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How ‘Star Wars Rebels’ Set the Tone for Disney’s Franchise Success

The animated series, which concluded its four-season run on Monday, is a model for successors who aspire to put their own spin on ‘Star Wars’ while staying true to the story’s roots

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When Star Wars Rebels completed its fourth and final season on Monday night, airing the last three of its 75 total episodes, it left behind a huge body of Disney-era Star Wars world-building. Over the past few years, the current corporate stewards of Star Wars have produced dozens of branded books, comics, and video games and released three (soon to be four) films, with a live-action TV series slated for Disney’s forthcoming streaming service and so many more movies on the way that the prospect of Star Wars saturation has fueled its own profusion of think pieces and podcasts. The Star Wars expanded universe, which Disney nearly wiped clean to clear a new course for the franchise, is swelling faster than ever before.

When Rebels premiered on Disney XD in October 2014, though, the properties that composed the Star Wars canon could be counted on Jabba the Hutt’s fat fingers. Less than six months earlier, Disney had decanonized decades of written, drawn, and programmed Star Wars works, restricting the stories that still “counted” to the original and prequel film trilogies and the George Lucas–created Star Wars: The Clone Wars, an animated series that premiered on Cartoon Network in 2008 and continued airing after Disney acquired the lucrative license in 2012. Aside from that foundation and a few miscellanea—including short stories in Star Wars Insider magazine and a comic-book miniseries adapted from unproduced scripts for The Clone WarsStar Wars was a blank slate when Disney began rolling out Rebels via various videos, books, and browser games in the summer of 2014. Rebels, a press release promised, would be “the first original entertainment” produced by Disney and Lucasfilm, a distinction that subjected the series to intense scrutiny. More than a year before The Force Awakens restored Star Wars to theaters, Rebels gave fans their first indication of what Disney would do with the franchise.

Wisely, Rebels’ creative team, which boasted several veterans of The Clone Wars—most notably Dave Filoni, who served as supervising director on both series—staked out a swath of uncharted timeline between the two preexisting trilogies. By beginning 14 years after Revenge of the Sith and five years before A New Hope, Rebels could incorporate characters from the original and prequel films without being entirely beholden to either. When Filoni had started work on The Clone Wars, he’d envisioned it revolving around the adventures of an original, recurring crew of a Millennium Falcon–like ship, with established Star Wars icons appearing only on the periphery. Instead, Lucas had insisted that the show focus on film characters like Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi. But with Lucas cashed out to Disney and reduced to insensitive sniping from the sidelines, Filoni was free to follow his muse. The path that he and his cocreators plotted during Rebels four-year run is a model for successors who aspire to put their own spin on Star Wars while staying true to the franchise’s roots.

From the beginning, Rebels borrowed beats that had long served as Star Wars mainstays. The series centers on the hero’s journey of Ezra Bridger, a young, Force-sensitive orphan on an Outer Rim world. Its core cast, which includes a Jedi survivor of Order 66 and a feisty, R2-D2-esque astromech droid named Chopper, makes its home on the Ghost—like the Falcon, a modified Corellian light freighter.

Yet Rebels was always its own entity. The series’ events unfold largely on Ezra’s native Lothal, an agrarian world that originated on Rebels. Although the protagonists of big-screen Star Wars installments are raised on out-of-the-way worlds, from Tatooine to Naboo to Jakku, they soon depart for the bright center to the universe that those planets are so far from. Rebels ranges throughout the galaxy, but its center never strays from Lothal, lending the series a strong sense of place. The fight for Lothal is a minor skirmish in a systems-spanning conflict, but by narrowing its scope to one relatively inconsequential planet and its small “Spectre” cell of freedom fighters, Rebels provided the saga’s most detailed depiction of Imperial oppression, clearly conveying the accumulation of cruelties that spawns resistance and rebellion.

