The Best Disney Animated Movie People Forget About

Aladdin, The Lion King, Beauty & The Beast, The Little Mermaid;  when people debate and discuss their favorite Disney animated features, these are the names that get passed around a lot. There’s at least one film above all others though that despite being well loved by those who saw it, they forget about when it comes time to talk about Disney movies:

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The Brave Little Toaster. 

Released in 1987, much of the reason it’s neglected comes from it not actually being animated by Walt Disney Studios and it never getting a wide theatrical release. The movie is actually based off a short story by Thomas M. Disch that Disney bought the film rights to and then gave to animation studio Hyperion Pictures; which was founded by a former Disney employee.

Those who saw the movie owe their thanks to either cable TV airings on The Disney Channel or the original VHS copies. It wasn’t a big budget production with the manpower that the main Disney animated features had the luxury of, but The Brave Little Toaster rivals and/or surpasses its big screen cousins in nearly every way. If you doubt this, examine the following exhibits for proof.

Exhibit A – The Staff

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One of the film’s producers, Donald Kushner, was a visual effects artist for Tron.  The screenplay was co-written by the late Joe Ranft, who would later join Pixar and help write Toy Story, do artwork for Monsters Inc., and co-direct and write Cars. Storyboard artist Roger Allers went on to direct The Lion King several years after this film and even John Lasseter, the current creative head of Pixar, was originally attached to this project. Basically, a staggering amount of Disney films came to life from the people directly responsible for this movie, a project that Disney decided against doing themselves.

Exhibit B- The Story

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The Brave Little Toaster tells the tale of a bunch of household appliances who have been left alone in their house for quite some time. One day they finally decide to go in search of their master, otherwise known as the excessively happy redhead in the picture above. What the appliances don’t realize is that they’ve been waiting around for years for their master to return when in fact he and his parents moved out with no intention of coming back. At face level, the story is about Toaster and his friends trying to reunite with their Master but on a deeper level it’s actually about losing your place in the world and coming to grips with what you thought was your purpose in life, no longer existing. Sound similar to any other movies part of this team would end up working on? (I’m looking at YOU Toy Story!”)

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Exhibit C – The Air Conditioner 

There’s an air conditioner. He’s played by Phil Hartman doing a Jack Nicholson impression. Things escalate quickly.

Told you.

Exhibit D – The Music

Composer David Newman works with the New Japan Philharmonic to deliver a score that is as lively as the characters in the film. Even when the characters aren’t bursting out into song, the incidental music is riveting. When they do start singing, that too is a treat to behold:

Exhibit E – The Junkyard Scene

In case you haven’t seen this movie and are now interested enough to watch it, this is your SPOILER ALERT.

The movie’s climax finds Toaster and company in a scrapyard with a bunch of old, broken down cars. The car crusher powers up, a large electromagnet begins dropping cars onto the conveyor belt, and Toaster and friends are treated to the cars singing their stories about their worthlessness; hence the name of the song, “Worthless.” At several points during the course of the film, the subject of the main characters being obsolete comes up, but this scene sends that point home by showing the ultimate fate of outdated machines. Some of the car’s stories are sprinkled with regret and failure, making an already dark scene even darker. For a kid’s movie in particular, these are emotionally heavy lessons to learn, but its presented in a uniquely artistic and memorable way.

Verdict – Watch it!

There are a number of other wonderful things about The Brave Little Toaster including the voice acting, lighthearted humor, and emotional sentiments that make this film so very much worth watching. If you haven’t seen it, make time for it, and if you have but haven’t seen it in a while, now’s as good a time as any to revisit it.

 

 

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Ranking The James Bond Themes

There are so many iconic, recurring features in the James Bond film franchise that even if you haven’t seen many of the movies, you’re more than likely familiar with what they have in common. Most people could tell you that Bond films involve spies, gadgets, guns, girls, and whether they realize it or not, a good chunk of them could probably tell you about the music.

Each addition to the franchise has come equipped with its own theme song. Some of them have become popular radio staples, others have remained relegated to the opening credits of the films they came from. There are 24 films in the official canon as of 2015 and therefore, 24 songs. We’re going to rank them all based on a combination of how strong of a song they  are in general, as well as how effectively they fit the image and style of the Bond franchise.

