Star Wars: Visions Captures a Spirit of Creativity Lost in a Cinematic Universe-Obsessed Era

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Star Wars: Visions Captures a Spirit of Creativity Lost in a Cinematic Universe-Obsessed Era

Like many properties in the Disney machine, Star Wars feels quite unmoored at the moment. Despite being set in the boundless reaches of space where characters can use faster-than-light travel to dart across the cosmos in seconds, most modern stories in the series seem to occur on or near that overly-familiar dusty planet where a certain adoptive son of moisture farmers was raised.

While there was a time when a wide variety of storytellers fleshed out the future and the past of this world in a vast network of novels and videogames, weaving yarns set thousands of years ago in a distant Republic or focusing on deep space-conquerors propelled by fleshy body horror, these disparate and often very weird tales have been wiped from the canon. In its place is a carefully curated collection of narratives that come across like déjà vu. Almost all of these occur within a few decades of the original trilogy, resulting in the same characters and conflicts propping up again and again, and while a few projects have made great use of these restrictions, such as the outstanding Andor, the vast majority are ultimately dragged down by the weight of what came before.

However, there’s a recent entry in the sci-fi behemoth that brushes off many of these limitations, tapping into the otherworldly strangeness and underlying ideas that accompanied the franchise before its space wizards and funky-looking aliens were so thoroughly cataloged. I’m referring to the animated anthology series Star Wars: Visions, which received its second batch of episodes earlier this year. Made up of 18 short films produced by animation studios from around the world, these one-off tales embody the tenets that make Star Wars interesting—without the unwavering commitment to tip-toeing around existing lore.

Perhaps the most obvious way these shorts distance themselves from the Gordian knot of established material is that the Skywalkers and their buddies are almost entirely absent. Recent films and TV shows have largely been unable to disentangle themselves from these recurring figures, even though many of these characters, particularly Luke, reached the end of their journeys in the original trilogy. No matter how much money they throw at constructing a CGI doppelganger of a young Mark Hamill, these attempts to force this hero into other stories, such as The Mandalorian, will continue to come across as empty fan service because they feel like a cheap tactic to stoke the passions of fans rather than something tied to any semblance of a compelling arc.

By contrast, most of the protagonists in Visions are entirely unaware of Luke at all, largely because they live in times long before or after his quest. For instance, there’s “Aau’s Song,” which focuses on a young girl living in a mining village. While there are some familiar sights, like the Jedi and their kyber crystals, this story is blissfully disconnected from the types of large-scale battles and political discord we’re generally subject to. Its vibrant backdrops and tactile stop-motion animation thoroughly ground this scenic village built into cliff sides, as breathtaking views transport us to this distant corner of the galaxy. On top of being visually impressive, this episode clues us in on the relationship between Aau and her loving but overprotective father, efficiently telling a complete story in under 20 minutes. Although this tale’s presentation and setting are quite different from what we see elsewhere in the series, its underlying arc of a young person feeling trapped by their surroundings and wanting to have a greater purpose elegantly parallels Luke’s quest without explicitly drudging him up.

While “Aau’s Song” reflects the optimism and hope present in this original journey, my personal favorite in the bunch is “Screecher’s Reach,” which cleverly inverts this story. Cartoon Saloon, the Irish studio behind excellent films such as Wolfwalkers, The Breadwinner, and The Secret of Kells, handled this one, which is evident in its dark fairy-tale aesthetic. It begins with an oppressive tableau of child laborers working long hours in a factory, an entire life of difficult work seemingly laid out before them. Daal is one of these kids, and much like Luke, she dreams of ending up anywhere besides here. One day, she convinces her friends to investigate a local haunted cave, an “adventure” that ends with Daal being forced to kill a half-dead hermit wielding a crackling red lightsaber. Horrified at what she’s done, it’s revealed that she was provoked to enter the cave by a Sith master who promised her a new start if she faced this trial.

This episode ingeniously inverts the premise of the original trilogy, hinting that someone like Luke could have easily been manipulated into joining the bad guys (a fact hinted at when Luke says he wants to join the Imperial Academy in A New Hope), provided it meant being freed from a mundane future. We see how this Sith lord takes advantage of our protagonist’s desperation, forcing Daal to kill her previous apprentice in a cruel initiation ritual that would make it impossible to return to her old life. As her new master descends onto this remote planet, her ship is backlit by a golden halo, biblical imagery conveying that, to Daal, this tutelage may as well be a divine gift, even if she’s joining the side we associate with evil. Cartoon Saloon uses powerful imagery to communicate these ideas succinctly, its brutal turn hitting harder due to the abruptness of its conclusion.

