The Kyber Calls to You
Star Wars: Visions: Season 2
For a time Star WarsThe modern blockbuster: it's a concept so commonplace now we don't even think about the fact that before the end of the 1970s, this kind of movie -- huge spectacles, big action, massive budgets -- wasn't really made. That all changed, though, with Star Wars, a series of films that were big on spectacle (and even bigger on profits). A hero's journey set against a sci-fi backdrop, nothing like this series had ever really been done before, and then Hollywood was never the same. was the vision of one man. George Lucas (whether you liked his later films or not) was the guiding voice for the epics told in the Galaxy Far, Far Away and if any one person could be said to be the man behind the Vader, it was Lucas. His baby, his show, his company, his series. And then he left, selling the company and all its properties to Disney for the price of the gross domestic product of a small European country (aka, $4 Bil). The Mouse got the House that Lucas built.
Before Lucas left he'd already been working with another voice, one that could take Lucas's ideas and translate them into a working epic in its own right: Dave Filoni. Dave (D Money to his friends, except not really) was the show runner for The Clone Wars, having directed the animated film before guiding the series from its first season through to its last. If anyone could arguably be billed as the success to Lucas for the franchise, it's Filoni. He launched Rebels, was a guiding voice on The Mandalorian, and has had his fingers in just about every TV show for the franchise (that wasn't directly based on a preexisting movie).
But even as Filoni cemented himself as a strong component of the Star Wars universe, more and more have joined to add their ideas to the tapestry. John Favreau was the creator on The Mandalorian. Tony Gilroy (who wrote Rogue One) is the show runner of the best series to date, Andor. And, of course, J.J. Abrams (love it or hate it) was the primary guide of the Sequel Trilogy. No one person is responsible for Star Wars anymore, and while some might argue that a stronger guiding hand could be used (see: the Sequel Trilogy), by and large this diversity of voices had created a richer context for the universe, adding in new stories we might not have seen otherwise.
That's what makes Star Wars: Visions so intriguing. These shorts, deployed in anthology format, get to play in the realm of Star Wars -- the mythology, the iconography, the morals -- without necessarily being beholden to any kind of continuity demands. If someone wants to tell a story about a reformed Sith-turned-Jedi who just wants to paint, or a Twi'lek mother and daughter set to win a ship race, or use the mythology to draw a parallel between the Galactic Rebellion and the French Rebellion against the Nazis, they can. It doesn't have to be a direct part of the franchise but it does give us stories we wouldn't have seen without this format. That's great.
For this second season (dropped on May the Fourth 2023), we get a more diverse selection of stories; not just anime companies but animation houses from around the world. New ideas, new animation styles, and a whole lot of heart went into this season, and it creates an even better anthology than season one of Visions. So let's go over these episodes, from worst to best (bearing in mind there really isn't a bad story in the bunch this time around).
"In the Stars"
The third episode of the run, this one focuses on two sisters, Koten and Tichina, who are the last survivors of their people. Trapped on their world after the extermination of their people by the Empire, the two have struggled to survive, with the older Koten regularly doing raids on the Imperial factory polluting the world to gather supplies. Tichina, though, remembers that their mother had gifts (the Force) and thinks she has them too. She goes off to the factory after her sister, desperate to fight back. This forces Koten to have to choose between protecting her sister or finally taking a stand against the oppressors.
This one is probably the weakest of the run, and that's because it's very disjointed in its storytelling. It spends a lot of time on back story, narrating to us (through paintings) the story of the Empire coming to the planet and the rebellion against the oppressors. The issue is that this long back story dump doesn't really tell us anything we hadn't already figured out on our own. It stops the storytelling dead, and then the episode struggles to regain its momentum. That all then leads to a story we've seen many times before, a young force-sensitive fighting against the Empire, and it all feels very bland. The art style, a mix of CGI and claymation, is nice, but it's not enough to elevate this flat and stilted tale.
On the hunt for Kyber Crystals, Imperial troops march slave labor out into the middle of an arid land. They force the slaves to dig, and keep digging, all the way down in a giant pit until they hit bedrock, scooping up all the Kyber they can in the process. Once the pit is done, the Empire flies off, leaving the slaves at the bottom of the pit with no way to escape. While the workers are left to figure out how to survive down in the pit, one boy decides he'll fight back. So he slowly climbs to the top of the pit to the nearby city (which rose up in support of the mining efforts) in hopes that he can call out for help and get rescue from the citizens. Only then does he learn that the citizens never knew there were slaves at the bottom of the pit, a dirty secret the Empire would prefer to keep hidden.