Of course, music is a highly subjective thing to enjoy and differing opinions are what make debating things like Bond themes so much fun. Before we get to the numbered ranking though, there’s one thing to get straight.

Special Mention: “James Bond Theme” – John Barry – From Dr. No

Bond’s main theme is so memorable, instantly identifiable, and downright catchy that it transcends a numbered list system. The guitar riff, the atmosphere, the change in tone from slinky and stealthy to big and bombastic; it’s Bond’s leitmotif and is as cool today as it was back in 1962.

23. “Another Way To Die” – Jack White & Alicia Keys – From Quantum of Solace

If there ever existed a song within the Bond franchise, or music itself that displayed a textbook case of an identity crisis, this is it. Jack White throws in a number of gritty guitar lines, Alicia Keys gives her R&B style vocals, there’s a healthy amount of piano, somebody tried to throw some traditional Bond elements in at places; it sounds like it’s trying to be three different things simultaneously with none of them being worthwhile. It also sounds nothing like what you’d imagine a James Bond theme to sound like; something that could be forgivable if it were good otherwise.

22. “The Man With The Golden Gun” – Lulu

The best thing that can be said about this theme is that at least it’s consistent; unfortunately it’s consistently bad. The horns that lead off the arrangement do help give it a distinct, Bond tone, but everything from the guitars to Lulu’s singing sound terribly camp. It’s fitting that many critics and websites consider this to be one of the worst Bond songs of all time, with the movie itself also being considered similarly. And if you’re not familiar with Lulu maybe you’d remember her more for her 1967 number one hit, “To Sir, With Love.” Nope? Moving on!

21. “All Time High” – Rita Coolidge – From Octopussy

Until the Daniel Craig films, “All Time High” was notable for being the only non-instrumental Bond theme to not include the name of the film in the title or lyrics of the song…and with a name like Octopussy it’s pretty self-explanatory why that’s the case. However, maybe trying to work the title in would’ve made it a better piece of music. You’d be forgiven if you had no idea this was from a James Bond movie as it sounds like a generic, early ’80s ballad. It’s not bad by any means, but it is completely forgettable.

20. “Die Another Day “- Madonna

Nothing says action/spy thriller like electronic dance music with voice samples that randomly say “Sigmund Freud” and “analyze this.” The one thing this has going for it as a theme song are the string arrangements that actually evoke a good sense of tension and mood. The rest of the music only works well as a stand alone Madonna song, in which it actually is a good Madonna piece. To give credit where credit is due, it did perform well on the music charts, taking Bond back into the Billboard Top 10 for the first time in decades. Then again, 2002 Madonna was still extremely popular and could’ve read the phone book to a dance beat and made the charts with it.

19. “Writing’s On The Wall” – Sam Smith – From Spectre

Sam Smith cleans up at the 2015 Grammy Awards and the next thing you know he’s recording a Bond theme. His voice is strong, the arrangement is evocative, but it’s hard to escape the feeling that this very much sounds like Smith’s previous work and is a personal piece about his relationships. A singer should bring their own style into the mix for a project like this, but not to the extent where it sounds like he’s moping about his love life. It would’ve been a great addition to his next record, not to the list of Bond themes.

18. “Thunderball” – Tom Jones

“They call him the winner who takes all/And he strikes, like Thunderball.” …Just uh, how exactly does a Thunderball strike? They really had to force the title into the lyric here. The orchestral flourish that opens the song gets real repetitive real fast, but man can Tom Jones belt it out. The last note he sings is phenomenal and helps prop up an otherwise mediocre number.

17. “Moonraker” – Shirley Bassey

As of 2015 and the release of Spectre, Shirley Bassey remains the only artist to have recorded more than one Bond song, having given her vocals to three of them. This is not only the weakest of the trio, but is also one of the weaker themes in general. It’s a moving ballad, that part can’t be denied, but unlike her other tracks, this one doesn’t do the Bond style and sound any justice. If it were sung by any other person it would be lower on the list, but Shirley Bassey remains an exceptional vocalist. Oh, and if you thought trying to logically work the term “thunderball” into a lyric was a stretch, “moonraker” isn’t much better.