Another way that these shorts reinvigorate past Star Wars motifs is by revisiting the series’ anti-fascist roots from novel perspectives. “The Spy Dancer” envisions a cabaret, clearly inspired by the visual hallmarks of Nazi-occupied France, that is secretly staffed by Rebel Alliance partisans working to undermine their planet’s subjugation. Loi’e, the head dancer and ringleader of this spy ring, experienced the Empire’s cruelty firsthand when an officer kidnapped her son decades ago. By connecting a more intimate conflict to this grand struggle, it personally communicates the despicable methods used by the Empire to enforce human supremacy and destroy local cultures. Similarly, “In the Stars” centers on a pair of siblings whose people have been entirely wiped out by the Empire. These surviving sisters, Koten and Tichina, scrape by until they get the chance to fight back like their parents did. “Lop and Ocho” also focuses on a family torn apart by the Empire’s presence, but in this case, it’s an internal schism that turns loved ones against each other.

A unifying element between these tales of anti-colonial resistance is that they capture the specific, personal ways the Empire has taken from these people and how these wrongdoings tie into greater structures of exploitation that must be toppled at all costs. While many visual hallmarks associated with Star Wars’ bad guys, such as the Stormtrooper’s bone-white helmets or the whine of Tie Fighters, frequently feel more like perfunctory boxes that need to be checked at this point rather than suitably oppressive symbols, here, the malice behind this imagery comes across in the systems of cruelty they enforce. By resurfacing the anti-fascist sentiment at the heart of the original trilogy, much like Andor, these shorts refurbish elements of the series that have since been buried in heaps of lore.

And in addition to approaching these well-worn concepts from new angles, Visions also offers plenty of fresh perspectives and reinterpretations of existing worldbuilding. For instance, “The Village Bride” centers on a culture that has a relationship with the force outside of the usual good and evil dichotomy that the Jedi proselytize. Kevin Penkin’s soaring score combines with verdant backdrops to thoroughly transport us into this far-flung place and its customs. Across these shorts, a wide variety of art styles reflect specific cultural touchstones that draw from this global band of studios, resulting in a diverse range of aesthetics and viewpoints. A wide variety of forms bring these depictions to life, including a blend of traditional animation, stop-motion, and 3D animation, resulting in a compilation that not only tackles the series’ ideas from new vantage points, but that also captures a sense of visual wonder that has mostly dissipated from this decades-old property.

Sure, not every one of these shorts is a winner. A few crib too closely to familiar dynamics (there are a lot of episodes about duels between Jedi and Sith), and others struggle to wring something substantial out of their brief runtimes. Like most anthologies, there are noticeable peaks and valleys. But as a whole, there is something deeply refreshing about how these episodes are mostly disconnected from the intricacies of established storylines.

After the MCU’s success, it feels as though rightsholders collectively concluded that the way to stoke excitement for these mega-franchises is to weave increasingly dense and carefully curated canons where every loose end is snipped or tied into the next story thread. Unfortunately, the inevitable result of this approach is a mess that only diehards can untangle. The recently aired Ahsoka is a perfect example of this situation. Going into that show, I thought I was thoroughly prepared, having completed all 133 episodes of Star Wars: The Clone Wars, where Ahsoka was first introduced. Little did I know that this latest program also required watching another nearly 100-episode series, Rebels, as its conflicts and emotional stakes begin in media res from that tale. I’m not sure how many people were able to brush past this and watch it regardless, but at least for me, I found it difficult to become invested without this prior knowledge and bounced off entirely. The recent handling of the MCU is drawing similar criticisms, with some pointing to The Marvels’ lackluster opening box office as a symptom of audiences being unable to keep up with the avalanche of films and TV shows needed to stay up to date.

And perhaps even worse than requiring all this prep, this obsession with wrapping everything tidily into existing lore is profoundly limiting for the creatives involved. By contrast, Visions offers a glimpse into an alternate universe where, instead of trying to fit everything perfectly within these confines, storytellers are granted much more space to operate, setting their tales wherever they want across time and space. And, of course, as previously mentioned, it’s also nice to see fresh faces outside of the dozen or so characters that have been mercilessly regurgitated (I’m still not over that somehow, Palpatine returned). Much of this creative license likely extends from the decreased financial risk associated with these shorts, which undoubtedly cost a fraction of live-action films like the $275 million Solo. But, as that movie’s lackluster fiscal performance indicated, making endless “safe” bets isn’t necessarily the best course either, as eventually, people become too bored to show up.

These days, it can feel increasingly difficult to find blockbuster media that isn’t so thoroughly entrenched in a complicated existing story. The obsession with cinematic universes comes across like a treadmill meant to keep fans endlessly consuming the next thing, each an only slightly different variation of what came before. This approach is exhausting, and in the case of Star Wars, has diminished the potential of a nearly limitless sci-fi backdrop. By contrast, Visions is refreshingly untethered from much of this previous space junk. It accomplishes something similar to the original trilogy, a series of movies whose iconography is now so deeply entrenched that it’s difficult to imagine that its world once felt weird, unknowable, and full of allusions that excited the imagination. These animated shorts capture that same spirit of creativity, making this galaxy far, far away feel as distant as it should.

Elijah Gonzalez is an assistant TV Editor for Paste Magazine. In addition to watching the latest on the small screen, he also loves videogames, film, and creating large lists of media he’ll probably never actually get to. 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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