The vulptexes, new creatures that will be introduced in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, are not just background dressing meant to flesh out the scenery - their features should come into play during a crucial moment in the plot. The animals first appeared in a behind-the-scenes sizzle reel, earning the nickname "crystal foxes" by fans due to their physical traits. In stark contrast to Ahch-To's Porgs, Lucasfilm has primarily kept the vulptexes under lock and key during marketing to this point, but a quick shot of a few was shown in the full theatrical trailer.
For those not in the know, the vulptexes are native to Crait, a salt-mine planet that housed a Rebel Alliance base during the Galactic Civil War. In the years since that conflict, the animals found a home in the abandoned headquarters, but they're about to get some company when General Leia Organa brings the Resistance there while on the run from the First Order. Fortunately, it doesn't sound like the "crystal foxes" will be a threat and actually help the good guys out when it matters most.
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EW spoke with creature designer Neal Scanlan as part of their continuing coverage on The Last Jedi, and the vulptexes were a major part of the conversation. Much like what Rian Johnson promised with the Porgs, these critters have a purpose in the story:
“They live within the burrows and within the tunnels beneath the planet. So there is a time where their ability to shine within the darkness, should provide a guiding light to our heroes.”
From the looks of things, the Battle of Crait is going to be the movie's climactic set piece, with the Resistance seemingly overmatched in their ski speeders, while the First Order uses the massive gorilla walkers. If things turn out worse for wear for Leia and company, they may need to plan an evacuation so everyone can get to safety. Perhaps sneaking through the tunnel is the best way off-world, and the vulptexes can serve as the compass. Since Leia has been to this location in the past (see: Leia: Princess of Alderaan and an upcoming comic), it's possible she established a connection with the animals through the Force, and they recognize her as benevolent friend. It'll be interesting to see how they fit in, but it's nice to know they aren't just filler.
In addition to story details, Scanlan also broke down the process in regards to creating the foxes. The creature shop used tests from a dog to build an animatronic puppet (of which EW has a video of) that could be used in certain scenes. ILM also scanned the physical model to serve as the basis for their digital version. It goes without saying that Star Wars is always going to have state-of-the-art visual effects, but the work put into the vupltexes is extraordinary. The animatronics are extremely photorealistic, requiring 25,000 crystals to be completed. It should be a wonder to watch them on the big screen, and maybe they'll rival the Porgs in terms of popularity after the film premieres.