The pilot for Star Wars Rebels is by no means perfect. It's hampered by funny-looking character designs, and it's proto-Rebellion crew isn't quite compelling yet. But it does have a sense of adventure that reminds us of A New Hope—and that's enough to keep us interested.
Last night, the Rebels pilot movie, Spark of Rebellion, aired on television, showing us the state of the Galaxy in the wake of Revenge of the Sith. We meet Ezra, a Force-sensitive street rat who has spent his years on Lothal looking out for Numero Uno—at least until he crosses paths with the crew of the Ghost. The Ghost, Ezra quickly discovers, houses a crew of misfits who don't fit into the new Galactic order: Hera, the maternal pilot, Kanan, a rogue Jedi who survived the events of Episode III, a grumpy but soft-hearted warrior, Sabine, a punky Mandalorian who is part activist artist, part demolitions expert, and Chopper, a sassy astromech who would get all the good lines if he wasn't limited to beeps and squeals. The Ghost's crew has made it their life's mission to spit in the eye of the Empire while helping the helpless. They're not the Rebellion yet, but they're certain to be among its founding members.
While the visuals are somewhat based on Ralph McQuarrie's original Star Wars concept art (Zeb, in particular, is modeled on an early Wookiee design), Rebels is a bit lacking in the design department. Ezra's design is the most offensive, with eyes that are the wrong color of blue and hair that looks on the verge of gaining sentience. And the decision to make Lothal permanently hazy might have been a world-building tactic, but the planet ends up looking strangely unfinished. It's all the more striking when juxtaposed against the Imperial interiors, where everything is rendered in sharp reds, grays, and blacks and the shine and grime on the Stormtroopers' armor is strangely beautiful.
The character animation is a bit flat, but that's a department where I'm confident Rebels will improve. One thing that I always noticed with Lucasfilm's last CG series, Clone Wars, was that the character animation became richer as the characters themselves grew. I've always suspect that, in addition to the animators simply becoming more skilled, their performances improved as they got to knew their characters better. We don't really know much about these characters beyond the very basics, and hopefully as their stories and personalities develop, so will the animation.
But for all its faults, Rebels truly does feel like a spiritual successor to the original trilogy, A New Hope in particular. Yes, it's filled with callbacks (and really, what piece of Star Wars media isn't filled with callbacks), but more importantly, it's about the thrill of adventure and of being the mosquito that nags at the sluggish beast. Ezra is nowhere near Luke Skywalker's farm boy, but when his eyes widen at the realization that yes, he is in space, it's transporting. Even in the Star Wars universe, many people never expect to set foot off their own planet, and having a character who doesn't take space travel for granted lets us imagine the wonders of stepping aboard the Ghost ourselves.
Plus, the show manages to give weight to things that have, in the Star Wars universe, become old hat. For example, this is the first time in a while that a lightsaber has felt dangerous—both as something that might, ahem, cut one's arm off and as a symbol of the bygone era of the Republic.
And like Han Solo and Chewy of old, the crew of the Ghost must live by their wits, using dubious intelligence, Imperial protocols, and a bit of luck to get by. And what's important isn't that they're (to borrow a phrase from another crew of spacefaring misfits) big damn heroes; it's that they care at all. Hope, we're meant to understand, is in short supply, and people who can do something so small as think of other sentient beings are truly inspirational.
Rebels also has some of the qualities that made Clone Wars so great, notably excellent action direction (that speeder sequence in the beginning was particular fun) and a good sense of humor. And Rebels has the added benefit of taking us into the familiar territory of the Empire. The production team has said time and again that they have been itching to tell a story set during the Imperial reign, and it shows. The characters, the settings, even the animation all feel richer when we're dealing with the Empire. It's further evidence that, with a bit of spit and polish, Rebels could turn out to be the successor to the original trilogy we've been looking for.