Fans cheer Star Wars' cast old and new

The franchise will have more major female characters and still honour the legacy of the original films by George Lucas

Director J.J. Abrams promised fans at a panel discussion in the United States early Friday morning that his upcoming Star Wars: The Force Awakens film would pay homage to the original Star Wars movies by George Lucas. It was also revealed at the event that the franchise would introduce more strong women characters.

"There are moments where the pressure of what we're doing - honouring the legacy - is the most important thing we're all working on," he said at the session held in Anaheim, California, and simulcast in 23 countries including Singapore.

Also at the panel was Ms Kathleen Kennedy, president of Lucasfilm, the production company behind the franchise. She talked about the notion of the new film pleasing as many fans as possible.

"Everybody is a fan. Everybody has a Star Wars story. That generational experience is something that is really important and it's everything in terms of the future of Star Wars," she said.

She also revealed that the new Star Wars movies would feature many more "really strong women" characters. The franchise, which began in 1977, has been known to be severely lacking in major female characters, with only a few such as Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman).

As a fan of the previous Star Wars films, Ms Kennedy said there were not many women in them for her to look up to. But the mother of two daughters promised that "that's going to change" for future films and spin-offs.

In the hour-long panel, fans were given new tidbits about the latest film in the Star Wars franchise and treated to a nostalgia trip when several cast members of the original Star Wars movies joined Abrams and Kennedy on stage later on.

The surprise guests included Fisher, who plays Princess Leia; Mark Hamill, who plays Luke Skywalker; Anthony Daniels, who voices droid C-3PO; and Peter Mayhew, who plays Chewbacca. All of them will reprise their original roles in The Force Awakens, which is also known as Episode VII in the franchise and is in cinemas in December.

Fisher, 58, is pleased that there would be more strong women in the series. She said with a grin: "I liked being the only one when I was 19. But now I need some back-up."

She also talked about her character's signature double-bun hairstyle and sexy brown bikini outfit: "The buns are tired now. We have a new thing that you'll all be very into. And it's not the metal bikini."

As the cast stood side by side with a row of Stormtroopers, the fans - those in the United States at the event as well as the more than 400 people in Singapore watching it streamed live at Shaw Lido Imax theatre - cheered loudly.

The level of energy surged even higher when the new Force Awakens trailer - the second released thus far - was screened at the end of the session. Fans cheered loudly when an older Han Solo (reprised by Harrison Ford) showed up at the closing of the trailer and said to Chewbacca: "Chewie, we're home."

As beloved as the classic characters are, the panel made sure to usher fans to the future and welcome the film's new generation of leading stars - Daisy Ridley, Oscar Isaac and John Boyega - who went on stage to talk about their characters. But to avoid spoilers, they barely revealed anything of note.

When prodded by the host to reveal whether his character is a baddie, British actor Boyega, 23, who will be playing Finn in the new film, joked that he had suddenly lost his memory.

American actor Isaac, 35, would only say that his character is "the best freaking pilot in the galaxy", while English actress Ridley, 23, described her character Rey simply as "a scavenger".

The discussion panel kick-started the four-day Star Wars Celebration, a fan-centric convention about all things Star Wars held this year in Anaheim, California. It is expected to draw more than 150,000 fans from around the world.