories."
    • Star Wars: Visions is wonderful, a pleasure to watch from start to finish, even if it sometimes retreads familiar ground from one installment to the next: "Visions‘ over-reliance on Jedi stories is more than fair," says John Saavedra. "After all, George Lucas heavily borrowed from real samurai history and traditions for his laser sword-brandishing space wizards. It’s only right that the seven Japanese animation studios assembled to bring Visions to life should get a chance to reinterpret Jedi lore now. I won’t be going into heavy spoilers in this review, as you should really go into each of these stories fresh. Plus, since most of the shorts are less than 20 minutes long, revealing even the smallest twists can give whole episodes away. But what I will say is that each short does an excellent job of capturing the classic feel of Star Wars while also offering something new, whether it’s visually, thematically, or even just a new perspective on a familiar situation. I’m not exaggerating when I say there isn’t a bad film in this collection, but there are of course some absolute standouts that you’ll want to come back to once or twice a year from here on out."
    • The best thing about Visions is it didn't need to fit Star Wars' timeline: "All of these quirks would require some serious retconning if Disney hadn’t sidestepped complications by giving Visions its own 'instance' of Star Wars to mold," says Ben Lindbergh. "That Visions is divorced from the Star Wars timeline while Marvel’s messy and mischievous What If…? counts as canon underscores the relative rigidity of storytelling in Star Wars, which for better or worse tends to steer clear of comic-book conventions like time travel and the multiverse. Even so, it’s nice to see Disney dipping its toes into irreverent, off-topic territory like the Legends timeline (and its own Jedi droids) once did. It’s also a relief not to nitpick continuity or speculate about cameos or ramifications for the franchise. Visions is an invitation to keep your concentration here and now."
    • Star Wars: Visions recaptures the old magic of the Star Wars franchise: "At its best, Star Wars feels infinite," says Angie Han. "The galaxy far, far away sprawls in all directions and dimensions like it’s always been there, encompassing more stars and planets and stories than it’s possible to count. The actual Star Wars productions, however, don’t always live up to this potential. Too often, they contract into a tight orbit around a small cluster of families in the name of serialized storytelling and fan service. In the process they render everything around that orbit only as important as it is relevant to plotlines we already know very well. So what a delight it is that Disney+’s new animated anthology Star Wars: Visions embraces the limitless wonder of this galaxy, reaffirming it as one where anything can happen to anyone. The only real connective tissue between its episodes is a love of Star Wars that runs so deep it’s bound to make new fans of the young and uninitiated, and remind old fans why they fell so hard for this universe in the first place. Touted as the franchise’s first venture into anime, Star Wars: Visions consists of nine vignettes produced by seven Japanese anime studios. Each installment focuses on a different cast of characters in a different setting, few of them familiar to Star Wars fans. The episodes vary wildly in tone, style and even sound, but none overstay their welcome, clocking in at just 13 to 22 minutes each."
    • Japanese anime brings a new kind of beauty to Star Wars: "Animation has been a significant segment of the Star Wars business and story line, primarily through the Clone Wars films and series, including the current Disney+ show Star Wars: The Bad Batch," says Mike Hale. "But it has never had the two-dimensional, handcrafted beauty you’ll find throughout the chapters of Visions, not to mention the visual variety, which makes it easy to take in the films in a single two-and-a-half-hour sitting...Anime as a genre and Star Wars as a franchise are insular, highly formalized creative worlds with traditions and expectations that can be smothering. But they have always influenced each other, and there are intersections that are apparent in the films. Lucas’s core concept of the Force aligns with the eco-romanticism prevalent in science-fiction and fantasy anime. The Jedi knights, with their robes and lightsabers, are samurai by another name. And the two traditions share an inordinate fondness for chirping robotic helpmates. These elements show up in varying configurations throughout the nine films. What varies is the mix: the degree to which the films feel like Star Wars shorts that happen to have anime character designs, or like anime shorts that happen to borrow Star Wars motifs."
    • Jordan Fisher on voicing his Jedi Padawan character: “Dan gave me young Obi-Wan vibes a lot, especially his relationship with his master, Tajin Crosser,” he says. “There’s a really beautiful back and forth between the two of them that’s really human-oriented and heart-based that’s nice to explore in the Star Wars space. We haven’t really had that with any big Star Wars characters since Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan in The Phantom Menace. So to see a really healthy master and Padawan relationship in that way was fun to do, especially as a Star Wars nerd.”
    • Visions marked the first time outsiders from any country were given this sort of access to the themes, ships, characters and even signature sounds of the Star Wars franchise. "I really wanted to use the original lightsaber sounds,” said Kenji Kamiyama, the director of “The Ninth Jedi,” the fifth episode in the series. “Kids all over the world mimic that very distinctive sound effect when they play Jedi, and I felt we couldn’t change that sound in our short.”
    • Star Wars: Visons returns George Lucas' franchise to its Japanese roots: “Star Wars has been so influenced by Japanese culture from Kurosawa films (The Hidden Fortress) to jidaigeki (period samurai) films (from which the Jedi name is derived) to Zen Budhism and its impact on the Force,” said showrunner James Waugh. “We’ve been talking about doing (Star Wars anime) for a long time, but we couldn’t make it happen until the force of nature that’s Disney+.”

    TOPICS: Star Wars: Visions, Disney+, James Waugh, Star Wars