By Angela Hill
Feature Writer -- Bay Area News Group

Even before the jokes emerged about Mickey Mouse ears replacing Princess Leia's "cinnamon buns," fierce "Star Wars" fans had already begun speculating -- and worrying -- about the future of the beloved franchise, now that it's under the auspices of Disney.

What will Episode 7 be like? Who will direct it? Even if it's a smash, will it just become part of the noise of summer blockbusters: here and hyped today, out on Blu-ray tomorrow?

Unless you've been hiding inside the blubbery folds of a Tauntaun on the icy regions of ... the Matterhorn? ... you're surely aware that Tuesday The Walt Disney Co. announced the $4 billion purchase of Lucasfilm, with plans for a new "Star Wars" installment to be released as soon as 2015.

And here's perhaps the most important question -- can Disney recapture the magic of old?

"That thing that happened in the late '70s, early '80s -- people waiting in lines, seeing 'Star Wars' over and over again -- there was nothing like that before, and it gripped an entire generation and beyond," said Robert Thompson, media scholar at Syracuse University. "When you start tinkering with something as iconic as that with these beloved characters, it's dangerous territory. Even (George) Lucas couldn't do it himself with the prequels. So it all depends on how well the new movies end up."

On Wednesday rumors were already orbiting the Internet -- emanating from an inside Lucasfilm source, according to E Online -- that Episode 7 will be an entirely original storyline, not following the various novels written after "Return of the Jedi," as fans might expect.

This possibility, as well as the Disney-Lucasfilm union itself, has caused millions of rebellious voices in the social media universe to cry out in pain, blowing up blog posts Alderaan-style with enough comments to plug up that pesky thermal exhaust port on the Death Star.

"I'm torn," said Josh Magnani, 35, a coffee shop owner in San Francisco who has been a "Star Wars" fan from his mother's womb -- having resided there while his parents viewed a test screening of the very first movie.

"My first reaction was that it's a tragedy," he said of the Disney purchase. "But people of my generation who loved the original trilogy from our childhood kind of roundly hated the last three movies Lucas made anyway -- and even worse, the changes he made to the first three. He failed miserably with those, so maybe Disney will right the ship."

To be sure, not all "Star Wars" fans have a bad feeling about a new, fresh universe coming their way.

"I'm really excited, actually. I'm more on the side of this being a 'New Hope' rather than a disturbance in The Force," said Alain Bloch,

31, a software engineer and co-founder of the Golden Gate Knights in San Francisco, which offers weekly classes in lightsaber training using LED Lucasian swords.

"People have been kind of wondering what the future of 'Star Wars' would be after Lucas passed the torch," he said. "Disney has taken over Pixar and Marvel and they've flourished under that umbrella. I mean, look at 'The Avengers' and 'Captain America.' So I see it as a positive move.

"Plus, Disney has committed to release a new film every two or three years," he said. "And with some fresh person in the director's seat -- maybe a lifelong fan like J.J. Abrams or someone -- that could really be awesome."

Indeed, the director could be the franchise's best hope to advance this legendary tale, industry experts say.

"The director is certainly going to be key, and a lot of names have been put out there," said Eric Goldman, an editor at the entertainment site IGN.com. "We've been hearing everything from Brad Bird, who definitely has 'geek cred,' to Joss Whedon. But he's going to be too busy directing 'Avengers 2' for Disney to do it. It'll be interesting to see what happens.

"If it really is an original script, some purists are going to freak out no matter what," Goldman said. "But Disney has proved with the Marvel movies that there's no reason to think they're going to screw anything up."

Thompson expressed confidence that Disney would take a sophisticated approach.

"I'd be pretty sure Disney's not going to put talking bunnies in the movie," Thompson said. "Although a talking bunny would be better than Jar Jar Binks."

Regardless of how the films come out, one fact is clear: "Princess Leia is now a Disney princess," said Jack Rems, owner of Escapist Comics and the Dark Carnival sci-fi and fantasy bookstore in Berkeley. "If nothing else, I expect (the Disney-Lucasfilm connection) will lead to more marketing on both sides."

The "Star Wars" franchise has earned more than $4.4 billion in box office returns worldwide since the first film was released in 1977, not to mention the entire empire of books, games and toys. And Disney's acquisition and planned new films merely open the door for more.

"Even back in the 1920s, Walt Disney was one of the first to understand the value of the brand, and this follows that lead," said Jim Forsher, Seattle-based pop-culture expert, documentary filmmaker and former Cal State East Bay communications professor.

Thompson predicts Disney will first resurrect the "Star Wars" library that already exists, releasing enhanced versions of the early films in theaters as they've done so many times with their own products like "Bambi" and "Pinocchio." "Then they'll strike with merchandising all over the planet and beyond to Tatooine. Or did that get blown up?" he joked.

"And remember, Lucasfilm is a lot more than 'Star Wars,'" Thompson added. "They now also have the 'Indiana Jones' franchise. Of course, they'll need a new star for that."

Fresh faces will also be necessary in future "Star Wars" installments, Forsher noted. "This will bring some new blood into it, and maybe Disney can reinvigorate what became a tired brand," he said. "Just as long as they don't give it to the person who did 'John Carter.'"

READ ARTICLE ON THE BAY AREA NEWS GROUP WEB SITE