SPOILERS FOR STAR WARS: VISIONS AHEAD!
Every live-action franchise should consider experimenting with the medium of animation. It’s worked out extremely well for DC Comics (one of their most popular characters, Harley Quinn, originated in Batman: The Animated Series), and the MCU is starting to get into the business too, with What If…?, but Star Wars really redefined the ways in which animation could support and enrich a live-action franchise. And with the release of all nine episodes of Star Wars: Visions, Star Wars displays a willingness to think outside the box that shows why the franchise is still at the forefront when it comes to bridging that gap between live-action and animation.
Star Wars: Visions is an anthology series like Marvel’s What If…?, but whereas the various storylines in What If…? will eventually converge, the stories told in Star Wars: Visions are wholly unconnected – there’s no overarching plot, no framing device like What If…?‘s narrator, and no single animation style. Visions is also not intended to be viewed as canon, and most of the stories seem to exist outside of the Star Wars timeline, either unimaginably far into the franchise’s past or even further into its future. That’s not to say they couldn’t be integrated into canon, and there are several characters I’d love to see more of, but it’s not constantly in the back of your mind the way it is with What If…?
Because all of the episodes have been released already (robbing me of the chance to review them weekly), and they are all so different, I’ve decided to structure this review as a kind of episode ranking – moving from my least-favorites to my favorites.
The only episode of Visions that I found myself tempted to fast-forward through at multiple points, Studio Colorido’s Tatooine Rhapsody is a bland and uninspiring genre mash-up that feels like it was originally intended to be the pilot of an Apple TV original sci-fi series, and then got awkwardly reworked into a Star Wars story at the last minute. It’s the only episode that goes a little too heavy on the callbacks and nostalgia, with cameos from Boba Fett (voiced by Temuera Morrison), Jabba the Hutt, and Bib Fortuna, as if the writers realized that their main storyline about a garage band looking for work on Tatooine felt nothing like Star Wars, so they tried to force in a whole bunch of iconic characters to make it more natural.
Unfortunately, I didn’t like the writing, and I didn’t like the animation style here either. Some of the character designs were pretty cute, like tiny little Boba Fett with his big bobble-head helmet and even Bib Fortuna, but not enough to save the episode from looking like a low-budget Cartoon Network show devoid of charm or whimsy.
Episode Rating: 1/10
There’s so many words to describe this episode…the most flattering of which is perhaps “quaint”. A vaguely disturbing twist on the story of Pinocchio, seemingly styled after that and other Disney cartoons from the 1940’s, T0-B1 plays out like the plot of the 1993 video game Putt-Putt Goes To The Moon…which is to say, there really isn’t all that much of a plot. T0-B1 (voiced by Jaden Waldman), a clumsy little droid who wants to be a Jedi, searches around his home planet for a hidden kyber crystal, and at any moment you expect him to turn to the audience and ask for you to click on objects on the screen. Occasionally he’ll report back to a zany old professor who teaches him valuable life-lessons about the Force.
If this were supposed to act as a lighthearted diversion from some of the heavier episodes, it would be one thing. But that’s very much not the case, as the zany old professor ends up being killed by a Sith Inquisitor and T0-B1 gets impaled (he’s a droid so he survives, but it’s still quite brutal). The hauntingly beautiful animation by Science SARU makes this an interesting watch, I suppose, but not a particularly fulfilling or even exciting one.
Episode Rating: 3.9/10
I’m still sorting out my thoughts on this macabre tale of horror and suspense, which plays with some very intriguing concepts about fate and destiny while also reusing the whole story (down to some awfully specific plot-beats) of Anakin Skywalker’s fall to the dark side. Tsubaki (voiced by Henry Golding) is our Anakin stand-in, a rugged young Jedi knight who falls in love with a princess in a political crisis and becomes her guardian, all while suffering from visions of her death (although in this case, he doesn’t realize it’s her in the visions, or that he’s the one killing her). He ultimately joins the Sith in a desperate effort to save her life, after accidentally killing her in a rage.
Regardless of the episode’s quality, I would not have chosen it to close out the first season of Visions. It’s a deeply morbid and depressing story of people stripped of their agency by invisible forces, and the eerie (yet strikingly beautiful) animation by Science SARU only heightens the feelings of dread that the episode inspires. I enjoyed it, and this episode had some of the best voice-acting in Visions (particularly Golding, Jamie Chung channeling Padmé Amidala in her character Misa, Lorraine Toussaint as Sith warlord Masago, and George Takei as a much-needed comedic relief character), but it’s not a fun watch.
Episode Rating: 4.9/10
Fast-paced, well-acted, and stunningly animated by Studio Trigger with a clean-cut futuristic aesthetic, this lean and mean story was right on the edge of greatness. With its tale of twin siblings bred and birthed by the dark side of the Force, one breaking free from their appointed destiny and the other bound to it, The Twins acts as good counter-programming to the hopeless messages of Akakiri, but it’s weighed down by a lot of exposition, and the action isn’t as thrilling as you’d probably expect, possibly because it’s so heavily stylized that it sometimes feels like a lightshow instead of an actual fight.
That said, there are some very cool elements here too: Karre (Neil Patrick Harris)’s multi-colored lightsaber gave me serious She-Ra vibes, and Am (Alison Brie)’s six robot appendages and lightsaber-whips make for some striking visuals. I also enjoyed seeing Karre employ the controversial Holdo maneuver from The Last Jedi, although seeing it recreated in a series of almost identical shots felt a tad unimaginative. And the ending lends itself to continuation, whether in animation or in live-action.
