Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Star Wars: The Clone Wars - Genndy Tartakovsky's Clone Wars microseries

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Star Wars: The Clone Wars - Genndy Tartakovsky's Clone Wars microseries


This is an entry in the Star Wars: The Clone Wars series, covering both versions of the animated show alongside the prequel films.

As I prepared to do a Clone Wars series, I was confused. I knew there had been a movie, not very well-received (Rotten Tomatoes reveals an 18% - far, far worse than any prequel score). I knew there had been a TV show recently, supposedly much better than the movie, that was cancelled by Disney when they bought Lucasfilm - apparently they preferred to focus on a later period of Star Wars history for a variety of reasons. I knew that a decade ago, there was a Clone Wars show created in traditional 2D animation. So I was surprised when I looked at images from the Clone Wars film that were computer-animated (even though I hazily remembered that detail in retrospect - when the film was released in 2008, I looked askance at it partially because it seemed to be taking the prequels' obsession with CGI even further). Turns out there are two versions of this story. The first, called simply Clone Wars, was created by Genndy Tartakovsky for Cartoon Network in 2003-05, between the release of Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. Designed in short, stylized bursts of action (following one episode of quick exposition), each chapter of Clone Wars ran but three minutes, until season three, when the runtime was extended to twelve (for five episodes). Taken all together (either on the two-volume DVD set or as stitched into a relatively continuous narrative on YouTube), these twenty-five chapters form a two-hour twelve-minute exploration into untapped corners of the Star Wars universe. I loved it.

The animation is vivid and exciting from the first frame, but the series also contains some wonderful storytelling. Some of these touches are very simple, including the decision to frame Mace Windu's epic battle on the barren Dantooine with a child's view. The episode begins when a little boy races up a hill and takes in the entire battlefield below, a perspective that beautifully evokes a "legendary" view of the following events (when an exhausted Windu gratefully takes a  swig from the little boy's canteen after annihilating an entire droid army, we imagine the kid will pass down this story for generations to come). I also really loved a moody, silent passage set on Coruscant, where Anakin passes through a crowd of alien figures before running into Padme. It's the perfect encapsulation of Star Wars' serio-comic cosmos, playful yet earnest (as epitomized in the Mos Eisley cantina): bizarre creatures side-by-side with familiar human behavior, in this case the alienation and suspicion one might feel wandering an earthly city. The real highlight may be Anakin's arc in the last several episodes (which has as much a Star Trek as a Star Wars feel in its exploration of isolated alien culture), intercut with the invasion of Coruscant and the kidnapping of Palpatine which leads up to Sith (I adored the "war cry" of the hammerhead Jedi). With Obi-Wan, Anakin visits a remote planet where he is enlisted to rescue the lost men of a tribal village. This is both a conventional rescue mission and a vision quest, a crucial stage in Anakin's maturity and a foreboding hint of his journey into the Dark Side. The key moment is provided by a cave painting come to life, in which a figure's mechanical arm saves and then destroys an entire village: the montage climaxes with the lines of the painting coalescing to form a facsimile of Darth Vader's mask.

The magic of this short series lies in its iconographic power. If Star Wars has become a modern religion, than the Tartakovsky episodes are its stained-glass windows, gorgeous in their simplicity. Clone Wars is awash in vibrant primal colors, bold, well-defined outlines, and a sketch artist's aptitude for capturing the essence of a subject. I was delighted to see striking characters like Yoda and Ackbar (or at least some of his cousins) in this format, looking as if they had been reduced to their essence. It's also fascinating to watch Tartakovsky give more complicated characters this treatment: which ingredients of Anakin, Padme, Palpatine or Obi-Wan will he consider most crucial when boiling them down? Whether or not you agree with his interpretation this is a riveting process to watch, at once crystallizing and deepening the vast world that George Lucas created. It's also quite different from Lucas' style, for better or worse (we'll get to that in a moment), and Tartakovsky's own unique talents provide a mildly pleasing clash of sensibilities - like salt and chocolate. There is also something of Lucas' older style - the angular, pared-down aesthetic of THX-1138 - in Tartakovsky's work, so in some ways he is able to bridge the gap between the older and newer films.

