‘Star Wars: Visions’ offers a shot of adrenaline to a flagging franchise

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Not so long ago on internet message boards not nearly far enough away, Star Wars fans suited up for battle. While Disney’s purchase of the iconic franchise breathed new life into a series that had been mostly quiet during the decade following 2005’s “Revenge of the Sith,” it also sparked furious debates over the future of the property.

 Should new Star Wars films aim to mirror the themes, plots and characters of the beloved original trilogy? Fans and critics initially hailed 2015’s “The Force Awakens,” as a return to form before reversing course and deciding that the “A New Hope” retread had actually returned a little too closely to the form of George Lucas’ 1977 film. Rian Johnson’s 2017 follow-up veered in the opposite direction, boldly distancing itself from the franchise’s past and attracting the wrath of a particularly vocal mass of fans. Perhaps stung by the criticism, Disney reversed course once again and produced the “The Rise of Skywalker,” a shocking jumble of fan service so obsessed with recapturing the magic of the original movies that it resembled less an actual film and more a drug-induced fever dream.

After four decades at the heart of American pop culture, Star Wars had lost its way.

“Visions” features several female protagonists and antagonists, continuing a trend from the sequel trilogy.

“Star Wars: Visions,” a new anthology of animated shorts streaming on Disney+, may not solve the question of how to handle future mainline Star Wars films, but it’s a step forward for the franchise nonetheless. Each of the nine episodes, which range in length from 14 to 23 minutes, contains an original vignette that offers a glimpse into a non-Skywalker section of the series’ universe. Few fans will be interested in every one of these stories, which differ drastically in tone and animation style, but that’s part of the thrill; for years, Star Wars has seemed terrified of making mistakes, but now, free from the pressure of multi-million-dollar operating budgets, there’s finally room to get creative, even weird.

Seven different Japanese animation studios contributed episodes to the series, and each story strikes a different balance between two major influences: classic Star Wars and Japanese art. The anthology’s opening chapter, “The Duel,” is a gorgeously drawn Samurai story that would demand viewing even if it didn’t include droids, lightsabers and an unmistakably Star Wars soundtrack. The follow-up episode, “Tatooine Rhapsody” spins off in the opposite direction – drawn in the cutesy “chibi” art style, it tells a silly story about a rock band trying to make it big in the galaxy.

Some episodes, like “Tatoonie Rhapsody,” are less Star Wars than anime with a Star Wars skin. Yet these serve as reminders that the franchise doesn’t need to pigeonhole itself to a single genre or tone.

Anime fans might appreciate lighthearted episodes like “Tatooine Rhapsody,” while mainstream Star Wars supporters will skip them altogether in favor of the more serious stories. But the real epiphany of “Visions” is that there’s room in the universe for a mix of tones, genres and target audiences. The existence of “Tatooine Rhapsody” does not in any way cheapen “The Duel” and in fact helps create the impression that anything could happen in any given episode. For the first time in ages, the franchise doesn’t seem burdened by its own massive weight.

As Disney prepares for the next phase of the Star Wars television and cinematic universe, it would be wise to take lessons from “Visions.” The franchise isn’t perfect – the inconsistent prequels, sequels and spinoffs have seen to that – but that should be liberating. Disney doesn’t need to protect the sanctity of Star Wars; it needs to let storytellers run wild. That will ensure fans get some things they want and some things they can complain about. And isn’t that what they really wanted all along?

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