In a recent interview with Matthew Belloni’s Puck News, longtime IMAX CEO Rich Gelfond made an interesting comment about the trickle down effect from theatrical cinema to streaming. “Look at Disney’s success on Disney+. The Mandalorian came out of Star Wars, WandaVision out of the Marvel universe. [Theatrical movies] is where stuff gets planted in brains,” he said.
Yet in the age of the multimedia cinematic universe that stretches across film, television, streaming and beyond, content—much like the Force—does not flow in one linear direction. The benefit of such sprawling, sometimes cumbersome, creations is the ability to funnel storylines and characters between mediums. If theatrical movies are the source, streaming is the laboratory where new discoveries are made. It is a natural extension in the process—a safe space for Star Wars to mold and mutate into something new while still tracing its DNA back to the beloved originals. Enter Star Wars: Visions.
Disney and Lucasfilm tapped seven Japanese anime studios for Star Wars: Visions—a collection of nine animated short films that begin streaming on Disney+ Wednesday, September 22. Studios Kamikaze Douga, Geno Studio (Twin Engine), Studio Colorido (Twin Engine), TRIGGER, Kinema Citrus, Science Saru, and Production I.G. push Star Wars into its first formal venture into anime. It’s a bold left turn for a 44-year-old franchise that can more or less skate by on familiarity and brand power alone. That is why it represents such an important opportunity.
Lucasfilm can track which unique flourishes fire up the hearts and minds of Star Wars faithful. Exposing audiences to something new, particularly in the lower risk ecosystem of streaming, can reveal which fresh elements can be cherrypicked, developed, and fed back into the big screen and other blockbuster live-action productions. We’ve already seen this begin to play out. Cartoon character Ahsoka Tano grew into a fan favorite Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Star Wars: Rebels. Her popularity grew so undeniable that Lucasfilm cast Rosario Dawson for the character’s live-action debut in The Mandalorian. Now she’s getting her own Disney+ series that is expected to tie back into Rebels.
The freedom of the small screen creates a feedback loop for the studio that can help prevent the Star Wars brand from growing stale. It’s a developmental space for the franchise to grow new heroes and villains of tomorrow. Star Wars once defined an entire genre, now it can remodel it thanks to efforts such as Visions.
The anthology format, in which every episode features new characters and settings, carries with it many limitations, but its main benefit (borne out of necessity) is variety. (Spoiler Warning) Luke Skywalker’s cameo in The Mandalorian Season 2 finale, however baseline cool it may have been, made the Star Wars universe feel small and constricted, cursed to circle the same drain for all eternity. By contrast, Visions is an experiment in the unknown. It charts a course along all axises of the Star Wars map, venturing into new visual and narrative territory.
As an anime, it is rooted in more overt eastern influence than even the Japanese mythology and the films of Akira Kurosawa that initially started George Lucas down this path. The show runs the gamut of scope from asteroid belts being mined for the fabled kyber crystals (which power lightsabers) to small villages tucked under the thumb of oppression. Disparate souls attempt to revive the Jedi Order in a far off time in one chapter and sibling conflicts echo throughout the stars and the will of the Force in another. There are younger-skewing adventures fit for kids and more mature stories about the fallibility of the heart and the heat of combat. “The Duel,” “The Village Bride” and “The Ninth Jedi” are particular standouts.
Of course, experimentation is by its very nature an exercise in trial and error. The thin vignettes of Visions, which run between 12 and 24 minutes, can sometimes feel as if they are chasing after the storytelling sprints of the anime-inspired series, unable to match the external style and grace. Like Netflix’s Love, Death, and Robots there are peaks and valleys with an occasional yearning for consistency amid the rapidly changing aesthetics and methodologies. But the series never fails to capture the feel of a galaxy far, far away, despite the altered trappings, through its earned themes and inventive world-building. Similar to HBO’s Watchmen, Visions feels like a worthwhile remix form which lessons for the future of the franchise can be gleaned.
Gelfond is right that Star Wars blossomed into a phenomenon thanks to the big screen. But it has since been revitalized by the small. There’s no reason why there can’t exist a symbiotic relationship between the two.