Tartakovsky's series has a reputation - and some notoriety I suppose - as OT ("original trilogy") fans' favorite piece of prequel media. I can see why: the animation style is sharp and clean where many viewers feel the prequels are overcluttered. Although the screen is frequently saturated with droids, ships, and other objects, and the action moves very fast, Tartakovsky tends to repeat figures within the frame (it helps that the members of the droid and clone armies are mostly identical) and to create extremely pronounced compositions with define the shots with laserlike focus, however long they are held. Furthermore the traditional cartoon style avoids any uncanny-valley confusion between live-action and animation which, like it or loathe it, is the prequel trilogy's metier. On a more obvious (and perhaps less interesting) level Clone Wars' dialogue is minimal and economical - no lengthy political discussions and only one romantic interlude (whose sappy non sequiturs - "You do look really good in dark" - feel less awkward as delivered and animated here then when real actors are forced to speak them).

However, I think it's more useful and certainly less divisive to see Clone Wars as amplifying and extending the prequels rather than correcting or replacing them. So much of what it does is rooted directly in Attack of the Clones or even the later Revenge of the Sith (in production concurrently with the series), from the imagery to the manner of speech to, of course, the characters, locations, and events. There are also occasional references to The Phantom Menace; a flashback/vision in which Qui Gon sends child Anakin into a tree is one of my favorite moments. The end of the series even makes a point of linking up directly to the beginning of the third prequel. Anakin is certainly as mopey in the series as he was in the films (if anything, he's a bit poutier here, especially in the early episodes), and all of the other characters dovetail nicely with their appearance in the movie - General Grievous' hacking Sith cough is even established in the final minutes of the last episode. The show builds affection for these characters and this world, cementing what we liked in the prequels and offering us insight into what we didn't. And rather than attempt to smooth over the controversial elements it commits to them...well, aside from Jar Jar, who is nowhere in sight. I respect that commitment and find it far superior to the attitude of, say, The Force Awakens which seems determined to pretend the prequels never happened.

Of course, George Lucas himself is frequently guilty of this revisionist tendency - most obviously in regard to the original theatrical editions of the first trilogy, but also, alas, with this series too. To pick up the point begun in my first paragraph, there is a second Clone Wars series (officially called The Clone Wars; never has an article been so clarifying). And with more input from George Lucas, a later release date (three years after Tartakovsky), and a far longer runtime (six seasons) it quickly assumed Clone Wars' place in the official canon. Apparently the first series even went out of print on DVD and official Star Wars materials avoided reference to it. Tartakovsky was disappointed by this development, while remaining gracious toward Lucas and his successors. From poking around a bit, it seems like there are some outright contradictions between the two series but by and large they cover different aspects of the Clone Wars and, with a bit of straining and selectivity, can be seen as complementary rather than contradictory.

Anyway, I suspect this short series is a great entryway into the longer one, and I'm really glad I watched it. Next up (probably not for a year or two at least) will be The Clone Wars (2008-14), which is the real object of this viewing diary. Well, sort of next up - first I'm covering the 2008 feature film which launched the series, and overlaps with it. Apparently the movie was compiled from the (intended) first few episodes of season one. Within two episodes of that first season, we will already have surpassed the entire runtime of Clone Wars and I expect the newer series to tackle the characters and their relationships more deeply than Tartakovsky was able to here. I'm particularly keen to see Anakin adopt his own pupil, Ahsoka, which seems like an absolutely brilliant storytelling move on several levels. This is also a storyline that keeps on giving, as the character appears to be a part of the new Rebels show as well - one can only imagine what will happen when she comes across Darth Vader. I've always felt that the strongest point of the prequels - indeed, of all the Star Wars films aside from the first (which stands on its own as a sui generis, quasi-Pop Art cinematic masterpiece) - is the tale of Anakin Skywalker's transformation. I look forward to diving more deeply into that story, and I also look forward to further opportunities to explore the many colorful worlds that Lucas and Filoni, and yes, Tartakovsky too, created for this saga.

Images from the series

Episode 1

Episode 2

Episode 3

Episode 4

Episode 5

Episode 6

Episode 7

Episode 8

Episode 9

Episode 10

Episode 11

Episode 12

Episode 13

Episode 14

Episode 15

Episode 16

Episode 17

Episode 18

Episode 19

Episode 20

Episode 21

Episode 22

Episode 23

Episode 24

Episode 25


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