'Star Wars: Visions' brings George Lucas' galaxy full circle in striking anime shorts

George Lucas freely discussed how director Akira Kurosawa’s 1958 samurai classic “The Hidden Fortress” served as inspiration for “Star Wars,” so seeing Japanese anime turned loose on the franchise nicely brings the relationship full circle. “Star Wars: Visions” consists of nine stand-alone shorts, with the best providing a fascinating wedding of that far-away galaxy to imagery and themes rooted in Kurosawa’s films.

Running 13 to 22 minutes, the shorts represent Lucasfilm’s first foray into anime, working with seven different studios. The varying auspices quickly become evident, with each employing distinct animation styles and mostly original characters, although a few familiar faces from the fringes of the “Star Wars” universe — such as a notoriously heavy Hutt — do show up from time to time.
The films don’t need to be watched in any particular order, but the first entry, “The Duel,” nicely encapsulates what these projects achieve, evoking the feel of Kurosawa’s “The Seven Samurai,” and economically telling a story with precious little dialogue, vibrant visuals and a whole lot of action. In this case, there’s a mysterious warrior wielding a lightsaber who comes to the defense of a village descended upon by bandits, although the twists thereafter offer a few pretty significant surprises.
    Another, “Tatooine Rhapsody,” offers a more cartoonish and comical take about a musical band hoping for its big break, while in “The Elder,” a stoic Jedi and his eager padawan square off against a shadowy figure with extraordinary skills.
      The cinematic connections might be lost on younger kids, and the stories lack connections to major “Star Wars” characters; still, they capture its tone and epic qualities — think of it as “Tales of the Jedi and the Sith” — while establishing distinctive looks and voices, in a way that’s distinctive from animated efforts like “Rebels” and The Clone Wars,” which provided the foundation for “The Mandalorian” and have presented some of the best “Star Wars” tales since the original trilogy.
        When “The Force Awakens” opened in 2015, Lucas grumbled about Disney’s aggressive expansion plans for his creation after acquiring Lucasfilm, before walking back those remarks.
          Disney’s move into streaming has only fueled the studio’s appetite for more “Star Wars” content, which makes such offshoots inevitable. Thankfully, “Star Wars: Visions” does indeed present unique and intriguing visions, indicating there’s plenty of room to experiment with the brand — in this case, in a way that even ol’ George should appreciate.
            “Star Wars: Visions” premieres Sept. 22 on Disney+.

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