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Has Disney Mismanaged Star Wars? Yes and No

Ah to be in 2012 again, when Disney’s purchase of Lucasfilm set off a firestorm of anticipation for new Star Wars content. There actually was a ton of Star Wars content in the pipeline, most of it announced at Star Wars Celebration 2012, and most of it canceled by King Mouse. Almost eight years later, it’s time to assess what the high-pitched, personality-less, mouse-man has done with George Lucas’ most enduring creation.

In 2012, Star Wars was actually in pretty good shape. “The Clone Wars” animated series had established itself as the best received Star Wars property since the Original Trilogy. Del Ray Publishing cranked out an Extended Universe book or two every year. Lucas Arts had just released “The Force Unleashed” series a few years earlier and was deep into production on Star Wars 1313, a game about Boba Fett. The Disney purchase wiped out all three.

What did Disney do with Star Wars? Let’s evaluate.

1. Star Wars Rebels (2014)

I’ve been watching Star Wars Rebels for the first time on Disney Plus. I’m pleasantly surprised by how good it is. It takes the best elements of The Clone Wars and some of the best elements of the Extended Universe and combines them.

The problem? Disney broadcast it on the little watched Disney XD channel. What should have been the triumphant start of Disney’s Star Wars ownership largely met a collective shrug outside of the Star Wars fan base because no one could watch it while it was actually on television.

2. The “New” Books, Comics, etc.

It took twenty years, dozens of novels, comics, and video games to fill in the story of what happened during the thirty years after Return of the Jedi. Instead of taking the best elements of that Extended Universe and incorporating them into the new stories, Disney wiped the slate clean. While this allowed for creative freedom, it also resulted in a rush to fill in the gaps.

I haven’t read very much of the new books or comics or played all the new video games, but some are much better than others. The Battleground games were a dumpster fire, for example, but the new Timothy Zahn Thrawn books have been well received.

The original Extended Universe was often hit or miss as well, so we’ll call this one a wash.

3. Star Wars Episode 7: The Force Awakens

The Force Awakens is a well made, entertaining film. Critics and audiences loved it at the time, and re-watching it a few years later, I find it holds up extremely well. It may not be the most creative film, though, since it borrows heavily from the original Star Wars (Episode 4: A New Hope).

Was it a missed opportunity to borrow so heavily from Star Wars? Did we really need another Death Star? Certainly Disney left some of the creative cards on the table here. In fact, trying to establish a brand new story while at the same time trying to connect to the older story resulted in the Sequel Trilogy’s biggest flaws.

4. Rogue One

Rogue One, also known as “The One Where Everybody Dies,” had production issues, but the final result was a bold, propulsive action movie of the highest caliber. I have no complaints about the film itself.

Rogue One’s success gave Disney too much confidence in it’s strategy to make a “side-quest” movie every other year. Disney couldn’t reasonably expect to pump out a Star Wars movie every year, AND have all of those movies finish in the top ten of the highest grossing films of all time. However, that seems to be exactly what Disney expected.

5. Star Wars Episode 8: The Last Jedi

I’ve defended The Last Jedi for over two years, but even I have to admit that the film is a house of cards. It looks spectacular for the most part, and it certainly contains a new take on Star Wars. It certainly has its champions. In retrospect, however, I think we will grow to see it as the weakest film of Disney’s initial five film output.

Too much of The Last Jedi simply does not work. Leia’s “flying through space” scene should have landed on the cutting room floor for bad shot composition. The Canto Bight detour robbed us of the best character interaction set up by J.J. Abrams: the friendship between Poe and Finn. In exchange, Johnson gave us dumber, more isolated versions of both characters.

The list goes on and on. What we’re left with is a Star Wars bottle episode that feels out of place given what J.J. Abrams did with Episode 9.

6. Star Wars: Resistance

Did you know there’s a cartoon created by the Rebels/Clone Wars team set during the Sequel Trilogy era? I didn’t either until recently. It’s been somewhat well reviewed, and I’ll check it out on Disney Plus. Disney has no excuse for any Star Wars series having such anonymity, I’ll tell you that much.

