An early draft of this review was originally published on May 23, 2023,
at Give Me Some Light on Substack, almost three months before it appeared here.
Subscribe, and you’ll read these reviews while the movies are still in theaters!

It’s because of my love for the journey of the original Star Wars trilogy that I’m bothering to write this.

In my experience — which, I know, will differ substantially from others’ experiences depending on their age and the way they came to Star Wars universe — the original trilogy played out as a complete and almost completely satisfying saga in itself, serving as formative influence in my understanding of the art of storytelling.

I saw the films between the ages of 7–13, although I was disallowed from seeing The Empire Strikes Back in that theater because the conservative evangelicals of my cultural bubble were convinced it was occulting and dangerous. (I’ve written about this substantially in my moviegoing memoir Through a Screen Darkly.) Episodes 4–6 taught me about the basic bones of mythological storytelling. They had a daring moral vision that eventually corrected and transcended the basic us-versus-them plotlines that dominated adventure storytelling then and that still dominate media today. They championed love, humility, self-control, patience, kindness, faithfulness, and empathy over enmity. The lightsabers were important, but even more important was when, how, and why they were used. It was, ultimately, an epic instilling the moral vision that today some would call antifa.

Because of that profound experience, I’ve remained skeptical of — and have usually been disappointed by — anything branded as Star Wars post-1983.

The prequels? I’ve made my peace with them. I worked hard to love them because I wanted so badly to return to that context, with those sound effects, that John Williams music, and those themes. But eventually, my optimism — my “new hope,” if you will — collapsed under the weight of increasing annoyance with their bloatedness and their blandness. They were packed with intriguing ideas, but they rarely suspended my disbelief. Lucas had become a very different artist, with very different interests, and by returning to the director’s chair he revealed that the original trilogy’s greatness was a result of remarkable and unrepeatable collaborative chemistry in a particular context that could not be re-created. He revealed that he had become a terrible director of actors; in fact, he seemed uninterested in them as anything more than mannequins in costumes. He revealed inadvertently that the magic of the first series had everything to do with lovingly handmade hardware; very little in the glossy animation of the prequels looks convincing or weighty. And he also revealed that the limitations on his creativity in those first films were a blessing that kept him from spoiling the work with excess and ill-advised tangents. The prequels, while they remain an important historical artifact for their important advances in digital-animation, were poorly cast, amateurish and dull in their screenwriting, overly long, and seemed to exist in a different universe than the original stories.

Regarding all of the arguments about what is “canon” and what isn’t — I don’t accept the third trilogy, especially the two films directed by J.J. Abrams, as canon. Why? The first six films, for all of their highs and lows, were a coherent saga from a single storyteller. There was a human soul that served as the foundation, the conscience, the “yes” and the “no” of things. In the third trilogy, it’s clear that committees are much more instrumental in the storytelling, weighing how to keep fans happy, trying to repeat what worked before, and serving up “surprises” that were just variations on surprises we’d seen in this universe before. They are derivative and sentimental, and they contradict the moral trajectory of the original Skywalker saga, effectively dismissing what was profound about it in the first place.

The exception: Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi has been the only Star Wars film post-1983 that I found engaging and, occasionally, thrilling. Here was a brave storyteller with the guts to challenge audiences with new and meaningful ideas rather than just playing to the crowd. It made me believe that there might still be some potential for genuine artists asking unexpected questions that would lead to significant revelations and consequences within this world of ideas. It was still “fan fiction.” And I believe that’s what were stuck with forever, at this point — fan fiction of varying quality. Fan fiction can be meaningful and even inspiring, sure. But that is very, very hard to achieve.

And now, in the era of Star Wars as television franchising, I’m more likely to cringe and avoid anything branded as Star Wars than I am to invest any time in it. I’ve been insulted too many times, bored too many times, even frustrated. The only TV series of this kind that has really engaged and moved me so far has been Tony Gilroy’s Andor, a Star Wars series for adults with outstanding writing, consistently excellent performances, and a story arc that restored the joy of surprise to the Star Wars universe for me for the first time since The Last Jedi. By my lights, Rian Johnson and Tony Gilroy have set the standard for what is possible. Those guys are authors with meaningful stories to tell.

While The Mandalorian got off to an enjoyable start, it did so by leaning too heavily into fan service, sentimentality, and the kind of plot twists that keep narrowing the Star Wars universe to a community in which everybody seems to know everybody. It also had plenty of storylines that contradicted that core backbone of the original trilogy’s moral vision. At times, it’s shown us what high-spirited fanboys with some imagination and a lot of money can do on a good day. It has expanded the Star Wars universe in an entertaining fashion, but without deepening what it all means.

I couldn’t be bothered with The Book of Boba Fett, and the takes I heard from big Mandalorian fans seemed to consistently support my decision: “Well, it’s not very good until the Mandalorian shows up.” Great.

I avoided Star Wars Visions, Season One as well, as I heard that the storytelling was poor. So I didn’t pay any attention to the promotions of Star Wars Visions, Season Two… until somebody said two magic words:

“Cartoon Saloon.”