16. “You Only Live Twice” – Nancy Sinatra

Nancy Sinatra doesn’t display a tremendous amount of range as a singer here but she does have a great edge to her voice. The musical arrangement is distinctly different for a Bond film but makes more sense considering the Asian setting it takes place in. Is it a  bad song? No, but there are better ones in the series.

15. “License to Kill” – Gladys Knight

Gladys sings the hell out of this one; all nearly five and a half minutes of it. “License to Kill” smartly copies the distinct horn section of “Goldfinger” and then lets Gladys go to town with her soulful vocals. It does drag on far longer than it needs to though. The song doesn’t do anything in five minutes that it couldn’t do in three and thus it gets a little dull as it continues

14. “Tomorrow Never Dies” – Sheryl Crow

The first 13 seconds of this song are some of the best ever recorded for a Bond theme. Now if only the rest of it were at that level. The arrangement and Crow’s singing alternate between restrained verses and and a large, sweeping chorus. Like the movie itself, it’s a middle of the pack song that doesn’t do a lot of things wrong, does some things remarkably right, and leaves itself open to be loved by some and tolerated by others.

13. “For Your Eyes Only” – Sheena Easton

You can certainly tell this is from the ’80s Bond pictures. This is easily one of the poppier themes, but in a good way. Easton nails the vocal, captures the emotion of the lyric, and similar to Crow, knows how to alternate between a hushed verse and full throated chorus. All that being said, it does sound like something you’d hear in the waiting room of a dentist’s office. Not that there’s anything wrong with that…welcome to the nature of ’80s pop.

12. “From Russia With Love” – Matt Monro

An instrumental version of the song opens the film, a fully sung one closes it. It’s a fairly simple track with an understated percussion performance and string arrangement. Lyrically it incorporates the title rather effectively and actually makes more sense with the end of the film as opposed to beginning. This track gets the most credit though for letting Monro’s wonderful voice really be the driving force behind it all.

11. “Live And Let Die” – Paul McCartney & Wings

Hardly the most lyrically deep track that McCartney ever wrote, it at least contains an instrumental refrain that absolutely rocks. The whole song goes through three different phases; a calm verse, energetic instrumental, and kooky little bridge. The highs and lows of the piece really are like a musical roller coaster which is largely why the song is so fondly remembered and gets substantial radio play to this day. If anything, this is probably the most well known Bond theme and may suffer from a bit of over exposure.

10. “Skyfall” – Adele

If ever there were a more fitting choice for an artist to contribute to Skyfall  in 2012, it was Adele. Thanks to her album 21 sweeping the Grammys and her undeniable talent and voice, it was only natural to get Adele to do the next Bond song. Not only did she rise to the occasion, she also netted the Bond franchise it’s first Academy Award for Best Original Song. “Skyfall” does everything a Bond theme should. Adele channels Shirley Bassey in her delivery, the lyric is fitting for the song and the film’s atmosphere, and the musical arrangement sounds like James Bond. True story: I once had a co-worker who came into the office one day saying that he heard a song on the radio by who he thought was Adele, and that it sounded like it would be perfect for a James Bond film. …You can probably guess what the song was.

9. “The World Is Not Enough” – Garbage

This one is definitely outside of Garbage’s normal wheelhouse, but wow, they nail what a Bond song is supposed to sound like. This theme is smooth as silk, which is remarkable considering it has an alternative edge to it. Shirley Manson, Garbage’s vocalist, lets her voice soar over the chorus and gives the song a sultriness that compliments the film’s romantic subplots.

8. “Goldfinger” – Shirley Bassey

In many ways this is the definitive Bond theme, perhaps as identifiable with the character as his own recurring, instrumental leitmotif. Once again, points are earned for being able to work an otherwise unwieldy title into the song’s lyric, but even more points for making it work so well. If this were a list that was ranking songs purely on the Bond aesthetic it would easily top the list, but in any other context, singing about a man named Goldfinger would be absurd. In context; it’s absurdly amazing.

