What Does the 'Star Wars' Casting Tell Us About Disney's Plans?

Walt Disney's (NYSE: DIS  ) Lucasfilm recently unveiled the primary cast in the upcoming Star Wars: Episode VII. While the cast contains a few familiar faces reprising their roles from the original films, everybody knew these were coming. More interesting were the new faces that have been added to the galaxy far, far away.

The old cast meets the new.
Image Credit: StarWars.com

The original cast
When Star Wars: A New Hope debuted in 1977, much of the cast was relatively unknown. The best-known member of the cast was Sir Alec Guinness, who referred to the film as "fairy tale rubbish" in letters to his friends, but liked the general theme of the film and couldn't turn down the studio's offer to double his salary to keep him onboard.  Stars Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, and Carrie Fisher previously had mostly minor roles; in Hamill's case it was largely TV and voice work.

Because much of the cast wasn't overly famous, audiences didn't have to worry about the actors overshadowing the characters on the screen … and George Lucas didn't have to worry about blowing his budget with a bunch of big names. The casting worked -- even 37 years later, the "Star Wars" roles remain among the most iconic in the actors' careers, which is saying something when you consider Ford's career.

The prequel trilogy
Things changed when George Lucas began work on his prequel trilogy. Star Wars: The Phantom Menace featured a few reprisals from the original trilogy surrounded by well-known faces. Actors such as Ewan McGregor, Samuel L. Jackson, and Liam Neeson were headliners, though stars such as Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman were still early in their careers at the time. The sense of star recognition was much greater with the new films, adding to the feeling that the new trilogy was more of a cash grab than a natural extension of the story told in the original trilogy. This feeling wasn't helped by the excessive use of CGI and plots that many fans felt were weaker than those of the original films.

The new cast
Now that we've gotten a look at the cast of Episode VII, it seems to be more of a throwback to the original trilogy's casting methods. While the returning cast members have gone on to various levels of stardom since the first "Star Wars" film was released, the new cast members are largely up-and-comers (with the notable exception of Max von Sydow) who have more TV than film experience. Though specific roles have not been named, von Sydow will be joined by Adam Driver (from HBO's "Girls"), John Boyega (from the British film Attack the Block), Oscar Isaac (from Inside Llewyn Davis), and British actress Daisy Ridley (from "Mr. Selfridge.")

Is this a good sign?
While the choice of up-and-coming actors instead of established stars isn't necessarily an indication of Episode VII's quality, it does have potentially positive ramifications. In addition to allowing the actors to define their roles in the same way that Hamill and company did in the original trilogy, choosing lesser-known actors likely helped Lucasfilm to keep the movie's $11 million budget under control. With the "Star Wars" franchise having earned an estimated $27 billion to date, according to StatisticBrain.com, and it being a source of toys, product licensing, and ongoing movie sales revenue, budget constrains likely won't be much of an issue with Episode VII. Still, it's positive to see that Lucasfilm isn't simply trying to populate the "Star Wars" universe with trendy celebrities at the cost of character development.

The future of Star Wars

'Rebels' bridges the gap between the prequels and the original trilogy.
Image Credit: Walt Disney/Disney XD

Star Wars: Episode VII marks the beginning of a new phase for the "Star Wars" franchise. In addition to the new trilogy that it starts, additional "Star Wars" features are planned for release in the years between trilogy film releases and a new animated series called "Star Wars: Rebels" is set to premier later this year. The expanded universe of books, games, and comics is also being reworked, with Marvel Comics bringing the comic license home to Disney in 2015 and classic books being reissued under the "Legends" moniker to keep them in print while new books follow the new expanded universe (EU) rules.

Between the new trilogy, the spin-off films that will set the franchise up for yearly releases, and supplementary materials such as comics, cartoons, and other EU content, "Star Wars" seems to be borrowing a page from Marvel Studios' film release schedule. While some fans may not be happy with what they see as Disney milking the franchise, those who can't get enough "Star Wars" will have plenty to take in in the future.

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