7. Solo

Ron Howard turned around a hellish production and gave us a solid, enjoyable film. It’s not exactly The Godfather, but it’s fun and pretty damn rewatchable. It also made so little money at the Box Office (relatively speaking compared to other Star Wars movies, it still made a ton), that it killed Disney’s “Star Wars movie every year” strategy. That will serve us well in the future.

8. Star Wars Episode 9: The Rise of Skywalker

Want to piss off the entertainment media? Make a move like Episode 9, apparently. I’ve purposefully avoided reviews and commentary online about this film, but critics can’t help but take pot shots at it even while discussing other topics. I really enjoyed it, and I saw it twice just to make sure. What I like most about it was how heavily J.J. Abrams bought into the high fantasy elements of Star Wars to create a movie that felt big enough to conclude a nine movie epic.

Episode 9 does feel like Abrams cramming two movies into one at times, however, and that was entirely avoidable.

As a completed product, the Sequel Trilogy feels like a push and pull between two filmmakers with wildly different ideas as to what direction to take Star Wars. If J.J. Abrams took too few risks in Episode 7, Rian Johnson took too many in Episode 8.

Watching all three in order, it feels like Johnson throws out everything Abrams set up in Episode 7. Then Abrams throws out most of what Johnson did to do what he wanted to do anyway. The lack of a central creative focus, or in fact, any plan makes the Sequel Trilogy enjoyable, but a missed opportunity.

In retrospect, I think that Disney would have been better served by adapting Timothy Zahn’s groundbreaking “Heir to the Empire” series for the Sequel Trilogy instead of starting wholecloth. People would have gotten over re-casting the main characters with younger actors. If that was Disney’s only hang up, it’s a massive, unforced error on its own, but there’s no evidence that Disney even considered adapting Heir to the Empire – a bantha sized mistake.

10. The Mandalorian, Clone Wars, Cassian Andor Series, and the Future.

First of all, The Mandalorian rocks. It rocks harder than any of the five Disney Star Wars films.

Additionally, The Clone Wars series will finally get the wrap up it deserves. While we know what happens to Cassian Andor, Diego Luna is one of the most underrated actors of his generation, so I’m looking forward to that series too. On Disney Plus, Star Wars has found a good home.

Game of Thrones ended with a thud, but it also demonstrated that a television series is a better platform for high fantasy storytelling than the “film trilogy” model. The Mandalorian has more room to breathe in its world than the Sequel Trilogy, for example. Then again, that’s also part of why The Clone Wars is light-years better than the Prequel Trilogy.

Conclusion

Is Star Wars in a better place now than in 2012? The Sequel Trilogy contains better films than the Prequel Trilogy, but it largely left creative capital on the table. Rogue One and Solo are solid films, but also showed Disney why they couldn’t water down their product. The “new” extended universe content does not appear better or worse than the old extended universe content.

That said, the television output of Star Wars has gotten better and better.

While there have been missteps, Star Wars also has a bright future ahead of it. I for one, am excited to find out what the future holds for Baby Yoda and company.

(C) 2020 D.G. McCabe

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Movies

Reflections on Fantasia (1940) and Fantasia 2000 (1999)

Fantasia and Fantasia 2000

Fantasia – Produced by Walt Disney, U.S. 1940

Fantasia 2000 – Produced by Roy E. Disney, U.S., 1999

The power of instrumental music comes from its ability to stir the imagination.  What I see in my mind’s eye when listening to Stravinsky or Tchaikovsky or Bach is different from what you see in yours.  Film hasn’t always taken advantage of this – after all, the music is usually set to the images, not the other way around.

Enter Fantasia.  Like its creator, Walt Disney, it was extraordinarily ambitious – setting animation to towering masterworks of instrumental music. The film itself is a masterpiece – highly influential and almost unique in the history of motion pictures.

Disney’s original concept for Fantasia was a traveling expedition that would be revisited every so often.  The poor cinematic showing of Fantasia’s first release, World War II, and Disney’s other projects (see Land, Disney) shelved revisiting the Fantasia concept.  While the original Fantasia became more popular with every re-release, re-edit, and re-issue, it would be sixty years before the studio got around to making another one.