Episode Rating: 5.9/10
Of all the Visions episodes, each beautiful in their own right (except for Tatooine Rhapsody), Kamikaze Douga’s The Duel is surely the most striking from an artistic standpoint. Designed to resemble grainy black-and-white film, the animation style pays homage to Akira Kurosawa, the Japanese director whose work inspired George Lucas’ original vision for Star Wars. The story is a sci-fi twist on a classic scenario from the samurai genre: a war-weary sword-fighter, usually a rogue samurai (rōnin) comes to town and helps the local people in a conflict with another great sword-fighter, typically the leader of a band of raiders who’ve been pillaging the area’s natural resources.
Because it features such an archetypal setting and cast of characters, the outcome of the titular lightsaber duel between the subtly-named Ronin (Brian Tee) and the umbrella-wielding Sith Bandit Leader (Lucy Liu) is never in question, but there’s something comforting about that, as well as the gracefulness with which Ronin conducts himself in battle. The real subversion of expectations is that Ronin isn’t a former Jedi as you’re initially led to believe, but a former Sith repenting for his evil deeds, which is ten times cooler. In short I loved this, and I hope to see more of Ronin in the future.
Episode Rating: 8/10
Lop And Ochō
This episode would likely have cracked into my top three if the story hadn’t ended quite so abruptly. Even more so than the beautiful and richly-detailed animation by Geno Studio or the incredible score by Yoshiaka Dewa, what really stands out to me about this story is the character work. Set sometime during the reign of the Galactic Empire, we follow the disintegration of an ancient clan as its patriarch, Yasaburo (Paul Nakauchi), and his biological daughter Ochō (Hiromi Dames) fall to fighting over whether to side with the Empire in the best interests of their family, or fight back and try to protect their planet. Standing between them is Yasaburo’s adopted daughter, Lop (Anna Cathcart), a leporine alien who feels like an outsider in her own house.
The episode delivers a great message about found family as Lop emerges as the true successor of the Yasaburo clan, and even inherits their most precious heirloom: a green-bladed lightsaber that is probably one of the most beautiful in all of Star Wars history. I was perfectly prepared for this to become my favorite episode – and then it just ends, having not only not resolved the conflict at hand, but with the situation even more dire than before. If this story ever continues, I think the relatively small scope of the story, the beautiful backgrounds, and Lop’s ability to leap long distances and glide around via umbrella are all good reasons to make a Lop And Ochō video game.
Episode Rating: 8.5/10
The Ninth Jedi
Coming in at third place, I have The Ninth Jedi – which, of all the Visions stories, screams out for some kind of continuation. This gripping tale of mystery, suspense, and political intrigue, filled with extraordinary action and instantly endearing characters, comes to us from the mind of writer/director Kenji Kamiyama at Production I.G, who will also direct War Of The Rohirrim, an upcoming anime film based on The Lord Of The Rings. I was already excited for that, but now I can’t wait to see what Kamiyama will do with characters and stories I know like the back of my hand.
In this story, set hundreds of years after The Rise Of Skywalker during a new conflict between the Jedi and an emboldened faction of Sith, Kamiyama devises a whole new set of rules regarding lightsabers (specifically their colors) that honestly makes more sense than the established canon. Here, a lightsaber’s color is a visual indicator of the wielder’s personality as well as their strength in the Force, which is why as the heroine Kara (Kimiko Glenn)’s confidence increases, her blade goes from transparent to green. And the color can change even after that, based on the wielder’s actions. These changes have made some fans mad (of course), but this is the kind of expansive creativity I hope Kamiyama brings to Middle-earth.
Episode Rating: 9/10
Visions is quite a scary series, and Studio Trigger’s The Elder is a perfect example of how the most effective horror is almost always subtle, shocking our senses but more importantly affecting us on a psychological level. We can close our eyes to avoid a jump-scare, but there are things that lurk in the corners of our minds that are much harder to shake. Good horror plays on that, and gets into our heads. With a powerful message about accepting the inevitability of death, The Elder is able to do just that.
The episode is anchored by three characters at different stages in their lives – The Elder (James Hong), a mysterious Sith lord clinging to his frail mortal body, Tajin (David Harbour), a world-weary middle-aged Jedi knight, and Dan (Jordan Fisher), Tajin’s reckless young padawan who tries to defeat The Elder in combat and is soundly defeated, just barely escaping with his life. It’s Tajin who must ultimately defeat The Elder, and conquer his own fear that his best days are behind him. Their duel is appropriately mythic in proportions, and the episode ends with a tantalizing mystery about The Elder’s true identity that could easily support future chapters of this story.
Episode Rating: 9.5/10
The Village Bride
I had a hard time deciding my favorite between The Elder and The Village Bride, but there’s just so much to love about this story, from the way it masterfully interweaves elements of Shinto philosophy with Star Wars’ concept of the Force, to the ethereal score by Kevin Penkin, and the fascinating new character of F (Karen Fukuhara), all wrapped up in a vibrant, colorful package courtesy of the delightfully named Kinema Citrus. The Village Bride is the episode I would have chosen to close out Visions: it sums up everything the series is, and everything that Star Wars can be in good hands.
The story is similar to that of The Duel, with the crucial difference being that the cynical former Jedi F is inspired and her faith in the Force restored by the local townspeople when she learns how the titular village bride Haru (Nichole Sakura) is actively trying to save her people from their enemies. It acts as a wake-up call for her, reminding her that a Jedi’s first and foremost duty must always be to help those in need. And when she joins the townspeople in their fight, it made me respect the Jedi again in a way I haven’t felt as a viewer for a while now.
The episode has something for everybody, from amazing action (let’s just say, you do not want to get on F’s bad side while she’s wearing heels) to a genuinely happy ending that feels so rare for Star Wars sometimes that I had to mention it. This is my favorite Visions episode, and it’s the kind of hopeful story that I need to see more of from the franchise.
Episode Rating: 10/10