Like the best Star Wars films, Rebels ostensibly caters to kids but rarely condescends or panders to its audience, which makes it engaging for fans of all ages. Although its tone tends to be light-hearted, occasionally lapsing into silliness and slapstick, it’s often emotional, mystical, or downright dark; the series finale alone features an orbital bombardment of a civilian population, several scenes of violent combat, and the destruction of a well-populated Imperial command center, which involves a massive loss of life.

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Rebels’ level of levity fluctuates from episode to episode and season to season, but from the start, the series boasted a consistent and distinctive visual style, placing its expressive, animated characters into sweeping and desolate pastel settings inspired by Ralph McQuarrie’s classic concept art for the original trilogy. Similarly, while the series repurposed the aural landscape of Star Wars—from the goosebump-inducing sounds of thrumming lightsabers, clanking AT-ATs, and screeching TIE fighters to the thrilling refrains of John Williams—its score regularly relied on new music that seamlessly linked with the old. Rebels looked and sounded like Star Wars while also looking and sounding like itself.

From its first few episodes on, the series struck the right balance between breaking new ground and dealing in fan service. Many major or minor characters from the prequels, The Clone Wars, and the original trilogy reappeared in Rebels, with the voices of Star Wars staples such as Billy Dee Williams, James Earl Jones, Anthony Daniels, Frank Oz, Warwick Davis, and, most delectably, Ian McDiarmid (who reprised his role as Emperor Palpatine just before Rebels bowed out) lending authenticity to their cameos.

When Rebels reached into the saga’s back catalog for a familiar face, though, it did so sparingly and for a reason, either clarifying a character’s fate (as it did for Darth Maul and The Clone Wars fan favorites Ahsoka Tano and Rex), establishing a backstory (for characters including future Rogue Squadron members Wedge and Hobbie), or offering a new angle on icons like Leia or Obi-Wan, the latter of whom guest-starred on Rebels during his desert years as Luke’s invisible babysitter. In its later seasons, the series shed light on the Alliance’s origins, arranging encounters between Ezra’s adoptive family and formative figures of the Rebellion like Mon Mothma and Bail Organa. But when heavy hitters from the franchise’s past popped up, the old names never upstaged the new series’ central figures. From R2-D2 to Darth Vader, they always seemed secondary—part of Spectre’s story, not the other way around.

In addition to drawing on canonical characters, Rebels reclaimed valuable lore that was lost when Disney reset the saga. Bit by bit, Rebels salvaged or fleshed out relics of the Expanded Universe: Settings such as Malachor, Shantipole, Concord Dawn, and Agamar; tech like the TIE Defender and Sith holocrons; and instruments of Palpatine’s power like the Inquisitorius and the Imperial Security Bureau. Most memorably, Rebels reintroduced characters, including brilliant tactician Grand Admiral Thrawn—a book creation whose popularity helped end the leanest years for the franchise—as well as Thrawn’s bodyguard, Rukh, his flagship, the Chimaera, and (thanks to a throwaway line in the finale), his second-in-command, Gilad Pellaeon. Each resurrection was a gift to hard-core fans who felt betrayed by Disney’s decision to sweep away Star Wars history.

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Even as it unearthed artifacts from the franchise’s past, Rebels pushed Star Wars in welcome new directions. Before Disney’s blockbuster films expanded the demographics of Star Wars’ core characters, Rebels positioned women (like Sabine, a female Mandalorian) as indomitable military leaders and gave prominent recurring roles to non-white voice actors such as Tiya Sircar, Keone Young, and David Oyelowo. With more screen time to dole out, Rebels also counterbalanced the movies’ speciesist slant: Two of the five members of the Spectre team are non-human, including Lasat enforcer Zeb and the group’s leader, Hera Syndulla, a female Twi’lek who eventually ascends to the rank of general in the Rebel Alliance and proves that her species can aspire to something grander than serving as a dancer or majordomo at a crime lord’s court. Like The Last Jedi, Rebels tinkers with traditional representations of the Force, introducing a powerful Force-user who leans neither Light nor Dark and hinting at a form of Force-assisted time travel. And later additions to Disney’s Star Wars lineup had spiritual predecessors or analogs on Rebels: Ezra was a self-serving thief turned Alliance ally before Rogue One’s Jyn Erso, while Oyelowo’s Agent Kallus made a more convincing conversion from bad guy to good than The Force Awakens Finn or Battlefront II’s Iden Versio.

