Actually, Solo is good

Solo: A Star Wars Story, the latest Star Wars feature film and Disney's fourth, offers something new even as it stays connected to the old. I have a few gripes, but Solo is a nice side chapter to the ongoing Star Wars mythos.

Set roughly a decade before A New Hope, the original Star Wars film, Solo chronicles the journey of a 20-something Han Solo from an orphan looking for a brighter future to the swaggering but lovable scoundrel originally portrayed by Harrison Ford.

Standard backstory fare includes Solo meeting the Wookiee Chewbacca and fellow miscreant Lando Calrissian. We find out where he grew up and how he came by his surname. He acquires the Millenium Falcon and his biggest claim to fame: making the Kessel Run in a record-breaking twelve parsecs. Solo brims with action and humor—I think it's a great stand-alone film.

I don't know how many retakes he had to do, but with all the rumors that he sucked I was very pleasantly surprised at how well Alden Ehrenreich portrayed the young, more innocent Han Solo. He strikes a good resemblance to Harrison Ford in costume and, in a few moments, nailed the mannerisms he established for the character. At the same time, he brought something new to the role and didn't do a Harrison Ford impression, which would have been a disaster.

I also loved Joonas Suotamo's Chewbacca. As a former basketball player, Suotamo seems a bit more athletic than veteran Chewbacca actor Peter Mayhew, and there is a marked difference in the way that Suotamo moves as our beloved Wookiee. Once I got over the initial strangeness of an athletic Chewbacca, however, it really felt right. Chewie should be dynamic and active. He's a Wookiee warrior in this prime (at only 190 years old).

Donald Glover was wonderful as a younger but already smooth-talking gambler Lando Calrissian. His performance is more an impression of Billy Dee Williams than Ehrenreich's was of Ford, but it works, and Glover adds his own spin to Lando. The hints of a romantic interest in his droid L3 were bizarre but pleasantly surprising, adding new dimension to a long-established secondary character. Also, the cape closet was brilliant.

I was a little worried I'd be distracted by the casting of well-known actors Woody Harrelson and Emilia Clark, as Solo's smuggler-thief mentor Beckett and youthful romance-then-frenemy Q'ira. But Harrelson was a good choice for the chummy but mercenary Beckett, perfectly believable as a man who might remain likeable, somehow, while stabbing you in the back. Clark, though, delivered a intriguing and subtle performance and I still don't know what to make of Q'ira's motivations after the film. I have no idea what she might do next; there are hints at a tragic backstory.

Thandie Newton is perfect in everything, and here she delivers a great character performance, complete with a smart mouth, a big gun and an amazing afro—an outstanding woman of color in an otherwise pretty white franchise who is nonetheless limited by the task of adding depth and empathy to Harrelson's Beckett.

I said I have gripes.

As a devoted Wookie fan, my biggest complaint about the film was their depiction in Solo. Getting to see some Wookiees in action was one of the things I was most excited about for this film. Chewbacca looked great, but the Wookiees rescued from the mine were little more than furry blurs that the camera never actually focused on. The only one you could sort of see looked like he had a bare face that resembled a bad bigfoot costume or Chaka from Land of the Lost.

However, I stumbled on this tweet from Paul Davis, who played that seemingly bald-faced Wookiee, of a clear close-up image of those Wookiees from the film's companion sticker book. The Wookiee actually does have fur on his face, it's just blonde and so looked like bare skin in the fleeting glimpses we got of his face onscreen. Showing him a little more clearly would have solved this and it was a real missed opportunity.

The film was too long. The Enfys Nest storyline was forced and extraneous, though appreciated how it connected this film into the greater Star Wars narrative and the beginnings of the nascent Rebellion.

The film was too dark. So dark, in fact, that it was often hard to see what was going on. For the first scene in the Corellian "orphanage," I understand the choice to go dark, since Miss Hannigan Lady Proxima and the species that ran the operation were light averse, but I think it was overdone in other scenes.

While I liked the character design on the alien pilot Rio, who looked like a combination of practical puppetry and CG, I thought Jon Favreau's performance was a little too real-world-New-Yorker-sounding to me. It made me think of Rocket Raccoon and took me out of the Star Wars universe.

Pheobe Waller-Bridge, who voiced the droid L3, sounds way too much like Gwendolyn Christie, who portrayed Captain Phasma in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. If I didn't know it was a different actor going in, I would have been so confused as to why this droid had Phasma's voice and wondering if there was supposed to be a connection. But this one I'm giving a total pass on because L3 was such an unusual droid.

I loved the surprise appearance of Darth Maul at the end, portrayed by Ray Park and voiced by Sam Witwer. Maul is a great character that has so much more story explored in The Clone Wars and The Rebels cartoon series and his comic book mini-series, but was somewhat wasted in the films. I was totally expecting Darth Vader to make an appearance, which would have been nice except they used him so brilliantly in Rogue One that I'm not sure they could have topped that, so I was thrilled to see Maul show up.

I know some viewers were probably thrown for a loop by Maul's appearance in Solo, and I'm sure many were asking, "Wait, didn't he die in The Phantom Menace after being cut in half by Obi-Wan?" If that was your reaction, I say this: do yourself a favor and binge The Clone Wars and The Rebels cartoon series. They include some of the best storylines, characters and performances in the entire Star Wars franchise. They are canon and add so much context and richness to the films.

Maybe it is a bit strange that the cliffhanger ending of the film hinges on viewers being familiar with supplemental material like the cartoons and comics that many average film-only fans haven't seen. Or maybe it was brilliant marketing of other parts of the franchise by Disney? I don't think those things are necessarily mutually exclusive.

Speaking of cameos and cartoons, I also loved that we got to see a Pyke in a Star Wars film. Pykes are an alien species that we've only ever seen in The Clone Wars cartoon, where they and their crime syndicate play a pretty big role. I love when animated characters make the jump to live action. I wish they'd do more of it. (Ahsoka lives and we want more of her is all I'm saying.)

The train highjacking scene had me white-knuckling, as did the TIE fighter chase during the Kessel Run, instantly my favorite space-chase-battle-scene in any Star Wars movie. It was dynamic, frightening and beautiful all in one.

Solo, unlike other Disney entries, showed some established species from the Star Wars universe. Disney's so far used exotic creatures as decoration, as if to have us believe no species other than the Mon Calamari are ever seen twice. I spotted Rodians and Twi'leks along with the aforementioned Pykes. Part of what makes it feel like a Star Wars movie and not just some a Star Wars-branded scifi flick is seeing more than mere Jedi.

Solo's golden dice; the strong Art Deco design of Dryden Vos' ship; Val's 1930s-Emelia-Earhart-meets-1970s-Foxy-Brown look… all great design choices.

One of my friends said that Solo was "the first Star Wars film that wasn't a Star Wars film." I couldn't agree more that it has a very different feel to other films, but it's still undeniably Star Wars. It's fresh and it pushed the boundaries, but weaved in reference points to the original trilogy, prequel trilogy, current trilogy and the canon cartoons in ways subtle, reverent and not too heavy-handed. This is no small feat for a side film in one of the biggest movie franchises in history, with one of the most die-hard and picky fanbases to do that. Solo will age well.