The studio that created The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea, The Breadwinner, and Wolfwalkers, the most impressive run of animated masterpieces since the height of Studio Ghibli and the golden age of Pixar?

I tuned in as soon as I had an opportunity, and I was not disappointed… by that particular episode. It was visually dazzling, unpredictable, and… well, I’ll say more later. The price I paid for enjoying Cartoon Saloon’s installment so much was that I ended up watching the whole series in the hopes of more surprises. More often that not, the shorts were disappointing.

So, since I want to make something useful of the time I invested, here’s my report card on Star Wars Visions, Season Two.


“Journey to the Dark Head”

Directed by Park Hyeong-geun

Letterboxd synopsis:

A hopeful mechanic and a disillusioned Jedi team up for an unlikely quest to turn the tide of war.

All of my anime pet peeves are here:

  • More emphasis on emotion than storytelling substance.
  • Characters who seem to careen between extreme emotions in ways that make me think it must be exhausting to be them.
  • A preoccupation with faces distorted with rage in close-up.
  • A boy and a girl falling through the clouds — every single time!
  • Seemingly endless fight scenes.

Also, this dude Toul is the worst Jedi candidate I’ve ever seen. Seeing this guy taken seriously and sent out on a mission unsupervised? My faith in Jedi Councils has never been lower.

Also, I do not understand what in the world this is all supposed to mean. Whenever conversations about “the Balance of the Force” conclude with “Welp, the light and the dark will always be equally entangled, and there will always be hope and despair in equal measure,” I’m always like “Great. I’m out. What’s the point? What does hope even mean if we can only hope for a perpetuation of suffering?”

“The Pit”

Directed by Justin Ridge, LeAndre Thomas

Letterboxd synopsis:

A young prisoner, forced to dig for kyber by the Empire, plans an escape for [himself] and his people.

Well, okay — let’s at least acknowledge that the plot has its present-day relevance. The Pit focuses on a slave-labor community who struggle against despair when their overlords abandon them down in the very mining pit they themselves have dug, and nobody can think of a way out. Throw a rock in the air these days and you’ll strike an exploited worker of one kind or another.

But thematic relevance is not the secret to great art. This animated short is unremarkable in almost every way — easily the weakest of the eight Visions S2 episodes I’ve watched so far. Some of these Visions episodes demonstrate very little overlap between their stories and the Star Wars universe, and this one is the worst offender on that count. The slave-drivers of this naive mining crew are stormtroopers, and the mining operation is for kyber crystals (which even a lot of Star Wars fans don’t know very much about). And that’s it.

This may well have started out as someone’s idea of a dystopian fantasy film in the vein of Mad Max that was then hastily revised to include a couple of recognizable Star Wars designs just to qualify. That makes it feel extraneous… or just extra.

As a result, its greatest distinction its its primarily black cast — an honorable priority, but when poorly handled it results in clumsy, heavy-handed allegory.

And yet, hey — Daveed Diggs!



Directed by Rodrigo Blaas

Letterboxd synopsis:

A former Sith apprentice, leading a peaceful, but isolated life, is confronted by the past when her old master tracks her down.

Come on — whoever wrote that synopsis has buried the lede: This is a movie about recovering Sith apprentice who has run away to sort out her troubles through art-making. Sounds like my kind of Star Wars story!

“Sith” is the opening episode of Visions S2, and it gets things off to a splashy start with vivid watercolor-ish fireworks, an effectively sinister Sith Lord, and the latest in a long line of Star Wars fan-fiction funky little Droids Adorbs.

But the protagonist, whose design combination of a Terminator cyborg arm and a Cruella DeVille hairstyle suggests a complicated character, turns out to be a bore.

And at the end of the story, I feel less knowledgeable about the cosmic battle of light against darkness — I don’t find any kind of wisdom in the battle’s resolution, or anything in particular to admire about our “hero” except that she decided she wanted to leave the Baddies and start an art studio.

Pleasing to look at and listen to, but ultimately less than the sum of its finger-painty parts.

“In the Stars”

Directed by Gabriel Osorio

Letterboxd synopsis:

Two sisters, the last of their kind who live in hiding on their ravaged land, squabble about how to survive with the Empire encroaching. On a water run, the sisters must fight back when they are discovered.

Clearly a labor of love, and glorious feat of stop-animation. Although the open chapter gets awkward with exposition to fill us in on the sisters’ backstory, that backstory is cleverly animated with something resembling chalk art. After that, the sisters embark on an adventure to steal drinkable water from some kind of Imperial pollution plant that’s turned their world toxic, and that’s where the complexity of the animation becomes rather astounding.

And yet, once again I find the storytelling ultimately dissatisfying. In this world, it seems that the Force is just too easy, too accessible, ready to use whenever you need if you just furrow your brow, clench your teeth, and concentrate hard enough. That makes the Force less mysterious, less interesting, less meaningful. No only that but it seems that just about any architectural monstrosity established by the Empire is take-downable if you just strike the right point.