The original Fantasia doesn’t really have any misfires.  Night on Bald Mountain is terrifying and a personal favorite.  The Dance of the Hours and Pastoral Symphony are great fun and beautiful examples of the capabilities of 1930’s animation (although early versions of the latter had some problems, since edited out).  The Nutcracker Suite and Rite of Spring are complete re-imaginations of these pieces that have little to do with the accompanying ballets.

Fantasia 2000 is inferior to the original, but not by much.    The Sorcerer’s Apprentice – Mickey Mouse’s tour de force – appears in both versions, but otherwise the selections are different.  The Beethoven’s 5th segment is well animated, but doesn’t measure up to its score.  The Steadfast Tin Soldier is a bit strange as well.  None of the other segments are problematic.  Pines of Rome and the Firebird Suite are majestic celebrations of the natural world.  Pomp and Circumstance provides Donald Duck with his Fantasia moment as Noah’s first mate.  The Carnival of the Animals is almost as much fun as the dancing hippos.  Finally, Rhapsody in Blue is showcased as a love letter to New York City which could have come straight the imagination of Gershwin himself.

I hope Disney considers revisiting the Fantasia project in the coming years.  After all, there is a lot of ground to cover in the world of instrumental music.  It should be pointed out that while both Fantasias are “in the vault,” a live version is being played this summer by symphonies around the country.  I recently saw the National Symphony Orchestra’s rendition at Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts outside of Washington, DC and it was well worth the price of admission to say the least.  I would highly recommend checking out a performance is one is available to you.

(c) 2014 D.G. McCabe

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Movies

Frozen (2013)

Frozen

Directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee, 2013, U.S.

The other of day’s two back-reviews is Frozen (2013).  Let’s consider this my first Oscar preview article, since Frozen is the lead candidate for Best Animated Film.  In fact, in my opinion it could have been nominated for Best Picture in general, joining Beauty and Beast (1991), Up (2009), and Toy Story 3 (2010) as the only animated films nominated for Best Picture.

How good is Frozen?  It’s certainly up there with Disney’s best animated films, and is an unexpected callback to what is now called “The Disney Renaissance.”  The Disney Renaissance generally refers to Disney’s winning streak between The Little Mermaid (1989) and Tarzan (1999), or more specifically before the main Disney animation studio handed the baton to Pixar as the main focus of Disney’s animation efforts.

Frozen’s success comes from its ability to challenge well established Disney conventions, but flawlessly execute some of those conventions when it needs to.  Like many classic Disney fare, it is loosely based on a classic story, in this case Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen.” The dark, heavily religious story is completely transformed.  What sets this apart other Disney films that “Disneyfy” dark fairy tales is that the changes don’t feel forced.

This is mainly due to the film’s focus on the relationship between Princess Anna (Kristen Bell) and Queen Elsa (Idina Menzel) as sisters rather than it being a romantic love story in the conventional sense.  There is a romantic subplot, but it stays as a subplot instead of overtaking the entire film.  The focus of the film, and its ending, change what could have been a standard, someday-my-prince-will-come, Disney-phoning-it-in, story into something that deeply connects with its target audience.

As noted above, Frozen’s other strength is that it doesn’t throw the mouse out with the bathwater.  Like the classic or renaissance Disney films, the music is fantastic.  There is also the obligatory fantasy creature for comic relief, and what could easily have been a cheesy or juvenile element hits on all cylinders.  Olaf, the talking snowman (Josh Gad), is one of the funniest characters in this or any film.

Frozen is the unlikeliest of films, in that it takes a well worn shoe and makes it new again.  Or in this case, two large, yellow well worn shoes.

You might like Frozen if: You ever liked any classic or renaissance Disney film, you have kids, you like animation, or you like comedies.

You might not like Frozen if: The only films you want to see about Scandinavia are bleak and existential.  In this case I would recommend “Let the Right One In” (2004), where the real vampire is the vampire within.

(c) 2014 D.G. McCabe