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Non-Review Review: The LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special

“The past is the best present,” promised the trailer to The LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special. That seems to be the special’s statement of intent.

The LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special is the latest example of Disney’s efforts at brand consolidation within the Star Wars franchise, arriving just as the second season of The Mandalorian has begun folding characters from animated series like The Clone Wars and Rebels into live action continuity. The LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special is not so much about bringing another marketed part of Star Wars history into the larger tapestry of the Star Wars franchise. Instead, it is effectively about replacing The Star Wars Holiday Special, the famously terrible special from 1978.

“Life Day comes around so fast…”

The LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special seems designed to effectively neutralise a lot of the stench of The Star Wars Holiday Special by repurposing the core concept and idea in a manner that is easier to package and distribute without potentially harming the overall brand. It largely works. The LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special is a much better production than the earlier iteration. Crucially for Disney, it is also much less embarrassing. The LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special is an iteration of that foundational Star Wars text that can stream on Disney+ without harming the brand.

That is perhaps the best thing that can be said about The LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special. It is a perfectly serviceable piece of Star Wars content.

The hole issue with modern Star Wars.

The basic structure of The LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special is drawn from that quintessential holiday story, A Christmas Carol. In the aftermath of Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker, Rey is teaching Finn how to be a Jedi. It is not going well. Rey takes this upon herself. In order to learn how best to teach Finn, she ends up travelling through time, to take in the length and breadth of the Star Wars universe and maybe learn a thing or two about the true meaning of “Life Day.”

However, while The LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special borrows the time travel conceit and the seasonal message of A Christmas Carol, it is notable that the time travel only works in one direction. Rey is drawn to a distant planet by the promise that “with a key to the galaxy’s past, a Jedi’s future becomes clear.” Rey seizes on this, insisting, “This is how I learn to train Finn. By watching other Jedi Masters train their students.” What follows is effectively a gigantic celebration of the franchise’s extended history, populated by in jokes and references.

Past, Present and accounted for.

“It’s Obi-Wan Kenobi training Anakin Skywalker!” fangirls Rey, which is a strange thing to get so excited about given that Rey has never actually met either Obi-Wan or Anakin and the fact that Anakin’s training goes so spectacularly wrong that he becomes Darth Vader. It does not matter. All that matters is that audiences will recognise the characters and the situation. The nostalgia is strong with The LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special.

If anything, The LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special recalls the frequent criticisms of Family Guy, with the suggestion that nostalgia and imitation have come to stand in for… well, anything else. The special slavishly recreates iconic sequences such as the Death Star trench run from the original Star Wars, often borrowing shot-for-shot from its inspiration. There is little actual substance to any of this, beyond the familiar sting of recognition. After all, the audience likes Star Wars, and this recreates so much of Star Wars, so the audience must like this.

“Oh, a thing we recognise!”

To be fair, there might be something in the special’s celebration of Star Wars in general and fandom in particular. After all, the appeal of playing with LEGO and other toys is often in recreating iconic sequences in the comfort of one’s own bedroom. There are moments when it’s hard to begrudge Rey this indulgence, harking back to her characterisation as a fan in Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens. “We just watched Luke Skywalker blow up the Death Star,” she gasps. “Technically, we helped Luke Skywalker blow up the Death Star.”

However, there is a hollowness to all of this. The LEGO Movie and The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part both captured the magic of throwing toys together and watching what happened, but that creativity and imagination is sorely missing from The LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special, instead replaced with the detached cynicism and irony that defines so much modern children’s entertainment, as if treating any of this with earnestness or sincerity would open it up to mockery and derision.

Caped crusader.

As a result, a lot of the humour in The LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special feels empty. There are the obligatory gags about how Kylo Ren needed to put a shirt on in Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi. There are the obligatory jokes about whether Han shot first. There’s even an awkward strain of “kids these days” humour running through the special, as Yoda complains to Luke, “Participation trophies for Jedis there are not.” It’s all very arch, very self-aware, very distancing.

At one point, the character of “Max Repo” arrives on the Millennium Falcon. Audience members might recall him from Jabba’s Palace in Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi. Poe quite rightly points out that this is equivalent to hiring Patti Austin and James Ingram to play a modern DJ set. “Nobody’s listened to him in thirty years,” Poe observes. Surely the galaxy has produced some new musical talent in the intervening decades? Ultimately, Lando shows up to play the exact same function he did in The Rise of Skywalker: to put that sassy youngster in his place.

The sands of time.

The most telling shot in The LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special finds the galaxy opening a wormhole in front of Luke from that iconic double sun sequence in the original Star Wars and just vomitting out all this established continuity; all these action figures, all these variations of characters, all this nonsense, all this content. There’s no sense of what any of this might mean to Luke, just that it is familiar. It is Star Wars, all regurgitated on to the same sands of Tatooine that the Mandalorian visited during the second season premiere.

For all the time travel shenanigans in The LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special, it is telling that the special cannot imagine a future. The only character remotely interested in using the time travel device to see what lies ahead is the comically evil Emperor Palpatine, who speaks in nonsense like “me wanty, you getty”, “less talky-talky, more fighty-fighty” and “make with the fighty-fighty.” Palpatine’s enthusiasm to see the future is monstrous, evil and it must be stopped.

This is the horror of The LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special. There is no future. There is no novelty. There is no potential. There is just the past, endless and continuously reiterated and recycled. Maybe William Faulker was right to suggest that the past is never dead. In a detail that fits with a special released closer to Halloween than to Christmas, The LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special suggests that the past can just be reanimated over and over (and over) again.

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