I think this story would have worked better for me if it wasn't for Andor. That series featured a prison where the Empire treated the workers like disposable labor to be thrown away the second they were of no use. Having already seen that, the story of the slaves in the pit didn't really hit as strongly. Plus, I debate if the citizens of a city right near a work zone really would be so oblivious as to not wonder if the slave labor were still there. That seems like something someone would have been overseeing, or merely even checked on sometime in the days after it happened. In short, the story doesn't really work at this point, for a few reasons, even if the art style is pretty good.
The opening story of the season, and it's one of the most artistically thrilling. It's about a reformed Sith who has left their master, and the order, behind, having become disillusioned with the Sith way. So she holes up on a distant planet, working her paintings while she tries to find her new path in life. Only her old master isn't so ready to let her go.
This episode is light on plot, mostly letting the art and the action of the episode tell its tale. And that's good because the art, and the action, are strong. There's a lovely painterly style to this episode that helps set the tone for this season. This isn't the anime of season one, this is something new and fresh and different. And then we get a ton of action with our reformed Sith fighting against not only her master but two other bounty hunters sent after her. It's great action, with lots of cool ideas for the tech, the battles, and the saber.
If there's any flaw it's that the actual story itself is pretty weak. Any twists to the tale I had figured out within the opening moments, and that does make it slightly less engaging from a character perspective. It does make up for it with its art and its direction though, leading to a fairly decent little episode.
"Screecher's Reach" & "The Bandits of Golak"
I put these two episodes together because, despite being a few episodes apart (episode two and episode seven, respectively), they tell two sides of the same coin. "Screecher's Reach" is about Daal, a young worker who longs for a new life. She, along with her friends, head out to the haunted Screecher's Reach to investigate the supposed ghost. There, though, they find a old Sith warrior who immediately attacks. Daal is forced to fight back, eventually killing the Sith, taking their saber as her own. Only then is it revealed that the journey to Screecher's Reach was a test, set by a Sith master, and Daal has to make a choice between leaving everything she knows for this new life as a Sith apprentice, or staying in the safety of her planet.
Meanwhile, "The Bandits of Golak" is about a brother and sister, Charuk and Rani, who are on the run from the Empire. Rani is Force-sensitive and the Empire wants to snatch up those kids so they can be trained to be Sith agents. Charuk, though, knows of a place he can take Rani where she'll be safe. There, after a battle against a Sith, they are approached by a Jedi master who offers to train Rani... but only if she leaves everything she knows behind. A better life or the safety of the life she already has...
I think it's an interesting parallel these two episodes draw. There's balance to the Force, as they say, but what it really illustrates is that, in many ways, for all their high talk about the light of the Force, the Jedi aren't always better than the Sith. The wrong things for the right reasons are still wrong. The Sith master lured Daal in with the promise of a new life, but only we really understand what that means. We assume Rani will have it better as a Jedi trainee, but when she's forced to make the same decision as Daal, is that really better? It's a questions in the subtext of the episodes, and the fact that if can be posited by the stories is a big win for the season.
I do also like the artistic style of each of these stories. "The Bandits of Golak", produced by Indiana studio 88 Pictures, uses the Indiana art style (mixed with solid CGI) to create a colorful and stylistic short. It feels very lived in, rich with detail, but still distinctly based on the cultural art style of India. Meanwhile, "Screecher's Reach" was made by Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon and it absolutely feels like a work of that country. There's the feel of Irish folklore to the animation, even drawing a parallel between the Sith "Screecher" and the classic monster, the Banshee. Each of these shorts feel distinct but natural fits for their own cultural folklore, while still being very much "Star Wars".
"I Am Your Mother"
This is a much sillier short, but then what else would you expect from Aardman Animations Ltd., the studio behind Wallace and Gromit. This short feels very much in the wheel house of Aardman, with a distinct, British humor to the short. Class warfare, comedies of manners and errors, and keeping feelings bottled up are all distinct character and story notes for the episode. It couldn't be any more British if the characters first had tea before the adventure began.
The story is about a young Twi'lek pilot in training, Anni, who is embarrassed by her mother because, well, a mother is embarrassing (we guess). There's a big "Family Day" race for the pilots in the square, but Anni didn't tell her mother, Kalina, about it. Still, Kalina finds out and she makes Anni participate in their flying garbage scow / house / secretly powerful ship. This, despite the richest family in town, the Van Reeples, having won every year for as long as anyone can remember. But, maybe this time, someone else will come out on top.
This isn't a very deep episode, but it is very funny. And, more importantly, it highlights the smooth claymation of Aardman. Frankly we can't get enough Aardman animation out in the world. This is a solid short with a lot of heart.
This is a pretty little short that actually shows the proper way of the Jedi when it comes to finding new recruits. Here we meet Aau, a young girl who is clearly Force-sensitive. More importantly, her voice has a connection to Kyber. Her planet is absolutely stuffed full of Kyber, and the Sith were able to corrupt it, turning all the kyber of the world red. Over time the denizens have been mining the kyber (carefully), passing their pieces off to a traveling Jedi so she might take them back to the Jedi order for purification. But it just might be that Aau's voice holds the true key to cleansing Kyber the right way.