The calamity at the film’s conclusion is bizarrely over-the-top, not to mention inexplicable.


“The Bandits of Golak”

Directed by Ishan Shukla

Letterboxd synopsis:

Pursued by the Empire, a boy and his force-sensitive younger sister seek refuge at a vibrant dhaba.

Weirdly inconsistent in its animation — needed another six months of work. It looks like a low-budget straight-to-video production for Sunday schools.

I like the slow-build of tension in how The Force is used in this episode, beginning with a child’s sense of innocent play and then building to some truly unsettling levitations.

Boy, they really went all in on making up for lack of certain cultural representation here, didn’t they? Has any Star Wars environment ever adhered more closely to particular Planet Earth ethnic context? At one point I was bracing for this to blow up into a full-on Bollywood musical number, and I was actually a little disappointed when it didn’t.

At this point in this Visions season I’m weary of lightsabers. The magic of lightsabers in Star Wars used to be in their scarcity, and now it’s just “You get a lightsaber and you get a lightsaber and you…!” Still, this duel is flashy and has a decent sense of gravity.

Plot-wise, this one works well with Screecher’s Reach to bring symmetry and balance to the Force.


“Aau’s Song”

Directed by Nadia Darries, Daniel Clarke

Letterboxd synopsis:

A child who longs to sing must stay quiet because her voice can cause great calamity in the mines.

Watch this one for the loveliness of fabric animation.

While the story’s connection to Star Wars is slight and inconsequential (like so many of these stories), the love and passion evident in the handmade art is radiant. It’s like one of those children’s illustrated storybooks that are designed for us to touch the illustrations — the three-dimensionality of the stop-animation textures is enthralling. It’s not designed to show off; rather, it creates a distinctive animated world. I can imagine Disney/Lucasfilm selling some toys from this one to small children who bond with Aau.

You might call this one, of all of these Visions… the most heart-felt.

Thank you! Thank you! I’ll be here all week. Come back. Bring a friend.


“The Spy Dancer”

Directed by Julien Chheng

Letterboxd synopsis:

The premier dancer at an Imperial-frequented cabaret is tested when her identity is compromised.

Okay, a question about the opening scene: Isn’t that one guy in the opening scenes a little chonky for a stormtrooper? Are these troopers not clones? Or is there some level of Star Wars lore that I’m just not nerdy enough to know?

I’m assuming this film’s animation was started before Nope was released, but the dancer’s big flowy entrance really reminds me of the big “unfurling” of the alien spacecraft in that film.

There’s a certain revelation late in this film that made me want to put a moratorium on a certain kind of plot twist in Star Wars films. But I am intrigued by this Visions season’s focus on stories involving the many and varied ways in which young people are lured/sold/abducted into serving the Dark Side.

Ultimately, this one deals another hard blow to anyone who still holds that, when it comes to shooting, “only Imperial stormtroopers are so precise.”


“I Am Your Mother”

Directed by Magdalena Osinska

Letterboxd synopsis:

Young pilot Anni, who is embarrassed by her sweet, but clingy mum, must team with her for a madcap family race at the academy. Along the way, their relationship is tested by the elements, their old ship, other racers… and each other.

Why am I surprised that when Aardman does Star Wars, it’s totally an Aardman movie?

This was unexpectedly hilarious, joyously complicated, full of surprises, and easy to imagine happening in a galaxy very, very close to Wallace and Gromit’s. Probably the silliest Star Wars adventure of all, and I mean that as a compliment.

If we’re going to indulge in fan fiction, let’s have some fun with it and remember that Star Wars was originally imagined with children in mind.

Put Aardman in charge of the next Star Wars Holiday Special.


“Screecher’s Reach”

directed by Paul Young

Letterboxd synopsis:

A young girl, seeking reprieve from her days in a rural workhouse, discovers a legendary haunted cave with her friends.

Visually enthralling in the unmistakeable Cartoon Saloon style, with perfect voice casting, characters who make strong impressions quickly, and an incredibly powerful use of fierce luminosity and pitch-black darkness.

It’s unacceptable that J.J. Abrams’ The Rise of Skywalker cost me 141 minutes that I cannot get back… but when Cartoon Saloon gets to play in the Star Wars universe, I only get 15 minutes, and I want at least 130 more.

Unlike Abrams, Cartoon Saloon’s artists clearly care about beauty, wisdom, and strong-boned storytelling.

I’d rather watch this ten times through than sit through Rise a second time.

That ghost is the most terrifying thing Cartoon Saloon has ever unleashed, and maybe the scariest animated monster I’ve ever seen.

And that conclusion — yes, for a scene like that, you definitely spend the money for the voice of Angelica Huston.

Disturbing and satisfying.

I’ll say it again: If you give Cartoon Saloon the chance to make a full Star Wars feature, I will be there on opening day, fully confident that the Force is strong in them.