Monday, July 10, 2017

'Star Wars: Forces of Destiny' Season 1 Part 1 Review

"The choices we make, the actions we take, moments both big and small, shape us into forces of destiny." Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong'o) speaks this at the beginning of each installment in Lucasfilm Animation's latest project, Star Wars: Forces of Destiny (named ambiguously enough that it was first rumored to be the title of Episode VIII), which puts the spotlight on the female heroes of Star Wars in two-to-three-minute shorts taking place throughout the timeline.
And Maz's words describe the series well: these small, action-packed moments define the destinies of these characters and, to some extent, the galaxy itself. Forces of Destiny premiered last week on Disney's YouTube channel with a new short released daily. We're reviewing the first set of eight episodes in the series.

"The Sands of Jakku"

The first episode of the series centers on Rey, perhaps the character most important to the immediate future of Star Wars, shortly after she meets BB-8 on Jakku. They encounter a Nightwatcher worm, an underground creature briefly glimpsed in The Force Awakens. Soundtracked by her own beautiful theme, Rey is put to the test as this junk-eating monster targets her new friend.
The Nightwatcher reveals itself to be a far larger and more menacing foe than one might think. It finally grabs BB-8 in its jaws, but Rey uses her staff as a javelin and frees the small droid. They find sanctuary on top of her AT-AT home, and to top it all off, Rey throws the Nightwatcher a piece of junk and it happily departs.

This story definitely didn't need to be part of The Force Awakens, but it still does a good job of demonstrating Rey's courage, physical skill, and most of all, her heart. Her generosity towards this horrible creature is perhaps her best moment in this episode, though it also would dissuade any fans hoping to find a show with the same maturity as The Clone Wars and Rebels.
It makes sense that Rey would be the star of Forces of Destiny's premiere, but she hardly needs the attention when compared to the undervalued Star Wars heroines that preceded her. With extensive screen-time in The Force Awakens and much more to come, we already know Rey and all of her great qualities. Supporting characters like Leia and Padmé more deserve to get the spotlight, and thankfully, later episodes recognize this.

"BB-8 Bandits"

The second episode picks up the next morning after "The Sands of Jakku," with Rey and BB-8 heading to Niima Outpost on her signature speeder bike. But Teedo – the small scavenger who initially caught BB-8 before Rey freed him – is back, and he's brought friends...and blasters. 
Rey outmaneuvers the two other bandits and, with a tip from BB-8, leads Teedo into the familiar crashed Star Destroyer. They hop off their bikes but before Teedo can shoot her, the ol' Nightwatcher devours his speeder and sends him running. Rey assures BB-8 that Teedo will be just fine, and they continue on.

"BB-8 Bandits" is closer to the fun, typical Star Wars-type action than "Sands of Jakku," and thus more feels like it could have been on-screen (or on a more adult show like Rebels). And though there's another "happy ending" with the villain subdued in a nonviolent way, it's also clear that these thugs were trying to kill Rey, and that she very well injured (if not killed) two of them.
Again, Rey hardly needs more screen-time, but maybe it's good to see her Jakku roots before The Last Jedi comes around, and to remind ourselves that she was always strong and spirited, even before she discovered her Force sensitivity. 

But it's really Daisy Ridley's unsurprisingly-perfect voice that makes these shorts work, which perhaps tells us that Forces of Destiny's biggest selling point and most impressive quality is that it brings back all the actresses who played and voiced these characters in the past (with the exception of Shelby Young as Princess Leia).

"Ewok Escape"

Next up is Leia, and she's also got a cute little friend: Wicket the Ewok. In the forests of Endor during Return of the Jedi, she's anxious to find Luke and Han again after getting separated. But when they spot two of Wicket's friends cornered by stormtroopers, they know they need to help.
Wicket traps two of the stormtroopers in an Ewok trap, binding them in a rope and hoisting them up. But two men are heavier than an Ewok, of course, and when the balance tips in their favor and blasters are drawn, Leia springs into action, saving Wicket and dispatching the troopers. Later in the Ewok village, they give her a handmade dress as thanks.

