« One month in Kenya and transportation | Main | Get your shit together, New York Times. »

November 9, 2012

I'm going to talk about Kenya

Just kidding, I'm going to talk about Star Wars. Last week, I was asked to pitch a story about Disney's purchase of Lucasfilm. It ended up getting turned down, so here is what the article would have been:

Last week, George Lucas did something that most people thought would never happen. He sold Lucasfilm to Disney, and with it, all rights to the Star Wars franchise. Fan reaction has been mixed, but as someone who has hated almost everything Star Wars related that has come out since 1999, I can only think of this as a good thing.

Before we get to Disney's promise of an Episode VII in 2015, let's talk about what Disney is best at: merchandising. In recent years, Star Wars merchandising has gotten a little ridiculous, coming to a peak most recently with Star Wars Angry Birds. In the 70's and 80's, film merchandising was a new art form that Lucas basically invented himself. Action figures, novels, comic books, video games; before Lucas, these kinds of things were not usually made for movies. When he made Star Wars, he retained the merchandising rights, and made his fortune off of them. It's not a stretch to say that the enduring popularity of the movies was because of synergy between the movies and the stuff you could buy during the three year stretches in between them. Due to the newness of the industry, there were a lot of odd, off-model type things that we'd only see today in the form of cheap, unlicensed foreign knock-offs. My friend got a Yoda's Christmas Diary one year. I tried to tell her that Yoda wouldn't celebrate Christmas, not only because Yoda was in a different religion, but that he predated the birth of Christ by a long, long time, but she didn't care. There were some silly cash grabs like C-3PO's breakfast cereal, but for the most part, the merchandise made you like the movies more and the movies made you want to buy more merchandise. But some time in the 2000's, Star Wars licensing changed. If I had to pinpoint a specific product, I'd point to Super Bombad Racing, a Mario Kart clone with Star Wars' most iconic characters with big bobble heads driving around go-karts. From the licensed satires by Family Guy and Robot Chicken, to the complete non-sequitur of Star Wars Angry Birds, Star Wars merchandising became jokes riffing on Star Wars, instead of cool things to inspire the imagination and extend the world. Darth Vader became a shill for Target and is now less an iconic movie villain and more an easy butt of "I'm making a reference so it's funny" humor.

Disney has built its empire off marketing its mascot, Mickey Mouse for almost a century. Despite the fact that he's barely been in any cartoons since the 1960's, he remains one of the world's most recognizable icons. And they even take risks with him every once in a while, like with recent video games, Kingdom Hearts and Epic Mickey. They've been relatively good stewards of the Muppets and Pixar, so I'm going to give them the benefit of the doubt.

The real question though is, what will Episode VII be about? Lucas has gone back and forth over the years whether he had plans for a third Star Wars trilogy, but with this new business deal, he's back to his story of having outlines for them, and he's sticking to it. What little we know of the sequel trilogy seems to have been made obsolete by Return of the Jedi, as the few details told to us by producer Gary Kurtz involved Luke confronting the Emperor and meeting his sister, who is not Princess Leia. Some have hoped for film adaptations of Timothy Zahn's Thrawn series, the well regarded trilogy of books that take place after Return of the Jedi, involving Luke, Han, and Leia defeating the last remnants of the Empire. Disney has said that the new movies will be brand new not be adaptations of anything and the actors are about thirty years too old anyway. So assuming that Episode VII takes place after Jedi and won't directly involve the main characters of the original trilogy, who could it be about? Luke had a son, and Leia and Han had three kids in the books. But does anyone at Lucasfilm care? While Lucas has used certain elements from the expanded universe, like the name of Coruscant taken from the Thrawn series, he's also never been afraid to totally contradict it, like rewriting Boba Fett's original origin story or wiping the 80's Droids cartoon from canon entirely.

I think that someone else taking the reins will new life into Star Wars. Empire Strikes Back, widely regarded as the best of the series, had the least involvement from Lucas. My main hope for the new movies is that they try to get back to the swashbuckling fun of the original Star Wars. That story of a young man from the middle of nowhere going on an adventure, meeting colorful characters, and saving the galaxy appeals to me much more than a bunch of guys in a cult waging a pointless war. More blasters, less lightsabers. Less moping, more swinging on things. Less meetings on couches, more adventure.

There's only one prediction that I can make that I have any faith in at all. It's that these new movies will feature R2-D2 and C-3PO. Lucas has said that the series was to be told through the eyes of the droids, although that became less important to him in the prequels, as they're not around for a good chunk of the action, and the main characters mostly act like they don't exist. The appearance of these two beloved characters will help link the new movies with the old. That and R2 works cheap.

PS: I can understand why this story was rejected, as I spend most of it talking about merchandising and have no real insight into what's actually going to happen next. Since I wrote this, Harrison Ford has expressed a vague interest in reprising Han Solo, and maybe Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher have said something too, I'm not going to check. They've also revealed who's writing it, and he's some Pixar guy, so things are looking up.

Posted by Will at November 9, 2012 9:18 AM