May the fourth brought the release of two new animated Star Wars projects in Visions Volume 2 and Young Jedi Adventures. I have no interest in the latter personally, but I really enjoyed some episodes of Visions Volume 1. Serving as a sampler for different Japanese studios and styles of anime, Volume 1 was ambitious if a little inconsistent in quality and tone. A unique aspect of this anthology series is its lack of interest in canon. Color-changing lightsabers, droid Jedi, and Sith-created twins were among the more surprising revelations in the various shorts. Volume 2 takes a slightly different approach, with each short coming from a respected animation studio in a different country. Rather than just a taste of the variety anime offers, this Volume sees Star Wars through a global lens. Let’s dive in.
“Sith” by studio El Guiri in Spain is the first short on the docket. This one was featured heavily in the promos, and it’s easy to see why, with its vivid and unique art style and strong theming. Lola (whose name is revealed only in the subtitles and credits) is a former Sith apprentice trying to leave that path behind as a lone artist with a droid to keep her company. Just as a solar eclipse blots out the sun, the darkness finds her as her old master returns to reclaim her. “Screecher’s Reach” by Cartoon Saloon (The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea) centers on a group of child laborers, one in particular: Daal. She entices the other kids to Screecher’s Reach, a creepy cave with a dark secret. Once inside, Daal is faced with a life-changing decision. From Chilean studio Punkrobot, “In the Stars” tells the story of two sisters who lost their mother to the Empire. The eldest just wants to protect her sister, but the younger one is driven to rid their land of the Empire. Next, we have Aardman’s (Wallace and Gromit, Arthur Christmas) “I Am Your Mother,” in which a Twi’lek family takes part in a family race. Studio Mir’s (Legend of Korra) “Journey to the Dark Head” follows a young woman, Ara, and a Jedi, Toul, on a quest to stop the spread of darkness. Bichan, the Sith master who killed Toul’s master, comes for him, complicating matters. La Cachette’s “The Spy Dancer” from France finds a cabaret dancer named Loi’e forced to improvise when exposed as a spy for the Rebels. Indian 88 Pictures’ “The Bandits of Golak” follows siblings Rani and Charuk after their father is taken. “The Pit” by D’ART Shtajio in Japan centers on a group of people being kept in a pit to mine kyber for the Empire. Finally, in “Aau’s Song” from South African studio Triggerfish, a young girl possesses a rare ability her father doesn’t appreciate.
“Sith” is gorgeous and has the most unique art style I’ve seen in Visions thus far. I also like the theming, mostly about how we all have some darkness in us. The Sith master has a badass design, and I like the droids in the short. I only feel conflicted about Lola herself. I don’t love her character design, and the ending is a little cheesy with her declaration that she’s the master and can choose her own destiny. I think this was obvious without her saying it, and at least to me, it felt a little too “yasss queen.” Like, okay, good for her escaping her past, but they cheesed it up at the end there. I also don’t understand her master taunting her with the notion of becoming a Sith master herself; why does he want this? It’s the inevitable cycle of Sith apprentices, but the master doesn’t usually want it. They don’t care for the apprentice or want good things for them; they just want someone they can manipulate. I know Visions isn’t canon, so they don’t have to adhere to the rules of the Star Wars universe, but this is just an odd choice. Overall I’d give “Sith” a 7. I like it artistically and agree with the intended theme, but some of the execution doesn’t quite hit the mark.
“Screecher’s Reach” also deals with the Sith, but in this case, Daal inadvertently becomes a Sith apprentice. This episode oozes creepy atmosphere, and I love the sound design and music. “Screecher’s Reach” definitely has my favorite musical score out of these shorts. I also love the juxtaposition of the tones. At first, it feels like any kids on an adventure story. But once Daal and her friends reach the cave, it becomes a horror story. Anjelica Huston plays the master who eventually recruits Daal, and she’s awesome. Her voice is calm but creepy. You can see how Daal was lured in by her, but her look and speech are unsettling. The Screecher is also terrifying. Initially, I wondered if she was a banshee, particularly as Cartoon Saloon is an Irish studio. She might still be inspired by banshees, but her nature is something I didn’t expect. I don’t think this short is that deep or profound, but unlike “Sith,” it isn’t trying to be. I think “Screecher’s Reach” comes out stronger for its simplicity and dedication to its story. It may be my favorite of the batch. I would honestly give this one a 10/10.
