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‘Ahsoka’ stiffly brings the ‘Star Wars Rebels’ universe to live-action life

<i>Lucasfilm Ltd.</i><br/>Rosario Dawson is Ahsoka Tano in
Lucasfilm Ltd.
Rosario Dawson is Ahsoka Tano in "Ahsoka."

Review by Brian Lowry, CNN

(CNN) — Awkwardly bringing the animated character to life in her own series, “Ahsoka” gets so much right about the look and action of “Star Wars” that its shortcomings – an overall stiffness slowed by long, pregnant pauses – feel more pronounced. There’s still hope for this showcase featuring Rosario Dawson as Anakin Skywalker’s all-grown-up Padawan, but the first two episodes don’t possess as much Force as they should.

Having already introduced Dawson’s Ahsoka in “The Mandalorian,” Dave Filoni, the producer of that series as well as the animated “Star Wars Rebels” and “Clone Wars,” set the table for what has become one of the most beloved characters in the “Star Wars” galaxy.

Once again, the show occupies the timeline after the fall of the Empire, where the threat of imperial remnants lingers. In that respect, the Disney+ shows are providing important connective tissue in terms of how the galaxy went from those singing, celebrating Ewoks at the end of “Return of the Jedi” to the First Order.

The danger compels Ahsoka – a world-weary loner by nature these days – to reconnect with the “Rebels” gang, specifically, Hera (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Sabine (Natasha Liu Bordizzo).

Ahsoka is pursuing information to locate Thrawn (to be played by Lars Mikkelsen, who voiced him in the earlier series), a ruthless imperial leader whose return could unleash a new round of war. To do so, though, she’ll need help from the headstrong Sabine, with whom Ahsoka had embarked on a mission to find the missing Ezra Bridger when “Rebels” concluded, with plenty of implied discord in between.

It’s a lot to digest, and the premiere (written and directed by Filoni) does a reasonably nice job of establishing all that, as well as a new foe in the form of Baylis Skoll (Ray Stevenson, who died in May, and to whom the premiere is dedicated), whose Jedi powers potentially make him Ahsoka’s match.

In these first two episodes, there’s enough lightsaber heroics (and villainy) to make “Ahsoka” feel like a credible addition to “Star Wars” canon, as well as a dark and serious one, buoyed by its abundance of strong female characters. The main problems are the sluggishly paced dialogue and angst-ridden glances around it, one of those unfortunate byproducts of limited series – hey, no rush, we’ve got eight episodes to tell this story – that movies don’t allow.

On the plus side, “Ahsoka” displays the kind of production values that wouldn’t look out of place on the big screen, and the second chapter moves a bit more briskly. (Wisely, the first two episodes will drop together before shifting to a weekly release pattern.)

Still, given the place Ahsoka occupies in “Star Wars” lore thanks to her animated exploits – which included memorably facing off against her former master in his Darth Vader guise – these episodes don’t pop in the way one might have hoped, and indeed, expected.

Disney’s success with “The Mandalorian” owes an enormous debt to the animated shows that kept the fires burning and provided the foundation for its storytelling, particularly in the second and third seasons. That made giving Ahsoka a solo vehicle a no-brainer, other than legitimate second-guessing as to whether, like “Obi-Wan Kenobi,” a movie might have served the material and character better.

“These days there are few who can wield the Force,” Ahsoka says at one point.

There are also few characters these days that can generate the kind of enthusiasm and passion that Ahsoka can, and it would be a shame to see that squandered.

“Ahsoka” might not when the dust settles, but for now, to paraphrase a familiar line among the “Star Wars” faithful, it’s hard to have an unreservedly good feeling about this.

“Ahsoka” premieres August 22 at 9 p.m. ET on Disney+.

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