7. “A View To A Kill” – Duran Duran

By all means a product of ’80s excess, but in the best possible way. It’s the only Bond theme to top the American Billboard Chart and sports a surprisingly strong mix of John Barry’s orchestration with Duran Duran’s synthpop. The strings and keyboards give the song an appropriate degree of tension, and even if lead singer Simon LeBon’s lyrics make virtually no sense on paper, they accomplish much in the way of imagery. Above all, it’s ferociously catchy. For added fun, you can watch a live version where LeBon botches a note terribly at 2:54 seconds in: (sorry Simon!)

6. “Diamonds Are Forever” – Shirley Bassey

Good gracious! For everything that “Goldfinger” does so well, “Diamonds Are Forever” picks everything up a notch. Bassey’s voice is even better here than it is on her other themes and the arrangement is so dynamic. Listen to the ethereal opening and then notice how the more the song goes on the more elaborate the music gets. Every time Bassey sings the titular phrase more and more instrumentation is added. This is a breathtaking performance and it deserves just as much praise if not more than “Goldfinger.”

5. “Nobody Does It Better” – Carly Simon – From The Spy Who Loved Me

Earlier in the list it was mentioned how Sam Smith seemed to inject too much of himself into his Bond theme. “Nobody Does It Better” definitely feels like a Carly Simon piece (even though she didn’t write it) but she also makes it sound like it’s being sung from the perspective of a Bond girl and her thoughts about James. The opening piano sets up a classy tone and the beautiful string section highlights the song’s emotional pull.

4. “You Know My Name” – Chris Cornell – From Casino Royale

Chris Cornell’s “You Know My Name” succeeds in doing what “Another Way To Die” would fail miserably at; giving Bond a new, harder edge. Casino Royale  was supposed to represent a rebirth of the franchise with a new actor in the role; a grittier one with a more realistic take on the series. The theme echoes those ideas perfectly by taking Cornell’s raw voice and combining it with grinding guitars and powerful orchestration. The song stands on its own too when listened to as a general rock song. Credit there can be given to Cornell who was also one of the best vocalists of the ’90s grunge era.

3. “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” – John Barry

Poor On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Of all the films in the franchise, this is the one that is the most misunderstood and under appreciated in almost every way. Most casual Bond fans either haven’t seen it, or only know it as the one film that George Lazenby did. Enthusiasts on the other hand will be quick to tell you that O.H.M.S.S.  is easily one of the best, if not THE best Bond film ever made. Composer John Barry is at his best too with this instrumental theme absolutely capturing the excitement and action of being James Bond. It sounds completely different than the original iconic theme but it still somehow instantly evokes the spy. The way the main riff chugs along to the symphonic arrangement is so perfect that it doesn’t need words to tell you what you’re in store for if you watch the movie.

2. “GoldenEye” – Tina Turner

Listen to “GoldenEye” and think about who wrote it. Any ideas? What if I told you it was written by Bono and The Edge of U2. Bet you can totally hear that now. Tina Turner sings this with a great degree of power, rivaling Shirley Bassey in her own way. The programmed strings and horns work surprisingly well thanks to the production from Nellee Hooper, who had previously worked with Massive Attack and U2 among others. The melody itself is slinky, seductive, a little dangerous, and Turner knows it and captures it in her performance. It sounds like Bond, it’s catchy, and it’s utterly fantastic.

1. “The Living Daylights” – a-ha

a-ha was a hugely successful band everywhere but the United States where they remain a one-hit wonder. Because of that, it may seem laughable to American audiences to hear the guys who did “Take On Me” performing a Bond theme. Admittedly, they were picked to do it based only out of the producers’ hope that their popularity would create another huge hit like Duran Duran’s did with “A View To A Kill.” They were partially right, though it completely misfired in the American market. Despite this, “The Living Daylights” is a staggeringly good song. John Barry’s production and string contributions cement the Bond motif and from the opening seconds, create an air of suspense and intrigue. The lyrical imagery and singer Morten Harket’s voice are haunting, and the song manages to deliver a series of great hooks. a-ha is a band that’s surprisingly more artistically talented than many people realize and this track shows it. “The Living Daylights” is an exceptional Bond theme, and a remarkable pop/rock number, thus leading it to be the best song to come out of the franchise.