“In the Stars” is weaker than both of its predecessors. Visually, it’s striking and unique, and I applaud the combination of stop-motion animation and CGI effects. My issue is mainly with the younger sister; she’s stupid. This is a recurring theme in Visions Volume 2, for some reason, but I’ll come back to that. This character is infuriating. She isn’t just willful and disobedient but actively unintelligent, and her choices are frustrating. What I hate the most is that she’s rewarded for this in the end. I also find the backstory opening very strange. It looks good, but why would a sister tell her older sister their shared life story? I understand this is for the audience’s benefit, but I don’t like it in-universe. It’s awkward and clunky. It’s also preposterous for two individuals, especially children, to topple an industrial factory and expel the Empire like this. While “In the Stars” looks great, I have to give it a 5 because it annoyed me, and I’m not eager to revisit it.
Next up is Aardman’s “I Am Your Mother.” It’s cute and funny, but I’m sorry to say this is another short I don’t have much to say about. Denis Lawson voices Wedge Antilles, and that’s cool. It’s another one that knows what it is and doesn’t try to make any grand statements. The animation is charming, and the characters are likable enough, but I doubt I’ll be rewatching this one often. I’d give it a 7.
This brings us to Studio Mir’s “Journey to the Dark Head.” Anchored in Korea, Studio Mir animated much of Legend of Korra. Specifically, they did the good stuff, not the off-model Book 2 nonsense. I like the dynamic between Toul and Ara. They don’t initially get along, but he proves a capable Jedi and she a fiercely driven individual. This short tackles the idea of there being light and darkness in all of us, kind of like “Sith.” But “Journey to the Dark Head” is more literal about it, and I love how this episode looks. Even though I’m familiar with Studio Mir’s work, this short reminded me of Studio Ghibli at times. This is another of my favorites; I’d give it a 9. If they continued one story from this Volume, this would be my choice. The atmosphere and tone are masterful.
“The Spy Dancer” is very cool. This short has another striking, unique art style, and you can really tell it came out of France. The visuals remind me of The Illusionist or The Triplets of Belleville. I had already heard that this one was about a cabaret dancer who uses her show to spy on the Empire. However, I was genuinely shocked and moved by what the story ended up being about. This is the magic of the short film format; they can express so much in less than a half hour. Loi’e’s quest to find her son overpowers her lust for vengeance on those who took him. I’m unfamiliar with La Cachette’s work, but I have been meaning to watch Primal. I don’t know what else I can say about “The Spy Dancer” other than that it’s gorgeous, subtle, and emotionally intelligent. I’m left with questions about Loi’e’s son. Did he remove his horns, or did his Imperial captor/adoptive dad do it to him as a child? What did the Empire want with this lone alien child? I assumed he must be Force-sensitive, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. Did he take him just to be cruel and steal someone else’s baby? I like that we’re left with things to ponder, not the least being Loi’e’s desire to someday reunite with her son for good. I like that this short isn’t about Jedi or Sith and focuses on a mother’s love and grief. That’s powerful in its own way. 10/10
“The Bandits of Golak” by 88 Pictures is strange. I like the idea of an Indian take on Star Wars, and some of the designs are compelling. I especially like the Inquisitor and an older woman, Rugal, who saves Rani and Charuk from him. The Inquisitor’s design is very cool and intimidating. His blue skin makes me think of a genie or even the Hindu god Vishnu. The Inquisitor is anything but peaceful or merciful, though. This is what intrigues me about this Volume as opposed to the first: the fusion of different cultural beliefs and myths into Star Wars. The Screecher resembling a banshee comes to mind as well. However, I can’t say I loved “The Bandits of Golak”. For one thing, Rani is absolutely obnoxious. I