Ahsoka Review: Disney+ Star Wars Series Effortlessly Delivers a Fitting Live-Action Rebels Update

Dave Filoni’s tenure with Lucasfilm has seen its highs (Star Wars Rebels, the later seasons of The Clone Wars) and lows (the Clone Wars film, The Bad Batch). But even when his storytelling doesn’t quite work, it never compromises its heart.

Fortunately, Star Wars: Ahsoka, premiering tonight at 9/8c on Disney+ (with its first two episodes), ranks among the writer-director’s best credits.

Starring Rosario Dawson — who first brought Ahsoka Tano to live-action life in Season 2, Episode 5 of The Mandalorian — Ahsoka is essentially a live-action sequel to Rebels. The popular animated series wrapped its four-season run in 2018, but even after the finale, the story’s continuation was never a question. As Ahsoka opens, Ezra Bridger and Grand Admiral Thrawn are still missing, and Sabine Wren remains determined to find her friend and stamp out any possibility of Thrawn’s return.

Filoni has always reveled in sending up character tropes. Like Kanan Jarrus in Star Wars Rebels, Ahsoka Tano subtly blurs the emotional contours of the mentor archetype. She’s older, wiser, and more resolute than we’ve ever seen her. But she’s also lost. She has plenty to learn, although she’d be the last to admit it. Dawson does such a bang-up job communicating this inner turmoil that it’s sometimes easy to forget that she is working from Ashley Eckstein’s outstanding voice performances in Clone Wars and Rebels.

The late Ray Stevenson’s Baylan Skoll, a Thrawn acolyte, is similarly difficult to define. He does terrible things to hopefully draw Thrawn back into the fold, yet he hesitates with Ahsoka. He sees the former Jedi as the last echo of a breed that the Empire’s lust for power actively helped destroy. Baylan doesn’t get a lot of screen time in the two episodes screened for critics, but judging by what we’ve glimpsed so far, the stoic villain will have plenty to do throughout Ahsoka‘s eight-episode run.

Ahsoka‘s greatest triumph lies in how effortlessly it moves Rebels characters to live-action. Thanks to its cast, the show feels emotionally symmetrical to its animated predecessor without blatantly replicating what made it work so well. Because Rebels was geared toward younger audiences, it could indulge Filoni’s lighter, sillier side. Ahsoka has the space to shed some of that whimsy and replace it with more mature writing, though it never forgets that before everything else, Star Wars is a story of hope. Thrawn’s possible return is a terrifying concept, but that doesn’t mean fear and despair have to dominate every moment. Ahsoka, Hera, and Sabine are a wildly entertaining trio, and thanks to Filoni’s emphasis on their friendship, we as the audience feel safe and happy in their company.

Filoni’s enthusiasm for the material pervades every aspect of the story, evoking a twinkle-eyed narrator regaling an audience around a campfire, occasionally incorporating body language and playing with inflection to optimize immersion. Ahsoka bolting from self-destructing droids, Sabine shirking her commitments to perseverate on Ezra, Baylan and his apprentice Shin Hati cutting down scores of New Republic constituents, Morgan Elsbeth brewing up all kinds of drama…. Filoni injects all of this with a vitality that can only come from someone who adores Star Wars as much as he does.

Of course, Filoni occasionally gets a bit too carried away. Some dynamics feel slightly more forced than others, but none come across as unnecessary or disingenuous. Rebels never explicitly indicated Sabine’s Force sensitivity, so many of her interactions with Ahsoka lack the context they need to hit the way Filoni intends. Take Ahsoka out of this particular equation, though, and Sabine’s arc becomes the most emotionally charged of the bunch. Her drive to rescue Ezra intertwines itself with her Mandalorian upbringing, provoking an already combustible mix of duty, stubbornness, and guilt.

Is the animated Star Wars Rebels a prerequisite for understanding this live-action follow-up? Those who’ve seen Rebels and kept up with the broader strokes of recent Star Wars stories will get the most out of Ahsoka, for sure, but those popping in for high-stakes action and root-for characters will find plenty to enjoy, too.

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