I know I have not been the only one to be critical of the all-hallowed George Lucas and his nuclear missile-proof franchise. One cannot deny, though, the man is a juggernaut, a veritable 800 pound gorilla. And where does an 800 pound gorilla sit? Wherever he wants. Mr. Lucas inspires toadyism! I swear, when he sneezes surely all the Star Wars sycophants eagerly snarl and bark to catch his snot as if there was something magical about it. The man simply does nothing wrong and no one has the stones to tell him, “Uh, George, bad idea.”
Take, for instance, his last run through the theaters in August with the Clone Wars animated movie. The story was drab and completely disconnected from the franchise we have all come to scratch our heads over. Honestly, Anakin with a learner? Help me out here but wouldn’t that have come up somehow in the nightmare that was Episode III?
Continuity aside, we all accept Lucas was simply using the movie as a springboard to debut his new love child, the beloved weekly animated series on Cartoon Network. Inspired by the manga traditions of Japanimation, Lucas wedded manga to digital and gave us The Clone Wars, an amalgamation of Genndy Tartakovsk’ys brilliantly geometric animation style seen so perfectly in the original Clone Wars micro-series with a digital twist.
Does it work? Not in the movie. The characters feel stiff and arthritic, and, in typical Lucas fashion, the acting is wooden as well. The combat sequences show no dazzle, no danger. Sure a clone bites it here and there and the emotional banter is punctuated by desperate warnings of “Here they come!” In short the story offered nothing Star Wars! Lightsabers and droids do not a Star Wars movie make. With this movie, though, we can be certain our Jedi Master George knew exactly what he was doing and has unfortunately gone to the dark side. Rubbing his hands with glee, Emperor George cemented Star Wars into the next generation’s psyche.
The master plan was to build a battle station no one could stop. It’s called a cartoon and it runs once a week with the occasional marathons here and there. Children would be Emperor George’s new stormtrooper cadre. And why not? The marketing campaign was slick. Live action clones run through the streets, past kids playing soccer. Droids pop up and skirmishes ensue. (For some serious fun, though, check out the cartoon at the skate park!) The geek in me cheered along with my kids and we all fantasized about wearing clone armor. We waited, my kids and I, for the debut of The Clone Wars animated series. I held my geek breath and braced myself for the Clone Wars underwear, cereal, and action figures that would soon become my world. (Remember, I DID mention I have kids!)
The anticipated night came. In full geek mode (Star Wars 32 oz Slurpee glasses and Darth Vader sippy cups from Episode III in hand) my kids and I sat and watched the debut episode of Clone Wars, the animated series on Cartoon Network. First, let me say I enjoy the revamped soundtrack. One grows weary of the trumpeting racket the original score offers after thirty plus years and this new rendition segues well into the opening sequences.
The opening sequence is something of a treat (though seemingly like everything else in Star Wars it is not perfect). Hearkening back to the newsreels of World War II, the opening sequence gives a brief snapshot of the galaxy’s events. Centering only on the episode though with this newsreel technique is a little distracting. It would be nice to see a more panoramic view of the war that is somehow supposed to be horrendous. Tartakovsky managed to show how lethal the war was in the brief time he had. It is a pity this sequence couldn’t be better utilized.
From there it is straight into the action. That is actually one of the central strengths of this 30-year-old series. Despite the endless writing and re-writing of Clone Wars history, we at least know the characters well enough that we do not need the ramp-up introductions other series might.
The first episode, "Ambush," involves a meeting master Yoda has with that flying guy from Episode I. (He was the guy that owned Anakin, a cross between a blue baby elephant and Tinker Bell’s really ugly big sister.) Seems Master Yoda has good relations with these guys, too.
I won’t go into the specifics. Suffice it to say plans go awry and Yoda and a small squad of clones are left to fend for themselves. Action is key to a series like this and we get it in abundance. As the action began I was scared of the sanitized violence from my cartoon heyday where ten tons of lasers could fly indiscriminately and no bodies would catch them. This was prominent in the old GI Joe cartoons where the bad guys even had time to leap out of exploding helicopters so as not to get hurt! (Maybe that is where Hollywood’s notion of outrunning explosions came from.) Thankfully this is not the case in Clone Wars. Troopers, and not just the metal kind, do take the rounds. They get shot, beat, and pretty well messed up. Nice touch there.
Speaking of the clones: the animators do a good job of working with the clones and making them distinguishable from one another. (I do miss Temuera Morrison’s voice for the clones, though the voices used are passable.) From my personal perspective this is distracting but that comes from the old soldier in me where everything has to be uniform. Animators use different hair styles, facial scars (nice touch there), and facial hair to better identify one from the other. (There is a neat sequence where Yoda talks with his battered clones and explains to them how they are indeed individuals. What makes this most poignant is these are the guys that will eventually blast the Jedis into bits later in the saga. Pity Emperor George couldn’t have left this to Vader as was alluded to in the first trilogy but that’s another entry.)
From there we move into the annihilation phase. The bad guys, headed by one Asajj Ventress (a fabulous character from Tartakovsky’s micro-series), offers up every scrap of hardware they can get their grubby little darkside claws on and chuck it at little Yoda and his torn up squad. What comes from this is nothing short of spectacular. Tartakovsky showcased Yoda in the micro series in full lightsaber mode and the writers of this episode give Yoda his opportunity as well. I hate to be such a naysayer in regard to the last movie (Revenge of the Sith). Yoda just wasn’t convincing as the hardcore warrior he was supposed to be. I won’t say he makes up for lost ground here though I will concede it was a lot more fun to watch. There is a touch of gleeful madness in his eyes that reminded me of the Yoda I knew growing up from The Empire Strikes Back. In short (no pun intended) Yoda does exactly what he should and that is carving up droids.
The droids are something of an issue and frankly overdone. It is difficult to suspend disbelief when an army of clanking, spindly droids would rather argue with one another and act in befuddling ways. It seems each droid has a comment to make, or would rather argue with a “superior”, or basically act like a buffoon. If the intent is to go for comic relief it fails and sours quickly into a Jar Jar-esque illustration of how to be an incompetent and irrelevant character. I hope the writers are listening! There must be menace! (And, dear God, please! No Phantom Menace! What the hell was that all about anyway?) There must be danger! There must NOT be droids resorting to the kind of antics the Three Stooges would have found embarrassing. Ventress shows some promise in this regard. She has a lethality that could be put to use (though I fear she will succumb to the Klingon Worf syndrome of being very tough and very easily beaten by everything Wesley Crusher can throw at him) if the writers can convince Emperor George a little blood frenzy would be a good thing.
The episode concluded tidily. The nuts and bolts are irrelevant. We all know Master Yoda makes it through to Episode VI and the droids get recycled (a nod for you there, Mr. Al Gore) into carbon offsets. Count Dooku (voiced, blessedly, by the wonderful Christopher Lee) gets to growl at Ventress for failure. (Too bad that won’t come to fruition.) The clones get to lock and load for another wild romp with the Jedis.
The big question from Emperor George (like he’s really listening) is – does it work? Yes. Mirroring the saga itself there are flaws. It is not a perfect series but it does work and shows incredible promise. As odd as this sounds, we need some throw away characters, some characters we knew nothing about prior to this little animated romp in merchandising. Maybe then we can develop some character and actually worry about it a little. Not much, Emperor George, just a little. I wouldn’t want you to think I actually started caring about Star Wars again.