don’t like her, and I’m unsure how you could root for her. Much like the younger sister in “In the Stars,” Rani disobeys her brother multiple times, displaying her force sensitivity in front of enemies and leading to disastrous consequences. If they didn’t happen to come across Rugal, thanks to Charuk’s dedication to his father’s instructions, he might be dead, and Rani sold to the Empire/Inquisitors. Rani also has an annoying, whiny voice that sounds more like an adult woman mimicking what a child would sound like. I’m not eager to discuss this, but some people have been saying every episode of Visions Volume 2 has a female protagonist. I agree that there is a female star or costar in every one, but I disagree that they’re all strictly female-led. In this instance, Rani’s older brother Charuk is the story’s hero and the only reason the foolish girl makes it out in one piece. While Rani is Force-sensitive and drives much of the story with her bad decisions, Charuk makes the right choices and always puts his little sister first. I also think of “Journey to the Dark Head,” which feels like a true partnership between Jedi Toul and pilot Ara. I went into Visions’ second outing afraid of some gendered message and having watched all the shorts, I don’t think there is one. Even Force-wielding female characters like Lola and Daal are fallible and capable of bad choices. Lola left the Sith, while Daal unwittingly joins them, and the young Rani is just stupid. Overall, I like some things about “The Bandits of Golak,” but the animation quality and textures leave something to be desired. The fight between Rugal and the Inquisitor is exhilarating, and I like the music in this scene. Rani is frustrating and annoying, leaving Charuk, the Inquisitor, and the children’s savior as the short’s highlights. I would give this one a 6.
D’ART Shtajio is a Japan-based, American-owned anime studio. “The Pit” is gorgeous visually and, fittingly, looks the most like volume 1. The art style on display reminds me of Attack on Titan or Netflix’s pseudo-anime series like Castlevania and Son of Zeus. This short initially focuses on Crux, a young man trapped in an underground kyber mine with numerous other enslaved prisoners. He heads to a nearby city alone to get help, but once there, the stormtroopers arrest and return him to the pit, killing him. The short then switches perspectives to a young girl named Livy, a friend of Crux who follows his example, empowering the people in the pit to attract aid. This is the only short with a post-credits scene. I really like the animation and the characters here. I don’t have a lot to say about this one; it just speaks for itself. I’d give “The Pit” 8/10.
Triggerfish’s “Aau’s Song” is certainly unique. This is another stop-motion short, which is something I’m always in favor of. I think this one is in the same camp as “I Am Your Mother” for me; it’s charming, and I like the animation. Aau and her father, Abat, are adorable and would make great stuffed animals. There’s not much going on here; you have an overprotective father and a young girl who wants more. Aau is precious and not annoying like many of the other young characters in this season, which is more than a welcome development. The ending is also very much expected in Visions; with her dad’s blessing, Aau departs with Jedi master Kratu (Cynthia Erivo). Overall, like “I Am Your Mother,” I liked “Aau’s Song,” but I don’t feel there’s much to say about it. I’d give this one a 7.
Overall, Visions Volume 2 is more consistent in quality than Volume 1, despite the added diversity in style and influences. There are still a couple of weaker episodes, particularly “In the Stars” and “The Bandits of Golak.” There’s a great diversity of art styles, mediums, and topics here; there are three stop-motion shorts in “In the Stars,” “I Am Your Mother,” and “Aau’s Song”! Meanwhile, “I Am Your Mother,” “The Spy Dancer,” and “The Pit” are about something aside from Jedi, Sith, and the Force. Volume 1 had some spectacular shorts like “The Village Bride” and “The Ninth Jedi.” Still, I think I prefer the second batch of shorts. I was initially disappointed to see them deviate from the anime-sampler approach, but I couldn’t have been more wrong.