7 Kids Cartoons of the ’80s and ’90s That Held Up Well

One of the sad, sad facts about growing up is coming to realize that the things you used to enjoy really weren’t that great. Sometimes we’re just too young to understand what quality is, and when an animation team is well aware of that fact, products of dubious quality result.

For example, imagine you’re a child of the ’80s, you adore video games, and you’re thrilled to watch The Adventures of Super Mario Brothers 3. You love it dearly, are devastated when it’s no longer on the air, and think back on it fondly. Then years later you’re in college, go to a local video store and happen across a DVD of the show. So you buy it, take it back home, put it in to watch it and you see this episode:

The plot involves King Koopa invading the real world, taking the White House with George and Barbara Bush inside of it, and placing it under water in the Mushroom Kingdom…it’s not exactly Olympus Has Fallen.  So Gerard Butl…er, Mario that is, has to rescue the President through the use of a frog suit and the accompanying musical number, “Do The Frog (Croak, Croak, Croak.)”

Needless to say, this cartoon doesn’t exactly hold up well for anyone looking to watch it today. It’s not alone in it either; quite a few cartoons from this era suffer from this. There are some however, that were fairly remarkable when they debuted and are just as strong today.

1. ReBoot 

ReBoot debuted in 1994 as a product of a Canadian animation company called Mainframe Entertainment. At the time, ReBoot‘s animation was cutting edge as it was billed as the first entirely computer generated cartoon series. Even though much of the animation looks clunky and antiquated today, the writing is fresh and inspired. The series takes place inside a computer with many of the series’ initial humor being derived from computer puns (the female lead’s name is Dot Matrix and the antagonists are viruses named Megabyte and Hexadecimal.) The most remarkable feature about the show is how after a fairly mediocre first half of season one, the show starts to escalate in tension, humor, characterization, and narrative storytelling. By the time season 2 comes along, full narrative arcs are being constructed and season 3 gets so dark that the show is barely recognizable from its humble, happy beginnings. If you can get past the dated animation the writing will captivate you.

2. Beast Wars: Transfomers

Way before Michael Bay brought the Transformers to the big screen alongside Megan Fox and Shia LaBeouf, there was the 1980’s original generation cartoon series. Though it was unabashedly used to sell toys, it actually provided some decent storytelling for kids. Transformers fell out of popularity, as most fads do, but toy company, Hasbro hoped to repeat the success in the mid 1990’s with a new line of toys. Instead of vehicles turning into robots, these Transformers would be “robots in disguise” as animals. The TV show that accompanied it was, like ReBoot, also produced by Mainframe Entertainment, and it is exceptionally well done. Beast Wars: Transformers’ first season is episodic with no governing story line; it’s just an ongoing battle between the heroic Maximals, and the villainous Predacons. Subtle hints at something larger are sprinkled through the season until everything goes to hell at the end. From there, seasons 2 and 3 feature story arcs that are as tightly written as the best seasons of Breaking Bad. Helping the show even more is an exceptional cast of voice actors that add a great deal of personality to the heroes and villains alike.

3. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1987)

At the time of this writing there have been three Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoons, the most recent of which is presently airing on Nickelodeon. The original 1987 version though is the one that’s the most iconic; and it’s a beautiful mess. The first season of the show is only five episodes long, and there are so many animation errors that it’s mind boggling. Sometimes the wrong turtle is wearing the wrong color, the wrong voice is coming out of the wrong mouth, and there’s a stupefying amount of awful background animations. But, the show is often genuinely funny, much of the action is surprisingly strong, and there are some actual recurring story elements; a unique aspect to a Saturday morning cartoon. Later seasons iron out the animation problems, leading to a more carefully crafted cartoon. It’s an iconic show for a reason and even if it’s one of the weaker shows on this list, it’s still worth your time.

4. Swat Kats: The Radical Squadron

There’s a good chance you’re not familiar with this short lived Hanna-Barbera cartoon that ran from 1993 – 1995. During the mid ’90s, the company responsible for Yogi Bear, The Flintstones, The Jetsons, Scooby-Doo and numerous other iconic shows and characters was trying to update itself for the times, and Swat Kats was part of it. The episodes follow the crime fighting exploits of T-Bone and Razor, two former combat pilots who were drummed out of the air force after being forced to take the blame for an operation gone wrong. Undeterred in their desire to protect their home, they get jobs at a junkyard and build their own jet and weapons from the salvage that comes their way. Also, everyone is an anthropomorphic cat. This stands in stark contrast to the fact that this show is pretty damn dark, with tertiary characters being killed off quite a bit; something that according to various fan sites, may have been what led to its cancellation. Swat Kats only looks childish but don’t let its feline cast fool you, this cartoon has action and personality bursting out of the seams.

