Star Wars: Tales of the Empire Is Another Winner from Lucasfilm Animation

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Star Wars: Tales of the Empire Is Another Winner from Lucasfilm Animation

While Star Wars has been absent from the big screen since the disastrous Rise of Skywalker made several baffling decisions that still have me scratching my head, since then, there’s been a flood of TV shows aimed at keeping the franchise (and Disney+) afloat: Andor, The Mandalorian, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Ahsoka, the final season of The Clone Wars, The Bad Batch, Visions, and more. But one that feels like it may have been lost in this deluge of waving lightsabers and green babies is Tales of the Jedi, an ultra-short animated series made up of six 15-ish minute episodes that was a quiet standout in this increasingly cluttered universe. Coinciding with the pun holiday, May 4th, we now have a follow-up to it in Tales of the Empire, which makes the most of its short runtime through impressive animation and efficient visual storytelling that effectively places us in the bleak reality of this world’s darkest days.

We follow two characters during the fall of the Galactic Republic and the rise of the Empire: Morgan Elsbeth, a former Nightsister turned Imperial agent, and Barriss Offee, a fallen Jedi. If you haven’t been fully immersed in far too many Star Wars TV shows (in this case, The Clone Wars, The Mandalorian, and Ahsoka are most relevant), these characters will very much seem like deep cuts, but thankfully, these episodes concisely set up their circumstances, so even those who’ve never heard the term “Filoniverse” should be able to enjoy these tales.

In Morgan’s three-episode arc, we see the tragedy that eventually caused her to drift into the Empire’s orbit. The first few scenes immediately place us in the middle of widespread destruction, wordlessly and efficiently showing why she becomes the person we see later. I will be honest that Morgan isn’t the first character I’d pick to focus on from the Star Wars mythos, but the first episode in the batch makes a solid case for this decision by depicting how her rage eventually becomes an imperial weapon. While the next two episodes centering on her aren’t quite as strong, in large part because her story is ultimately hemmed in by being a prequel to a storyline from The Mandalorian, each of them does a better job than I expected in fleshing out someone who was essentially a villain of the week.

That said, Barriss’ tale is where the show’s storytelling fully shines, following this ex-Jedi as her Force powers and previous opposition to the Order make her a prime candidate for the Empire’s crackdown on opposition. She’s portrayed in a relatively unique light for the franchise, which frequently casts its Force users in simplistic terms of Good or Evil, and is instead rendered as someone who holds on to a tiny vestige of morality even as she’s swallowed up by this evil government that weaponizes fear. Overall, her arc is compelling and is structured in a clever way that succinctly captures her emotional journey. Although I’ll admit that I was already familiar with Bariss from The Clone Wars show, meaning I had a bit of a head start in being invested in the character, it’s less the particulars of the plot that matter here and more the pathos they convey through the visuals.

A unifying element across these episodes and the Tales of the Jedi is their strong direction and rock-solid pacing. It’s tough to tell a “complete” story in 15 minutes, but through confident visual storytelling and a de-emphasis on dialogue, they cut to the core of what it’s like to live under the Empire’s boot-heel. A lot of this efficiency comes from the use of striking compositions that quickly sum up a place or a character’s mental state, and while these episodes are brief, they never rush these scenes, instead luxuriating in what these people are experiencing to great effect. Dave Filioni, the episode directors, and the storyboarders have a firm handle on when to zoom in on a character’s face to express their pain or provide a wide shot that portrays the oppressive scale of these bad guys’ power.

And it also helps that, in a technical sense, this series is another looker from Lucasfilm Animation, who’ve continued to elevate their work from The Clone Wars. These impressively detailed backdrops get across the feel of different locales, whether that’s the sleek, clean architecture of the fascist Empire or the gritty, lo-fi look that defines the Outer Rim. On top of this, these vistas frequently seem ripped from a realist landscape painting, the muted colors and stark imagery communicating the somber state of the world and the people scraping out a living within it. In bowed heads and destroyed homes, we can sense the lingering shadow of Imperial Star Destroyers.

In motion, things look just as impressive. While this series is defined by slower pacing, when the lightsabers come out, the studio flexes their significant know-how to make these fights feel exciting and sometimes frightening. In one scene, Morgan duels against a would-be assassin in a thrilling, well-choreographed battle on a rampart. In another, we watch as a red saber-wielding fiend cuts down civilians in a brutal display that drives home imperial cruelty. At one point, Barriss is forced to participate in a death fight that degrades everyone involved and emphasizes how things have fallen with the destruction of the Jedi. On top of this, the studio continues to not only nail acrobatics, swordplay, and action, but also deliver more subtle animation that captures these characters’ emotional turns.

In the grand scheme of things, Tales of the Empires’ brief runtime and animated format probably means it will be brushed aside somewhat in the unending Star Wars blitz. After all, the much-hyped Acolyte is coming out in a few weeks, with Skeleton Crew later this year, a big new videogame in August, and more on the horizon. However, much like Visions (Disney+’s other animated anthology series), Tales of the Empire uses its vignettes to tell sharp, interesting stories that frankly put many of the franchise’s meandering live-action shows to shame (except for Andor, that one rules). While the first trio of episodes isn’t as strong as the second, they’re all elevated by contemplative visuals that deliver a fittingly solemn atmosphere. All in all, thanks to efficient storytelling and evocative aesthetics, the series demonstrates that there’s still plenty worth experiencing in this galaxy far, far away.

Star Wars: Tales of the Empire premieres Saturday, May 4th on Disney+. 

Elijah Gonzalez is an assistant Games and TV Editor for Paste Magazine. In addition to playing and watching the latest on the small screen, he also loves film, creating large lists of media he’ll probably never actually get to, and dreaming of the day he finally gets through all the Like a Dragon games. You can follow him on Twitter @eli_gonzalez11.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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