Again, this short feels more like a deleted scene than a special, eye-opening story, but it's still nice to see the Original Trilogy-era Leia that we all know and love. And, uh, if you were ever wondering about the origins of her Ewok village dress (chances are, you weren't)...well, now you know.
In terms of Leia's character, this short is a great reminder that beneath her layers of impatience and sass lies a genuine selflessness and concern for the lives of all living creatures. When she sees innocents in peril, she thinks quickly and finds a way to save them, regardless of the danger to her own life. After all, that's what heroes are for.

"The Padawan Path"

Ahsoka lives! Or at least, Clone Wars-era Ahsoka does. On the streets of Coruscant, she rushes to attend a special ceremony with Anakin and Yoda, but takes a major detour when she finds a malfunctioning droid on a rampage. Before it can smash an alien woman and her little son, Ahsoka slams it into the wall with a Force-pushed crate.
Lightsabers are ignited and she easily defeats the machine, first slicing its foot and then cutting open a leaky water pipe above, thoroughly soaking it and shutting it down. Ahsoka then rushes off to the Jedi Temple, where Yoda praises her maturity and hands her a chain of beads as a makeshift Padawan braid. Anakin congratulates her.

Finally we have an episode that feels more interesting and valuable than just a deleted scene. With an inevitable role in Season 4 of Rebels, Ahsoka's story is hardly over, but there's still something very special about seeing the same headstrong Padawan that we all (eventually) grew to love. And with Skyguy and Snips together again, this episode is a must-see for any Star Wars: The Clone Wars fan. 
This short is also pretty bittersweet, since we all know that Ahsoka's "Padawan path" will reach a tragic end before she becomes a Jedi Knight. But the qualities she demonstrates – strength, determination, and compassion – will always be part of her, even when the braid isn't. 

"Beasts of Echo Base"

Back to Leia. Near the beginning of The Empire Strikes Back, she and R2-D2 are searching for Chewbacca in Echo Base. They find him in an icy cavern, trapped in the sleepy embrace of a ferocious wampa. An inconvenient call from C-3PO (because of course, it's Threepio) wakes the beast, and Chewie runs to cower behind Leia as the wampa approaches.
Thinking quickly, Leia sends Chewie and Artoo to seal the passageway back into the base as she distracts the wampa alone. She lures it through the cave and then slides between its legs to get back to the entrance. With some quick help from Artoo, the door console lights up and Chewie hits the switch to close the door, trapping the beast on the other side. He thanks her for rescuing him, and they hug.

The coolest thing about this episode is that it adapts deleted scenes from the 1980 classic in which wampas invade Echo Base. When the Empire attacks, Threepio actually does something useful and smart (for once) and tricks snowtroopers into opening the very same door from "Beasts of Echo Base," unleashing a wampa upon them.
Aside from that, the action in this episode isn't nearly as interesting as in "The Padawan Path" or "BB-8 Bandits," but it gives Leia some cool action stunts and again proves her selflessness; when faced with this terrible beast, her first thought is to contain it where it can't hurt anyone else, rather than just escaping herself. Luke isn't the only Skywalker who can handle a wampa.

"The Imposter Inside"

Forces of Destiny brings together two of Star Wars' all-time greatest heroines, Padmé and Ahsoka, for a story that feels like it was ripped straight from a pile of unused Clone Wars scripts. In Padmé's apartment on Coruscant, Ahsoka is providing extra security for some important negotiations when she notices something odd about the table settings. Realizing that her ruse is up, Padmé's handmaiden pulls a blaster on them.
Ahsoka hurls Padmé to cover and then leaps into action, deflecting the laser bolts and wounding the assassin. She reveals herself to be a shape-shifting Clawdite and activates a thermal detonator on the underside of the table; Padmé kicks it to Ahsoka and she Force-pushes the bomb out the window. Padmé whacks the assassin with a vase before she can escape. Ahsoka notes her similarities to Anakin and agrees to stay for dinner.

What this episode proves is that two heroines are better than one. Padmé and Ahsoka had a special friendship in The Clone Wars, independent of their respective relationships with Anakin, and it's great to see them team up to take down an assassin once again. (They previously defeated Aurra Sing together in the aptly-titled Season 3 episode "Assassin.")
Of course, Padmé could easily carry a short by herself and probably will at some point, but this still feels like a classic Padmé story: a mix of Senate politics, galactic luxury, and (as she famously named it in Attack of the Clones) "aggressive negotiations." These could be viewed as the three key components of her character, and she excels at all of them.