5. The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest

The 1960’s cartoon, Jonny Quest is well known among fans of classic animation for being a uniquely inspired take on classic sci-fi and adventure serials and adapting them to a cartoon format. In subsequent years it has been referenced, parodied, and paid homage to countless times. The most prominent of these is the heavily referential The Venture Bros, which is also responsible for bringing the old Hanna-Barbera property back into public consciousness. There was an attempted revival of the brand in 1996 when the various Turner Networks (Cartoon Network, TNT, TBS, etc.) premiered The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest. Advertising for it was massive and the show was greatly hyped for its blending of traditional and computer animation. Naturally, it’s the hand drawn animation that has stood the test of time but more importantly, so have the stories. Like the aforementioned Swat Kats, this iteration of Jonny Quest was darker and grittier. It featured the titular young hero, adopted brother Hadji, their father Dr. Benton Quest, body guard Race Bannon and his daughter Jessie Bannon, taking on some pretty serious threats to themselves and the world. Take for instance the memorable villain, Ezekiel Rage; a former U.S. government agent who was abandoned by his bosses after his cover was blown and subsequently nearly killed in a car crash. His wife and daughter weren’t so lucky though and Rage became twisted with….well…rage. It’s an intense subject matter for a kid’s cartoon, and considering all the supernatural and conspiratorial plots that the episodes have, it’s probably the closest we’ve ever come to an animated version of The X-Files.

6. The Real Ghostbusters

When you have the future creator and writer of the sci-fi series Babylon 5, J. Michael Straczynski as one of your main writers and story editor, you know you’re not exactly making a run of the mill kid’s show. The Real Ghostbusters had a wildly successful run from 1986 – 1992 and is one of the few cartoon properties to do justice to the live-action source material it was taken from. Just like the film, the cartoon blends comedy with dark supernatural drama.  The Ghostbusters do battle with everything from the Sandman to the Babylonian god, Tiamat. The only quibble is the forced addition of the ghost Slimer, something that was obviously tone to make the show more “kid friendly.” As a result, the cartoon does suffer a bit from his presence, but not enough to detract from its overall quality. If you really want something to tide you over until the female Ghostbusters reboot, this is your fix.

7. Batman: The Animated Series

This is a painfully obvious addition to the list for those who have seen the show, but in case you are one of the uninitiated, this is a must see.  In 1992 Bruce Timm changed the face of children’s cartoon programming by delivering an animated version of Batman that was not quite as dark as the Tim Burton Batman and Batman Returns films of that time, but were as close as you could get and still be broadcast to kids. Timm brought together art deco and film noir, stylized it with some modern flourishes, and created a richly detailed Gotham City for the Caped Crusader to fight crime in. Film composer Shirley Walker was brought in to oversee that every episode had it’s own orchestral score, and voice director Andrea Romano helped find actors and actresses to bring the people of this world to life. She once described her process not as finding “character voices” but as finding “voices with character.” The result of this is arguably the definitive take on Batman and The Joker as provided by Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill respectively. This show is responsible for bringing so much to television and the Batman mythos that it would require its own article to fully detail it all. Considering that Batman is bigger than ever thanks to the Christopher Nolan trilogy and the upcoming Batman vs. Superman film, if you haven’t watched this cartoon, now’s the time to do so. You will not regret it.

Star Wars: Episode ?: The Search for a Compelling Villain

Whether you’re a die hard Star Wars fan who has seen every film, cartoon spin-off, and read every book, or just a casual viewer who saw some of the films once or twice, odds are that you know who this guy is:

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Darth Vader: a villain so captivating that the American Film Institute ranked him in the top 3 greatest villains of all time. As we found out in The Empire Strikes Back, though, Vader had a master:

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Emperor Palpatine; a tyrannical political leader and master of the Force, who could shoot lightning out of his hands. Even though he was the man behind the Galactic Empire, and wielded electricity, he wasn’t quite as interesting as his servant.

