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‘Star Wars: Visions’ Review: Anime Series Is One of the Franchise’s Best Titles in a Decade

"Star Wars: Visions," which hails from seven Japanese anime studios, is one of the franchise's best titles of its Disney-owned era.

"Star Wars: Visions"

“Star Wars: Visions”

Disney

[Editor’s Note: The following review is based on all nine episodes of “Star Wars: Visions” and contains spoilers for Episode 1.]

Star Wars: Visions” is one of, if not the best, titles — television, film, or otherwise — to come out of the sci-fi franchise’s era under Disney ownership. It’s a beautifully animated and smartly written homage to everything that fans love about “Star Wars,” as well as the rare kind of installment in a multi-billion dollar IP that doesn’t feel like it was created by committee or focus-tested until all the artistry has been stripped away. If you’re a “Star Wars” fan who has become apathetic toward lightsabers and the Force in recent years, “Visions” could remind you about what made you love the franchise in the first place.

That’s a lot of extremely high praise, but “Visions” earns it over the course of its nine brief episodes. The animated anthology series’ episodes hail from seven Japanese anime studios and each installment boasts distinct artistic styles and tones. Almost all of the characters in “Visions” are original creations and, as with all successful anthology series, “Visions” excels at getting viewers emotionally invested in each character they meet despite their limited screen time. That’s all the more impressive, given the series’ brevity; the episodes are short — ranging from around 13 to 21 minutes each — and though some of them are bound to leave viewers wanting to know what happens next, they all tell satisfying, self-contained stories.

Almost everything that is great about “Visions” is exemplified in “The Duel,” the series’ first episode (produced by Kamikaze Douga) and one of its clearest standouts. The episode is a tribute to classic Japanese samurai films and wears its influences proudly, up to and including the (mostly) black and white art style, complete with film scratch effects, and the way it’s centered on a wandering warrior. “What if a rōnin, but lightsabers?!” essentially sums up the plot, and though the episode more or less plays out as one would expect from that synopsis, the moment-to-moment action, limited but effective dialogue, and eye-popping visuals are so appealing that the predictability is moot.

“The Duel,” like most of the rest of “Visions,” does an admirable job of characterizing its key personnel and the places they inhabit via stellar animation and voice work, rather than overlong exposition. The nameless protagonist in “The Duel” (voiced by Masaki Terasoma in Japanese and Brian Tee in the dub) speaks and moves with a world weariness that gradually makes more sense as some of the tools in his possession are revealed, while the villain he faces (a genuinely sinister bandit leader voiced by Akeno Watanabe in Japanese and by Lucy Liu in the dub) serves as an effective foil. The episode strikes a perfect balance between showing and telling enough to lay out an effective narrative while simultaneously keeping certain details ambiguous enough to create a sense of wonder and allowing viewers’ imaginations to run wild.

"Star Wars: Visions"

The Elder (voiced by Kenichi Ogata in Japanese and James Hong in the English dub) in “Star Wars: Visions”

Disney

Some “Visions” episodes’ plots are more unpredictable — the musically-inclined “Tatooine Rhapsody” (produced by Studio Colorido) explores a fairly crazy idea and is an absolute joy because of it — while others tell comparably traditional “Star Wars” tales about Jedi and Sith. Most of the episodes fall into the latter category and revolve around Force users, but even though “Visions” doesn’t always reinvent the “Star Wars” wheel, each of the individual episodes offers some sort of unique spin on the franchise’s history that keeps things fresh. Aside from a few catchphrases, such as the handful of characters who “have a bad feeling about this,” there’s not much in the way of audience pandering or recycled world building; “Visions” easily stands on its own thanks to its engaging narratives and lived-in performances. Also, the action scenes are phenomenal: There are a multitude of thrilling lightsaber duels featuring instantly memorable characters (“The Elder,” from production house Studio Trigger, has one of the franchise’s all-timers) throughout the nine episodes that will leave “Star Wars” fans on the edge of their seats. Have you been waiting for the spiritual successor to Genndy Tartakovsky’s “Clone Wars?” This could very well be it.

There has been some talk in critics’ circles, as well as objective news reports, about the “Marvel-fication” of “Star Wars” in recent years. Like Disney’s behemoth superhero IP, “Star Wars” has become a franchise that is designed to self-perpetuate (eight live-action “Star Wars” shows are currently in varying stages of development). “Visions” would still be a stellar franchise installment if it were released in a void of “Star Wars” content, but there’s no doubt that part of the reason the series is so appealing right now is because it doesn’t come across as a series that has been exhaustively focus-tested by Disney and Lucasfilm executives to court and retain Disney+ subscribers or created primarily to produce additional spin-offs and merchandising opportunities. Whether that’s actually true is unclear, but regardless, “Visions” plays like a creatively-driven and infectiously enthusiastic tribute to “Star Wars” from a diverse array of artists who have a genuine affection for the source material.

Disney+ is releasing all of “Visions” Season 1 at once and provided screeners of each episode to critics in advance of the series’ premiere. Both the release schedule and the advance screeners are a stark contrast to how Disney has handled the rollout for its streaming service’s highest-profile titles, such as “The Mandalorian” and the Marvel Cinematic Universe shows. That could suggest that Disney expects “Visions” to be a comparatively low-key release for the platform; I can only hope that Disney+ subscribers will exceed whatever expectations the House of Mouse has for the show. “Visions,” as well the animation studios behind it, warrant the support. “Star Wars” will go on, and if there’s any justice in the world, “Visions” and the creative teams behind it will be part of that future.

Grade: A

“Star Wars: Visions” Season 1 premieres on Disney+ on Wednesday, September 22.

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