If you’re going to introduce a prequel to the Star Wars saga in a different way than anyone has tried before you’d better deliver the goods. Despite its well-documented production problems, Solo: A Star Wars Story does exactly that. I think the magic key can be summed up in one word: casting. Series veteran Lawrence Kasdan and his son Jonathan are credited with the final script, which Ron Howard directed in a last-minute change of personnel (following the public firing of Phil Lord and Chris Miller). But without Alden Ehrenreich as a young Han Solo and a talented lineup of actors the movie wouldn’t work at all.

Ehrenreich has proved himself many times over, but I doubt that most Star Wars fans have seen him play clean-cut heroes of the 1950s in the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar! or Warren Beatty’s Rules Don’t Apply. He seems so at home in those straight-arrow roles that I wasn’t sure he had the swagger and humor to take on the character made famous by Harrison Ford. I needn’t have worried; he nails it. Ehrenreich’s devil-may-care, cocky charm carries Solo through some of its bumpier moments.

What’s more, he is surrounded by talented and (yes) well-cast players: radiant Emilia Clarke as his long-lost love, roguish soldier-of-fortune Woody Harrelson, Thandie Newton as a gutsy compatriot, and Donald Glover as a youthful Lando Calrissian, who’s as cagey and charismatic as Han Solo. Special mention must go to Joonas Suotamo, who inherits the role of Chewbacca and does him justice. And while there is no towering figure of evil like Darth Vader, Paul Bettany exudes his own brand of villainy quite well.

The action and chase scenes are expertly handled, with some breathtaking stunts and visual effects. I could do with fewer of them, especially as the film heads toward the two-hour mark. Some judicious trimming could have made this an even better movie. The climactic action is positively relentless. I’m glad I chose to see this in 2-D; a 3-D screening might have left me gasping for breath. (I feel the same way about the last few spectacles I’ve seen. Hasn’t anyone heard the old saying about too much of a good thing?)

But these points are minor and debatable. What matters is that Solo captures the sense of humor and adventure that George Lucas imbued in the original trilogy some forty years ago. It gives us new characters to care about and root for. A new Star Wars series is off and running and I think people are going to love it.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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July 2024