ORLANDO, Fla.--You might think that 33 years after the original "Star Wars" film was released, George Lucas' science-fiction universe might be getting a little long in the tooth.
But if the countless beaming kids at Celebration V, the huge "Star Wars" fan fest being held here, are any indication, the future is very bright for the multibillion-dollar franchise. And it's not just because of the many "Star Wars" video games, books, comics, and toys that have come out in recent years, most of them clearly targeting a young audience.
In fact, when I started wandering around Celebration V on Friday looking for kids to talk to, I figured the big topics of discussion would be those more recent "Star Wars" items--along, perhaps, with the mediocre prequels that came out after the original film and its two sequels. After all, it would be understandable to think that the up-and-coming "Star Wars" fans were not arriving in that universe via the original group of three movies that first came out in 1977 and concluded in 1983.
Yet, that's precisely what seems to be the case: In an afternoon of canvassing kids aged 6 through 12, boys and girls alike, every single one of them, told me that the basis of their fandom was the original movies.
"When I was three, my mom showed me ['Star Wars']," said 10-year-old Scott Reese, from Louisiana. "I enjoyed the fact the rebels were trying to destroy the Empire and bring freedom to the galaxy. And that got me interested in watching the other movies."
I had come to Celebration V as the last stop on Road Trip 2010, and I was certain that the many kids I'd see would not only be more interested in playing video games like The Force Unleashed, but would also be uniformly sympathetic to the Rebel Alliance, Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and would hold a fair bit of enmity for the evil of the Galactic Alliance.
And Reese's sentiments notwithstanding, that's really not at all what I found.
As noted above, each kid I met had started with 1977's "Star Wars" and moved on to the rest of Lucas' universe from there. But these kids were also not at all shy about expressing their interest in the Empire. I guess since it's a fictional universe, there's nothing wrong with being partial to its Dark Side.
For example, 8-year-old Nick Sanford told me his favorite character is Darth Vader "because he started out from a good person to a bad person."
Or take what I was told by Orlando's Drew Redmond, a 10-year-old who was introduced to "Star Wars" on an Orlando-to-Denver driving trip where he basically watched all three original movies for 32 hours straight: "Darth Maul is my favorite. I just like him because I like the Dark Side. I like the Sith more than the Jedi for the same reason."
And Shelby Sporl, a 12-year-old girl from Jacksonville, Fla., said that she had learned her preference for the Empire from her brother. "I like them both (the Rebel Alliance and the Empire), but I'm a little more for the Empire."
Even some of the kids who preferred characters like Han Solo, such as Parker Jochum, 10, from Orlando, hedged their bets. Jochum said he sympathized with the Empire "because I know it's hard to be losing."
Of course, there were those that were pure of heart. One little girl, Emerson Phillips-Georg, who is "six-and-a-half" said her favorite character is Luke Skywalker. And why is she a "Star Wars" fan? "There are some good characters, and there are spaceships in there," Phillips-Georg said. "And I really like space."
And then there were those like Autumn Frink, 9, whose heart is with the Empire but whose favorite character is Padme Amidala, the Natalie Portman character, and who she was dressed as Friday at Celebration V. She also was wearing Princess Leia's hair buns.
Sporl, too, said that despite her Empire sympathies, her favorite character is Padme Amidala. I began to sense some patterns.
Video games and books
Though these kids universally had come across "Star Wars" via the original movies, that's not to say they don't play the video games or read the books. Indeed, most of the kids I talked to Friday said they do spend a fair bit of time playing "Star Wars" video games.
For example, Drew Redmond told me he plays a lot of Star Wars: Force Unleashed and plays with "Star Wars" Legos. Similarly, Parker Jochum said he has the complete set of "Star Wars" games available for the Nintendo Wii.
Sporl said she doesn't get much of a chance to play "Star Wars" video games because her brother hogs them most of the time. Still, she said, she does play them from time to time.
I shouldn't give you the impression that Celebration V was dominated by kids. Though they were everywhere--from the littlest infants to 17-year-olds sprouting their first beards and curves--the vast majority of attendees were adults.
Yet it was heartening to see kids throughout the vast halls of the Orange County Convention Center here. It said to me that there's a very strong future ahead for "Star Wars," and that's a good thing, even if the prequels and the more recent "Clone Wars" films had, pretty much by universal consent, sucked. It says that what Lucas unleashed on us all in 1977 has a life of its own--and a very big part of it is the fans.
And who better to demonstrate that the fans will take all this where they want than the kids?
Perhaps my favorite moment at the convention was something I could easily have missed. An R2-D2 came rolling through one of the main exhibit halls, remotely controlled by its owner. Out of nowhere, a tiny little girl came running after it, yelling, "Hey, R2!"
She pounced on the droid, a giant smile on her face. And that was all I needed to see to know this was a lifelong convert.
In the meantime, I was also pleased by the fact that the kids I talked to seemed to have taste: none of them said they liked the prequels more than the original films. Yet, most of them had watched Episodes I through III. Except Jochum.
"I'm not allowed to watch Episode III," he said. "Because it's PG-13."
Since June 23, Geek Gestalt has been on Road Trip 2010. After driving more than 18,000 miles in the Rocky Mountains, the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest, and the Southeast over the last four years, I've been looking for the best in technology, science, military, nature, aviation, and more throughout the American northeast. You can follow my progress on Twitter @GreeterDan and @RoadTrip and find the project on Facebook. And you can also test your knowledge of the U.S. and try to win a prize in the Road Trip Picture of the Day challenge.