Watching “The Lego Star Wars Holiday Special” is like watching a puppet show organized by a major toy store chain (if such things still exist). The voice actors are enthusiastic, but don’t sound quite right—none of the featured characters are voiced by their original cast members, with the exception of Anthony Daniels, Kelly Marie Tran, and Billy Dee Williams—and the script is a jumble of feel-good allusions and nudge-you-in-the-ribs callbacks that are good-natured, but often more miss than hit (one in ten are just fine). None of which is surprising given that “The Lego Star Wars Holiday Special” is a 45-minute long cartoon that looks slick enough, and has almost nothing to do with the eccentric and long-suppressed “The Star Wars Holiday Special” of yore.
“The Lego Star Wars Holiday Special” is a studiously inoffensive mess, being both self-conscious and desperate-to-please, but also unfocused and un-funny. While the borscht belt chaos of the first “The Star Wars Holiday Special” is an unfortunate product of creative exasperation, “The Lego Star Wars Holiday Special” and its pre-fab fan service are bland in a dismally calculated sort of way.
Set some time after the defeat of the First Order, “The Lego Star Wars Holiday Special” is divided into two equally shapeless parts: while Rose (Tran) and Poe (Jake Green) try to organize a Life Day party, Rey (Helen Sadler) time-travels with the help of a magic whatsit, trying to figure out how she can be a better Jedi teacher to frustrated pupil Finn (Omar Miller). Rey’s story is understandably the more prominent subplot since her magic Jedi doodad (don’t ask, it doesn’t really matter) allows her to revisit various other “Star Wars” movies, including a couple of scenes from the prequels, especially “The Phantom Menace” and “Revenge of the Sith,” and the original trilogy.
Rey is inevitably made to fight Darth Vader (Matt Sloan) for control of the whatsit, at the behest of a wacky-zany version of Emperor Palpatine (Trevor Devall) and a star-struck Kylo Ren (Matthew Wood), who wants nothing but to impress his bad guy idols. Makes sense, since “The Lego Star Wars Holiday Special” is the sketch comedy equivalent of a clip show, one where references to iconic moments and goofy incidental details are objects unto themselves. This sort of crazy-quilt comfort food only really works when your voice actors are as engaged as your joke writers are funny (ex: “The Lego Batman Movie,” or the best “Star Wars”-themed “Robot Chicken” sketches). Unfortunately, the makers of “The Lego Star Wars Holiday Special” are rarely as inspired as their most unexpected callbacks, including cameos by Admiral Ackbar, Jar Jar Binks, and yes, even Maclunkey.
Beyond that: the most satisfying moments in “The Lego Star Wars Holiday Special” are predictably the scenes where sequel characters point out how silly everything looks in retrospect. Emo Kylo Ren is an easy target, and is not surprisingly the star of a few superior gags, like a drawn-out, but generally funny routine about his much-memed “The Last Jedi” topless scene. There’s also a funny gag about the death of Snoke, but it also inadvertently brings to mind how much of “The Lego Star Wars Holiday Special” is about the inevitably cyclical nature of the “Star Wars” movies. If you’ve seen these moments played straight before, they’re probably not going to be as funny when they’re presented as comedic punchlines. Some of these self-referential gags are amusing, but none are that special.
Say what you want about the original “The Star Wars Holiday Special," its mismatched moods and tones are at least compelling in hindsight as a product of rare, deeply unsound creative freedom, and at a time when “Star Wars” simply needed to be visible to be considered viable. This was 1978, after all, two years before the release “The Empire Strikes Back”: even “Star Wars”-themed variety show sketches, on both “The Donny & Marie Show” and “The Richard Pryor Show,” helped to keep the brand alive. Now everybody knows that “Star Wars” is a self-cannibalizing franchise built around its own would-be archetypes and familiar emotional beats.
Watching a time-traveling Darth Vader confront another version of himself, on Hoth during the ice planet siege from “The Empire Strikes Back,” is funny, but only because a cold assault stormtrooper (also Green) points out that Darth Vader’s presence is pretty unmissable. “That’s not me,” Vader says, pointing at the other him. “Sure looks like you,” says the snowtrooper: “helmet, chest buttons, heavy breathing.”
“The Lego Star Wars Holiday Special” might be more entertaining if “Star Wars” weren’t ubiquitous enough to sustain a disposable cartoon whose biggest belly laugh is a joke about the six missing members of Max Rebo’s band. “Isn't it the Max Rebo Seven?” asks a skeptical Poe before Rebo corrects him: “Oh, my condolences.” Some things shouldn’t be made to last forever, and “Star Wars” canon is definitely one of them.
Premieres on Disney Plus tomorrow, November 17.