This stunning new take on the beloved Star Wars universe is undeniably ambitious and unique. Star Wars: Visions is like nothing we have seen from the franchise to date. It dives head first into the samurai western genre that inspired George Lucas when he created the original trilogy. From a certain point of view, Star Wars: Visions is the purest form of the franchise to date, but as individual stories created by seven different anime studios, the anthology takes much liberty with the details of the loved Star Wars Universe.
Some of these unique tales feel very much like the Star Wars we know and love with beautiful stylistic flares, but others feel like nothing familiar. One thing that doesn’t change is the ever constant theme of unambiguous good versus evil.
Star Wars: Visions is available to stream now on Disney+.
Story – Good and Evil
Each individual episode within the Star Wars: Visions anthology has a completely new set of characters that mostly fit loosely into the Star Wars timeline somewhere after the fall of the Jedi and the rise of the Empire. While this has been confirmed to lie outside the accepted Disney canon, we see many elements of the Empire either in its prime or in the aftermath of its destruction.
The recurring theme, not only in Star Wars: Visions, but all of Star Wars, is the line between good and evil. There is a very good guy, and a very bad guy. A heavy emphasis on rebelling against an oppressive regime features in many of the episodes. This is obviously the entire concept of the original trilogy and has been a huge theme of the franchise since the beginning. It is done well here and show an appreciation for the soul of Star Wars, but I was left wanting something more unique.
The antagonists weren’t always the Empire though, which was refreshing. The first episode, The Duel, tells the story of a poor village taken hostage by a gang of bandits only to be rescued by a Ronin Sith killer. This episode in particular felt uniquely Japanese in its storytelling. Some may recognize these elements from American western films, but those tropes were adopted from classic Samurai films such as Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai.
At some point the episodes start to feel a little repetitive. Most of them culminate in a lightsaber duel between Jedi, or at least “good” force wielder, and Sith. I mean, it’s Star Wars, so that’s not entirely unexpected, but considering how unique this anthology is I figured there would be slightly more variety in the plot of individual episodes. That’s not to say they are all exactly the same, but it could have been more interesting to experiment with other types of characters besides Jedi and Sith.
Characters and Performance – Fast Attraction
There is not a lot of time to get attached to the many brand new characters brought to life in Star Wars: Visions. Only the second episode, Tatooine Rhapsody, features any characters that Star Wars fans will recognize, although the main characters of this episode are new as well. We really only get a few moments of Star Wars fan favorite Boba Fett and even less time with some of Jabba the Hutt’s other recognizable crew from the original trilogy.
The rest of the episodes feature all new characters that always make an impression and are often lovable in many ways. Star Wars: Visions explores new types of characters we haven’t seen, such as force-using droids and retired Sith. Unfortunately, like the plots of each episode, many of the characters feel too similar. There is usually a young Jedi-to-be and a nefarious red-saber wielding killer. This is a staple in George Lucas’s simple vision of good defeating evil and has a time honored place in Star Wars story telling.
The truly great characters of the series are the ones that fall outside of the diametric archetypes. The most interesting character of the series is the central character in the first episode. A Sith killer inspired by the legends of masterless samurai known as Ronin. This character may save the village from the Sith led gang of bandits, but his motivations are not so pure as that of a Jedi. He is a hunter of Sith and a collector of their weapons. It was my hope that more of the character in the series would explore the more ambiguous nature of life instead of the good versus evil stories we are used to.
Star Wars: Visions was originally created in Japanese, but Disney offered a full English dub version of the show at release which is the version I watched for review. Their are many outstanding voice-over performances, particularly for the antagonists, throughout the series. It really is a star-studded cast including Neil Patrick Harris, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Simu Liu. These actors, and many others, bring the short lived character to life.
One of the most memorable characters is an ancient dark side force user who had abandoned the Sith. The Elder is voiced by James Hong, whose unique voice added a strange maniacal uneasiness to the character. Hong is most known for his comedic roles in animated films such as Kung Fu Panda, in which he voiced Po’s adopted goose father.
Editing and Pacing – Short and Sweet
These nine unique shorts have so much packed in to their little packages. Ranging from 13 to 22 minutes in length, they really have to hit home quickly. And they do! While most of these episodes are quick and fast paced, I rarely felt that they were rushed or missing anything. Each studio created a well contained story that plays out perfectly in the short time allotted.
Most of the episodes contain big battles and, with something this short, there is always a worry that the fighting will take over too much screen time and leave out other important aspects. This is usually not the case with Star Wars: Visions. Most of the episodes felt well balanced and edited to maximize the beauty of the unique animation styles.
Unfortunately there was one episode that stood out as a little off. Episode 3, The Twins, felt a little wrong from start to finish. It was the only episode that seemed to attempt to fill in too much backstory for the short format. On top of this, the battle in the episode takes up too much time, especially considering how much information the audience was expected to absorb in the first few minutes. This was definitely a weak link and an exception to the mostly excellent use of time and pace throughout the series.
Animation and Sound – Variety is the Spice of Life
The backbone of this unique Star Wars project is the fact that Disney used seven different Japanese anime studios to create the nine original shorts. This variety of styles and techniques made for a completely different experience with each new episode. Art styles are incredibly wide ranging, from the pencil drawn monochrome style of The Duel to the vibrant cartoonish style in Tatooine Rhapsody.
The sound design of each episode is equally different. Each choice adding to the tone of the episode whether its dark and gritty or lighthearted. As different as they are, each animation style is as consistently impressive as the last. The only episode that had questionable style choices, in my opinion, is the last episode, Akakiri. I felt the choice of character design was distractingly simple and inconsistent compared to the other shorts.
Star Wars: Visions excelled in its use of soundtrack. There were many original songs that not only felt fresh, but also reminded the audience that they were in fact watching a Star Wars creation, which can be easy to forget occasionally. The second episode, Tatooine Rhapsody, actually focuses on a punk band trying to make it on the desert planet with Joseph Gordon-Levitt voicing the lead singer. This type of music is brand new to the Star Wars universe, but it manages to feel authentic.
(Video by Star Wars Clips.)
A couple of the episodes didn’t feel very star wars to me, but by and large I enjoyed them.
The Twins felt more like I was watching Kill La Kill with lightsabers than a star wars short, but seeing how Studio Trigger produced both that makes sense. Tattoine Rhapsody has an interesting premise, surviving order 66 by joining a band, but I wasn’t all that engaged actually seeing it, and I didn’t really enjoy either of them.
I particularly enjoyed The Elder, The Ninth Jedi, and Hop and Ocho. Those felt very star wars to me, and were very engaging.
An honorary mention was The Village Bride. It felt very Princess Mononoke.The music was good, especially as Kevin Penkin was the composer, but that was no surprise after hearing his work on the Tower of God and Made in Abyss.