On Monday, Rebels’ final arc led to the long-sought liberation of Lothal, culminating in a sequence of shots of the emancipated planet that mirrored the premiere’s portrayal of the Empire’s arrival. Spectre’s ultimate triumph stemmed from the selfless actions of Ezra, who despite never fixing his horrible haircut completed his moral maturation and severed any remaining dependence on his parents or his master, Kanan Jarrus, the Freddie Prinze Jr.–voiced Jedi who mentored Ezra and sacrificed himself to save the rest of the crew in the fourth season’s second half. As the series drew near its end, each of Ezra’s comrades completed an arc of his or her own, growing personally and professionally and further uniting the squad: Kanan and Hera became more capable and confident as leaders and lovers, while Zeb learned that he wasn’t the last of his race and Sabine regained the respect of her family and inspired Mandalore’s clans to launch their own anti-Empire offensive.

Kanan aside, all of Rebels’ principals survived the series, leaving open the possibility that they could return in future Star Wars stories. (The last scene strongly suggested that in some cartoon, book, or comic to come, Sabine and Ahsoka will band together to find Ezra, who went missing when he and a captive Thrawn jumped to hyperspace during the Empire’s ouster from Lothal.) Regardless of whether they resurface someday, though, they’ve already woven themselves into the franchise’s fabric. Chopper and the Ghost appear in Rogue One, which inserts another Rebels Easter egg when a voice on Yavin IV’s Rebel-base PA system pages a “General Syndulla.” In a 2017 animated microseries created for YouTube and the Disney Channel, Sabine crosses paths with Jyn Erso and Hera hobnobs with Han and Chewie after taking part in the Battle of Endor. For fans of Rebels, these character crossovers feel less like gimmicks than well-deserved nods to fully fledged characters who earned their places in the franchise’s firmament.

In one of Rebels’ last episodes, “A World Between Worlds,” Ezra enters the Jedi temple on Lothal and discovers a cosmic hub between far-flung times and places. As he walks through this astral plane, he hears snippets of dialogue sampled from every era of Star Wars. Yoda’s voice intones axioms from Attack of the Clones, Revenge of the Sith, and The Empire Strikes Back. Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon Jinn converse in The Clone Wars. Jyn chimes in from Rogue One. Rey, Kylo Ren, Poe Dameron, and Maz Kanata speak up from The Force Awakens. And amid the murmur of more famous lines, the voices of Ahsoka, Ezra, and Kanan echo from earlier episodes of Rebels. The scene encapsulates Rebels’ role in the legacy of Star Wars: The series both knits together and stands alongside the shows and movies that pre- and postdate its debut. The first two Star Wars anthology films, Rogue One and Solo, are closer to prequels than stand-alone titles. Rebels is the best example so far of an on-screen Star Wars release that interfaces with the franchise at large but doesn’t owe its appeal to a previously established event or character.

“We took Lothal without them,” Zeb says in one of Rebels’ closing scenes. “We can keep it without them.” Although he’s referring to the Rebel Alliance, the line might just as easily allude to Rebels’ refusal to use previous Star Wars stories as a crutch. The series ends with the traditional iris out that marks the conclusions of the Star Wars films, a nod to the shared visual language that helps bind a fictional galaxy together. But before the credits roll, the camera lingers on a mural of the series’ starring sextet, surrounded by the spires, flora, and fauna of Lothal. By liberating Lothal, those characters accomplished their mission. And by successfully kick-starting Star Wars second act, they fulfilled Disney’s directive, too.