There, the idea was simple: present a familiar icon and approach them from a different perspective. In that case, Vader’s efficient, merciless scything down of the rebellion caused us to re-examine the villain and see the Sith in a new, more powerful light. It was such a straightforward, yet revelatory act – one that teased the full potential of the Star Wars canvas that had, up until that point, only been painted on by a few creators.
It’s that sort of flourishing creativity which courses through Visions. With nine animated shorts developed by seven Japanese studios, Star Wars does anime for the first time. Better still, it hints at a future that fully opens up the franchise to a whole new generation of storytellers from all corners of the globe.
The nine stories approach their take on Star Wars from several different angles; each one presents original characters and uses the franchise’s thematic elements as a launching pad to tell stories in their own inimitable fashion. There is a family dynamic gone awry among the Sith in “The Twins,” an Astro Boy-style adventure in “TO-B1,” political struggle with shades of Studio Ghibli in “Lop and Ocho,” and so much more.
However, the longest of the nine shorts that comprise Visions is just 22 minutes in length, making for a scattershot approach to these stories that needs a hook. Thankfully, it gets one. Things kick off with undeniably the strongest effort, “The Duel”, a Kurosawa-inspired take on the oldest of tropes: the Ronin (Brian Tee) wanderer blows into town and aims to defeat evil – or die trying.
In this short, it’s a tyrannical Sith, not a samurai, that the swordsman must chase out of town. The Ronin and the Sith (Lucy Liu) eventually end up duking it out in what ranks as one of the series’ finest lightsaber battles. The swordplay, intricate footwork, and crushing swings all leap off the screen in ways that simply can’t be replicated in live-action, even with world-class CGI and Disney’s bottomless pit of money. It might be expected given each studios’ background, but the breathless action in each short is one of Visions’ main strengths and is an exceptionally strong throughline.
“The Duel” is also, quite literally, a work of art. Its black-and-white style is achingly beautiful in motion, calling to mind legends etched on marble or faded, yellowed drawings blotted on parchment and placed in an exhibit. Star Wars has always been about mythmaking, and Visions takes it to a new level. The Jedi and Sith do exist in this world, not above it, but it finally allows the audience to understand why the figures are so revered (and feared). When contrasting the live-action trilogies with the rough-and-ready planets and populaces that litter these shorts, it suddenly makes Star Wars feel like a far more lived-in universe.
A new hope
For too long, Star Wars has been a series weighed down with the baggage of the Skywalker Saga. Visions creates new tales, ones that yearn to be explored further down the line. They work as stories on their own terms, but each is strengthened by the fact they’re divorced from the wider Star Wars mythos.
There’s a surprising amount of leeway, too. Its status as canon is unknown (and unlikely), but Visions introduces new locations, new lightsabers, new Force powers, and even goes deeper into exploring faith and religion in a galaxy far, far away. At times, it feels like The Clone Wars with the handbrake off. That high benchmark of quality can only be accomplished by two things: strong direction and a cavalier attitude. Barring one or two infrequent missteps, each studio has avoided following the same beaten path that Star Wars has walked many times before.
But not all is one with the Force. It becomes obvious around halfway through that the studios weren’t in dialogue with each other. The end result is a handful of chapters that cover the same ground or, worse, bleed into one another without anything wholly original to make them stand out. It does make some of the more ‘out there’ entries, such as the joyfully anarchic “Tatooine Rhapsody” complete with original songs, all the more unique, however. But Star Wars can be so much more than a reworked samurai parable.
Some of the voice acting is also listless. While it’s always welcome to see Temuera Morrison make a return once more as Boba Fett, some of the more A-list cast members (the likes of Simu Liu, David Harbour, Joseph Gordon-Levitt all lend their voices, though their performances vary) deliver lines that struggle to keep up with the mouth flaps designed for Japanese audio. The end product is something simultaneously rushed and low-energy. Still, we do get Alison Brie as a Sith Lord – and Japanese audio will be available at launch for that authentic touch – so it’s a net positive.
Which brings us to another p-word: potential. Star Wars Visions cannot be the first and last word in this brave new world. While there are some stumbles – some shorts fit snugly into 15 minutes while others still feel incomplete despite a longer runtime – this should be the first taste of a buffet of brilliant adventures from any creative who wants to beaver away in their own little corner of the galaxy.
Star Wars is so many things to so many people. While the likes of The Mandalorian have broadened the horizons of a franchise that was stuck in its ways for so long, Visions finally opens the floodgates. Star Wars isn’t just Luke Skywalker, Obi-Wan, and Darth Vader. Visions proves it can be anything you want it to be and, on the basis of these shorts, allowing others to play in the sandbox is only going to work out well for all involved.
The entire first season of Star Wars: Visions is available on Disney Plus from September 22. For more, check out the best shows on Disney Plus now streaming.
4 out of 5
Star Wars Visions review: “Opens up the franchise to a whole new generation of storytellers”
Despite a handful of shorts failing to stand out, Star Wars Visions is an accomplished, artsy anthology that deserves to be supported