I like the intent of this short a lot. The thought of a young girl who can sing to the Kyber and cleanse it is interesting. It leads to some lovely, and potent, imagery enhanced by the crafted yarn animation done by South African company Triggerfish. The felted art really is delightful, and it gives everything in the short a soft, homey feel. That is accented nicely by the story, especially its ending. The Jedi sees what Aau can do and makes her the same offer that Rani received back in "The Bandits of Golak": "Come with me to train, but you will have to leave your planet." Here, though, the offer feels softer, kinder, like it's a good choice. You get the feeling Aau will be back, that she won't ever lose her connection to this world. This is her home, this homey, knitted place, and it always will be.
If there's one issue I had with the short it's that Aau's voice is said to be extraordinary, but I felt like the song she's given to sing was less than stellar. The episode needed a slightly better composition to really knock it out of the park. It gets close, but the music keeps the song from quite reaching its full potential, letting couple of other shorts slip past to be the best of the run.
"The Spy Dancer"
This one is the most overtly "political" of the run. Created by French animation house Studio La Cachette, this one very much draws on the history of France to fuel its story. Twenty years into the reign of the Empire, a music hall on an alien world regularly hosts stormtroopers. The lead dancer at the hall, Loi'e, uses her position to secretly bug the stormtroopers so they can be tracked by the Rebellion. This night is meant to be the last night the rebellion stays on the planet, and Loi'e gives one hell of a performance. She's interrupted, though, via a vision of her past. An Imperial officer arrives in one of the hall's box seats, and Loi'e realizes it might be the man who stole her child away many years earlier. Instead of fleeing, tonight Loi'e will finally get her revenge.
The iconography of the Empire was purposefully based on the Nazis. That was the intent with the Original Trilogy, giving viewers an automatic short hand as to who the "bad guys" were. No one likes Nazis, so that was easy imagery to work from. Studio La Cachette takes it a step further, then, using French history, the Occupation by the Nazis, as a stepping stone for this Star Wars tale. The parallels work, giving the audience, once again, an easy short hand into the action, while also letting us color in the details of this Rebel operation without anything needing to really be explained. That's solid subtext and it works really well here.
Plus, it's just a very well animated story. The flow of the dancing, the sudden moves into action, the twists of the story, everything works together in a seamless whole. This is a very well designed, well thought out short that feels like classic Star Wars while still honoring the voices of Studio La Cachette. Very well done.
"Journey to the Dark Head"
Finally, we have the best short of the run, which is also the most classical Star Wars tale of the set. Created by Korean animation house Studio Mir, this story is about the Light and the Dark Side of the Force, of Jedi and Sith, and a quest to end the endless war between the factions. It has everything you want from one of these tales -- action, contemplation of the Force, and enough lived-in details to make the story feel rich -- catapulting it to the top of the list. If there's one short to watch here, it's "Journey to Dark Head".
We open with a short prologue, telling the story of the seers of a distant planet. The stones of her world, when wet with rain, can foretell the future... but only for a short time. Ara, one of the seers in training, has a vision of a battle between light and dark. She suspects, if the Jedi knew of the coming events, they could use this knowledge to fight the Sith. Ara teacher, though, forbids sharing the knowledge. The seers document history, they don't change it. Still, Ara knows that if she could help the Jedi, she would.
This leader her, years later, to go on a quest from the Jedi Temple, revisiting her world so she can try and stop the Dark Side. Two great statues oversee the world, one representing the Light Side and one the Dark. Ara suspects if she were to destroy the Dark statue the balance of the Force would veer towards the Light. The Jedi let her go on her quest, but they send a young Jedi, Toul, to join her. Toul, though, has darkness in him; a Sith killed Toul's master, and he's been struggling with his hate ever since. And, wouldn't you know it, that same Sith master comes calling when Ara and Toul arrive on her home world. It's going to be a battle between Light and Dark, and it'll reveal more about the Force than Ara and Toul even suspected.
What I really liked about this story was it's exploration of the Force. We get told that Force users have to be Light or be Dark, that they can't be both, but what this short emphasizes is something everyone secretly knows: you can't fully be one thing or the other. Humans (and human-like beings) are a mix of everything, with Light and Dark within us all. Light and Dark are part of the same coin, the same Force, and you have to understand both to truly embrace who you will be. That's what Ara learns on her quest, and it's something Toul discovers as well.
Plus, this short is just really well animated. There's solid action throughout, plus really lovely set pieces. It's a breathtaking bit of animation that really should be watched. Again, go watch this one if you watch nothing else. It really is worth it.