"The Stranger"

Jyn Erso takes the spotlight in this short, taking place sometime before the events of Rogue One. In a marketplace in Garel City (previously seen in Rebels), stormtroopers confiscate a little girl's beloved tooka-cat. Jyn hurls her fruit at them and easily takes them down with a kick and a swing of a staff, before chasing after the runaway cat.
Stormtroopers follow with blasters and Jyn creates a smokescreen with a well-placed shot to a steam pipe. When four troopers find them in an alley, she blasts a grate and sends them falling to a cellar below, with the cat dealing the final blow. Jyn later returns the cat to the girl and she thanks her, before they head off in different directions.

Obviously, any Jyn appearance (especially with Felicity Jones voicing her) is a special treat since she indisputably died at the end of Rogue One and probably won't be seen in any other spin-offs. One of her most humanizing moments in the film was when she picked up a little girl to save her in the middle of a skirmish on Jedha, so it makes sense that she'd once again try to save others from the loss that she endured as a child.
Unfortunately, these shorts are beginning to feel a bit repetitive, with each heroine predictably using a creative, conveniently-nonlethal method to dispatch their one-note villains and save their cute friends. Future episodes should take a page from "The Imposter Inside" and tell stories that feels more unique to the characters they're centered on.

"Bounty of Trouble"

We've got another cool team-up on our hands for the last installment in Forces of Destiny's first season. Once again in Garel City, Leia – in her iconic white gown and hood – is escorted by two stormtroopers. Sabine Wren distracts them with a paint bomb and "captures" the princess so Leia can hand over an Imperial data tape in private. 
They're soon chased by assassin droid IG-88. The stormtroopers return and Leia sends them after the droid. Sabine thanks her for the data tape and tells Leia to keep on taking down the Empire from the inside, while Sabine fights them on the front lines. "I hope one day we can fight together," Leia replies, and the two women run off in opposite directions.

Unlike most of the other episodes, this one actually tells us something new about old characters by revealing how Leia was working to sabotage the Empire even while remaining part of its Senate, in the years before A New Hope. And though IG-88's appearance is probably meaningless to most, it's actually pretty cool since he's one of the few bounty hunters from The Empire Strikes Back who never showed up in The Clone Wars or Rebels.
Although the action in this episode isn't as engaging as in previous shorts (Sabine would be using real explosives if this were Rebels), it does a nice job of breaking from the aforementioned formula, and the ending packs more of an emotional punch than the heroines simply reaching a happy resolution as the frame slowly zooms out (as seen in every single previous episode). Leia and Sabine will keep fighting, even if they never meet again.

In conclusion...

Thanks to Forces of Destiny's kid-friendly tone, it will never be able to tell stories as serious as those in The Clone Wars or Rebels, much less "finish The Clone Wars" in the way that some fans might have wished. There are exactly zero on-screen deaths (unless you count the droid that Ahsoka defeats), and most of the villains receive minimal consequences at most.

And yet, if you look past the cheesy "Help, save my baby!" and "Help, save my cat!" moments, Forces of Destiny does fulfill its promise of telling bite-sized stories that maintain the central themes of Star Wars. The fact that the protagonists are almost entirely female shouldn't be alienating male fans, since it's their already-established heroic traits, not their genders, that make them so relatable.
Forces of Destiny works best when it strays from the movies and explores these characters in new and different environments and time periods. Filling in gaps between scenes isn't nearly as interesting as telling new stories that expand upon the Star Wars canon. 

Yes, Forces of Destiny has its flaws, but it's ultimately a successful venture by Disney and Lucasfilm and a project that they will undoubtedly continue (eight more episodes are already slated to be released in the fall). Its anthology style gives it the unprecedented potential to feature any and all of our favorite Star Wars characters from across the eras, and hearing the same actresses who played/voiced them before is what ties it all together.

Which episode of Forces of Destinyis your favorite? Who and what are you hoping to see in future episodes? Tell me in the comments or tweet to @SithObserver, and may the Force be with you all.

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