Vader was one of the first characters we saw in Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope. and boy did he know how to make an entrance. He marches onto Princess Leia’s ship after his stormtroopers mow down everyone in sight, chokes a man to death, captures Leia, and does it all while rocking a cape and sounding asthmatic.

Palpatine gets a small appearance in Empire Strikes Back but it’s not until Return of the Jedi that we get a proper introduction to him. Meanwhile, Vader’s been a central figure the entire time, always trying to thwart the plans of Luke, Leia, Han Solo, and the Rebel Alliance.

The prequel films took place when Anakin Skywalker, the man who would become Darth Vader was just a kid. Obviously then, Vader couldn’t serve as the villain. Interestingly enough in Episode I: The Phantom Menace, Emperor Palpatine wasn’t the villain either; he’s still playing politician. So instead, we get these guys:

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Leaders of the Trade Federation. Remember them? No? Well, they were there. Yup, the bad guys of the movie were a political body with a non-existent backstory.

Perhaps you think the villain was this guy:

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Darth Maul. Well, he was a villain for all five minutes of screen time he had. Sadly though, by the time the movie’s over, he’s not half the man he used to be:

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Maybe you’re more familiar with Count Dooku, the villain from Episode II: Attack of the Clones. Surely being played by Christopher Lee would make him memorable:

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He even had a bigger part than Darth Maul, he had at LEAST 15 minutes of screen time across two films. Still don’t remember him that well though?

Okay, then there’s General Grievous from Episode III: Revenge of the Sith:

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We got to see him for about 10 minutes, and look how many lightsabers he has! Four of them! FOUR LIGHTSABERS! …But it also turns out that was his only defining character trait.

Fortunately, Episode III also brought back Palpatine not as a politician, but as Darth Sidious; otherwise known as the bad guy we knew he was going to end up as since we saw Return of the Jedi all those years ago. All the other villains we come across in these prequels are smokescreens and obstacles Sidious throws at the heroes while the movies try to pretend that Sidious being Palpatine is some dark secret.

Each of the prequel films show Darth Sidious as a cloaked figure, deviously plotting things, but then they show him being all innocent and unassuming as Senator/Emperor Palpatine. It’s not until Episode III that the series drops the charade that everyone saw through anyway and fully embraced the character.

That’s the problem with the prequels, there’s no defining villain, and certainly not one as utterly compelling as Vader. The first time we see Darth Vader, his presence is so arresting that we don’t need to know his back story. We do still get his history bit by bit over time, and that’s something that draws us close to him in each film. This kind of development is not present at all in the prequels. Who’s going to be interested in Nute Gunray of the Trade Federation?

The need for a compelling Star Wars villain was understood back in 1991 when Timothy Zahn wrote the first official continuation of the franchise, Heir to the Empire. The first thing the book does is introduce us to the story’s main villain:

Thrawn

Grand Admiral Thrawn. Within the first chapter we find out that this alien is a tactical genius and is as insightful as he is ruthless. The success of Zahn’s novel led to a trilogy of books that included Dark Force Rising and The Last Command. All three of the novels have Thrawn front and center as the antagonist and he makes them incredibly entertaining reads. In fact, some Star Wars fans will argue that Zahn’s books tell a much more interesting story than Episodes I – III do.

Christmas 2015 will mark a new chapter in the Star Wars franchise as Episode VII: The Force Awakens debuts in theaters. For the time being, all fans have to go on is rumor, speculation, minor production details and trailers to try and determine what lays in store for them. One of those details is this character:

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Kylo Ren. The information about him is shrouded in secrecy, but it’s clear that his design is a callback to both Vader and Maul in his intimidating presence, unique lightsaber, and foreboding visage. Will he have a personality to match his appearance? Will he be a primary antagonist over the course of the next three films, or will he be a “one and done” villain; only to appear in this upcoming film and never be heard from again? If Disney wants to return Star Wars to the glory of the original films, they’d do well to remember that more often than not, a hero is only as good as the villain who challenges them.