Sunday, November 19, 2017
Movies

Can Disney work with the force to create new generation of 'Star Wars'?

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Dubious you should be, Star Wars fans.

The Skywalker saga that thrilled generations of Jedi wannabes will be in the hands of Walt Disney Co., after Tuesday's $4.07 billion agreement to purchase George Lucas' empire.

Like Obi-Wan Kenobi, I feel a great disturbance in the force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out "John Carter" in terror, and were suddenly silenced.

Disney announced it will now produce the Star Wars episodes 7, 8 and 9 that Lucas always claimed to have in mind. The as-yet-untitled next episode is expected in 2015 and, no, it won't be titled When You Wish Upon a Death Star.

That's the only predictable thing about the franchise's future — besides that it will make a fortune. And perhaps the return of the Ewoks and Jar-Jar Binks, who always seemed better suited to a Disney flick.

As part of the deal, Lucas hands over treatments for the third trilogy, essentially his ideas of where the story leads, not completed screenplays. Now that decisions are out of his hands, Disney can simply say: "Thank you, Mr. Lucas, now this is what we have in mind."

Lucas, who'll be a "creative consultant" on the trilogy, said his treatments continue the stories of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia and Han Solo. However, nearly 30 years after Episode 6: Return of the Jedi it's questionable how that will happen.

Bringing back Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill is impossible unless the trilogy leaps ahead a few decades when they're too old to be convincing swashbucklers. Disney probably wouldn't meet their salary demands, especially Ford's, anyway.

More than likely the roles will be recast with promising young actors, CW network refugees, or shooting stars ready to take chances on being compared to icons before flaming out. Or Disney can tweak Lucas' treatment and make them the sons and daughters of Han and Leia and maybe Luke, if he found a girlfriend by now.

The black-cloaked elephant in the room is Darth Vader, the masked face of the franchise and the main reason so many fans stuck with the prequel episodes 1, 2 and 3. The last time we saw Darth in chronological order he was dead. It's tough to decide which path for Disney is rockier: resurrect Darth with a cynical eye on the box office, or create another villain who can never be his equal.

Fans of the Star Wars saga were immediately divided online. Some look forward to the transition. Many, like me, need another eyebrow to raise at Disney's if-you-can't-beat-'em-buy-'em strategy, after previously successful deals for Pixar Animation Studios and Marvel Films. Others anticipating a new Star Wars trilogy hope Disney won't mess it up, or turn the saga into a more mercenary machine than Lucas leaves behind.

Lucas didn't calm those worries in his statement Tuesday, noting Lucasfilms' potential with Disney "to blaze new trails in film, television, interactive media, theme parks, live entertainment and consumer products." As if we already haven't seen an abundance of that since Lucas practically invented the ancillary market strategy.

Whatever direction Disney takes, the studio must pledge allegiance to Star Wars fans, many of whom became disenchanted with Lucas through the prequel trilogy and Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull. Lucas admits he got fed up with negative feedback.

Disney needs to be as ambitious and visionary with the Skywalker saga as Lucas was in 1977, not the repackaging tycoon he aged into. Unless it's a new Pixar masterpiece, Disney hasn't exactly been a fountain of genre-pushing creativity for years.

What about The Avengers, you ask? That was a terrific superhero flick and blockbuster, with Disney's imprint anywhere it could fit.

Yet the Mouse House didn't have anything to do with the film's casting, script, design or direction. All Disney did was spend $4.2 billion before the movie debuted — slightly more than the Lucasfilms deal — to grab Marvel Films and more credit than deserved.

We'll see with next summer's Iron Man 3 whether Disney is serious about sustaining Marvel's excellence, or just cashing in a bet The Avengers mostly covered with box office, home video, TV rights, toys and merchandise revenues. Iron Man 3 will offer a hint of how Disney plans to handle the Star Wars franchise, and how much pleasing loyal fans figures into the equation.

The next Star Wars episode, when it comes, is destined to make a ton of money regardless. Brand recognition and Disney's carpet-bomb marketing alone will pack theaters for several profitable weekends. What moviegoers discover when they get there matters most. The third coming of this seminal pop culture phenomenon must be more impressive than the second, and live up to the first.

Either the force will be strong in Disney, or these will not be the droids, Jedis and Stormtroopers you're looking for.

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