Star Wars: The Clone Wars (review)

Jedi Mind Trick

“You fought in the Clone Wars?” Oh man, do I remember hearing Luke Skywalker say that when I was eight years old and thinking, Wow, cool! Clone wars! What could that have been? Now, I’ll concede that what the Clone Wars actually turned out to have been, in that historical era a long time ago in a galaxy far far away, is probably not as mindblowing as my eight-year-old mind could have invented, seeing as how it’s just a big galactic civil war with cloned humanoid soldiers on one side and droid armies on the other. (I seem to recall imagining, when I was a teenager and really consumed with Star Wars, that surely the Clone Wars must have been fought over clones or cloning, not merely with them. You know, as an ethical thing. Like how the U.S. fought over slavery or something.) But I’m old now, and I’ve seen it all. I bet today’s eight-year-olds will find Star Wars: The Clone Wars pretty darn awesome.
But you know what? Don’t tell anyone I said so, but I kinda thought The Clone Wars was pretty darn awesome too. At least as far as overblown Saturday morning cartoons go — probably if I could have had a big bowl of Frosted Flakes with cold milk to go with it, it would have been perfect. Sure, the flick is basically nonstop battles with a few funny lines thrown in, but the battles are actually highly entertaining, wildly varied — the vertical one, with machines climbing up a 90-degree cliff, is amazing — and way more coherent than anything George Lucas created for the new trilogy. The director here, Dave Filoni, is an animation pro with credits like TV’s King of the Hill and Avatar: The Last Airbender to his name, but basically he’s just a big ol’ Star Wars fanboy who lucked into this job. But it seems he knew how to take the best of what Lucas gave us with this universe and play with it, while ignoring Lucas’s worst excesses.

The story is, as is the way of things with Star Wars these days, simultaneously very simple and horrifically complex. We’re in between the events of Episodes II and III: Anakin Skywalker is a full Jedi Knight but has not yet gone to the Dark Side. Jabba the Hutt’s son — that’s right, I said “son” — has been kidnapped, and Republic General Skywalker, along with General Obi-wan Kenobi, have been dispatched to rescue him. Why would the Jedi care about the son of a gangster? Well, it seems the breakaway separatists led by evil Count Dooku and his droid armies have succeeded in taking over certain of the hyperspace lanes vital for galactic travel, which leaves only the spacelanes of the Outer Rim for the cloned Republic armies, commanded by the Jedi, to move about on… but those are controlled by the crimelord Hutts, and so the Jedi have to make nice with them before Dooku does. I think it may be even more complicated that this, but Galactic C-Span bores me so I’m not fully up on the politics.

Oh, it’s all cheesy at times, no question: the universe appears to be full of catwalks ready made for lightsaber-dueling upon; we get to visit the Coruscant nightspot run by Truman Capote the Hutt — actually, he’s called Ziro the Hutt, but he’ll always be Truman Capote the Hutt to me; and Anakin’s Padawan learner is almost as annoying as Jar Jar. So what? The original Star Wars was cheesy too — we just didn’t realize it because we were only in third grade. I suppose some fans find the “roger, roger” battle droids cheesy, but I think they’re hilarious: hearing one of them bark “Surrender Republic dogs” is one of the highlights of the movie.

The animation is both clever and magnificent, too. The style was supposedly prompted by the look of Thunderbirds, that old British marionette show, but I don’t see it. I do see how everything not organic — spaceships, robots, cityscapes — looks completely realistic, and much like those things looked in the new “live-action” trilogy, which was mostly CGI anyway. (The battle machines continue to be inspired in design: some look like giant spiders, others like big snails; I suppose the beer-can robots came from another weapons contractor, one that didn’t take cues from nature.) And everything organic, like people’s faces, is stylized enough so that you’re not expecting photorealism in them. The story — scripted by animation vets Henry Gilroy, Steven Melching, and Scott Murphy — isn’t one of deep emotion anyway, so we’re not looking for any great sensitivity in those faces. (The voice cast consists of mostly unknowns doing passable imitations of the famous live-action cast, with the exceptions of Anthony Daniels as C3PO, Christopher Lee as Count Dooku, and Samuel L. Jackson as Mac Windu, because they’re not ever gonna get that lightsaber out of Jackson’s hands, even when they’re cold and dead, and I don’t blame him.)

I went into Star Wars: The Clone Wars not anticipating anything to hold my interest, but I was hugely entertained by it. The Force was with me.

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