Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Star Wars: The Clone Wars

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Star Wars: The Clone Wars


This is an entry in the viewing diary for the Star Wars: The Clone Wars animated series (2008-13).

I don't think any other TV series I cover will require quite as much "easing into" as The Clone Wars. We are now four entries into this viewing diary and after two live-action features, a couple dozen cartoon shorts, and an animated feature we still haven't quite hit The Clone Wars proper. Then again, this movie is probably best viewed not as a standalone film but as a pilot for the series. After all, its stakes are hardly as high as any other Star Wars film (well, ok, maybe Phantom Menace) and its purpose is clearly to establish characters and solidify a universe that will pay off. And actually I thought it did a pretty good job at that. In fact, I found The Clone Wars quite enjoyable - a surprise given its abysmal reputation. Although the series itself has been acclaimed, earning several Emmies, establishing a new generation of Star Wars fans, and winning over many viewers who had been dismayed by the prequels, The Clone Wars got off to an ignominious start with this theatrical feature.

Re-releases have lowered the prequels' critical scores over time (they were fairly well-received initially), but none of those films earned scores as low as The Clone Wars. Perhaps it was the growing backlash to George Lucas, perhaps critics resented what was obviously TV material being dumped on the big screen, or maybe the kid-centered, computer-animated approach was just a tough sell for adults already inclined to consider the franchise a cynical marketing ploy. Whatever the reason for the rejection, it disregards what The Clone Wars actually is: a solid premiere for a very promising series, inventing new characters (and, in some ways, re-inventing old ones), crafting a consistent tone and style to carry us forward, and populating the screen with a wealth of witty ideas and striking designs. In fact, taken purely as a piece of fun swashbuckle, peopled by characters we care about and relate to, this otherwise slight venture is more successful in its minor mission than the prequels are in their more ambitious endeavors.

Let's start with those characters. The familiar faces from the prequel trilogy are mostly here: Palpatine (Ian Abercrombie), played as straight as ever; Padme (Catherine Taber), still a bit stiff, even in cartoon form; Dooku (Christopher Lee himself), perhaps a bit more athletic now that he's not played by a man in his 80s; and of course Obi-Wan Kenobi (James Arnold Taylor, who did his voice in the Tartakovsky, continuing his best Ewan McGregor impression). Yoda (Tom Kane), C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), Jabba the Hutt (Kevin Michael Richardson), R2-D2, and Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) all put in appearances - with the actors often credited (a surprise to me, since when I heard Mace speak I thought, "That's not a very good Sam Jackson impersonation.") Only Gen. Grievous is absent, though a preview at the start of the disc ensures his eventual appearance on the show. Intriguingly, Asajj Ventriss (Nika Futterman) - whom we've only met in the Tartakovsky cartoons - also shows up for a memorable battle with Obi-Wan. And then of course there's Anakin (Matt Lanter)...and Ahsoka (Ashley Eckstein).

Aside from Jake Lloyd's carefree slaveboy routine in Phantom Menace, Anakin has always been portrayed as a mopey, sour individual, impressively skilled but essentially charmless. This is true not only in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith but also in the earlier Clone Wars series, in which Tartakovsky seemed to paint a perpetual scowl on the sulking Jedi. The Clone Wars changes this portrait substantially. Anakin Skywalker as we meet him here does have a chip on his shoulder but he is also unabashedly a strong leader and - oddly enough - a believable "people person." He doesn't seem like a confused adolescent but rather an assured, confident young man. It helps that he has a particular responsibility here that he never had anywhere else: to train young Ahsoka, whose brash stubbornness is a match for his own. As I'd been led to expect, she is a great, spunky addition to the Star Wars universe, an immensely likable character who does wonders to keep the plot and the themes tightly focused on a character level (in that aspect at least, the Star Wars film this feels most similar to is The Empire Strikes Back).

To my surprise, Ahsoka appears to be a child, and not a young woman. I'd been led to believe there would be some flicker of romance between her and her master, which I certainly hope won't be the case in the scenario established here. Instead, Anakin is forced into the role of big brother or even young father figure and it's a really interesting dynamic to behold, not only fueling her own characterization but humanizing Anakin in the process. It works absolute wonders for a character who often seemed too cold and self-absorbed to gain our sympathy, firmly establishing a relationship that can easily carry the narrative forward episode by episode. I'm tempted to say bringing her character into the mix may be the most brilliant character/narrative move George Lucas made in any prequel-era material. Her dialogue does have a certain Saturday morning cartoon snap, with lots of battlefield banter and an overabundance of corny nicknames (Ahsoka even dubs R2 "R2-ooey"). But hey, at least it isn't wooden. Most fun is the personality given the clone troopers and even the battle droids; there's a wonderful, unforced liveliness to even the smallest characterizations which feels fully Star Wars, especially evocative of the original film in the saga.

The film is a fascinating mix of the original trilogy's fun, down-to-earth tone with the visual speed and texture of the prequels. From the first few shots, there is no doubting George Lucas had a big hand in shaping the work of director Dave Filoni and his team, either directly or indirectly via his work in Clones and Sith particularly. The imagery flies at us a mile a minute with characters moving freely through the space, ever more unmoored by the requirements of live-action photography. In some ways, this feels like the film the prequels truly wanted to be. As I've noted elsewhere, those are really animated films at heart; even when using actors and real sets, their sensibility is more attuned to the stylization of a cartoon. In fact, The Clone Wars goes even further in its first battle - at times I had the peculiar sensation I was watching a video game and almost could feel the phantom controllers in my hand. It isn't just the CGI or nonstop action but the way our viewpoint is designed, with the character remaining firmly in the center of the frame as we weave left and right, up and down, rotating around them like many a gaming avatar. I can't say it was an altogether pleasing sensation but either I got used to it or other techniques were adopted for later sequences because it wasn't bothering me by the end of the film.

The best thing The Clone Wars borrows from the prequels is Lucas' penchant for wildly inventive designs. To name just two examples: on a large scale the ship that swoops in over Tatooine and spreads its tentacles over a barge to kidnap Jabba's infant son, and on a small scale the little droid whose head bobs and weaves according to its task, at one point flipping in on itself to serve as a platform for a hologram. Every scene has moments or gestures like these, and they are absolutely delightful. I think I had a wide grin on my face for at least half the runtime...I loved the mechanical walkers climbing straight up a cliff-face, the genteel but deceitful droid in the monastery, the tired-looking robot doctor hologram summoned for some medical advice, and the teardrop-like baby "huttette" (though I could have done without the cringeworthy drag-queen mockery of Jabba's uncle). This movie has a million ideas a minute and for the most part they're imbued not only with cleverness but (this is key) character.

The playfulness of the style and tone feel perfectly suited to one another. One thing that the film makes clear from the very beginning is that it's pitched at a younger audience than the previous films; yes, even The Phantom Menace with its Jar Jar and doodoo jokes (mercifully avoided here for the most part, although Jabba's progeny is endlessly referred to as "Stinky"). Though the double crosses could be somewhat confusing for a kid, the political intrigue is fairly simple compared to the taxation of trade routes; Jabba's speech is always translated rather than subtitled; and instead of the opening crawl we get a stentorian voiceover (presumably for the kids in the audience who can't read yet), the film's one major misstep and something that probably soured critics on it from the get-go. From what I hear, the first season will continue to privilege the "younglings" in the audience but with time the show will grow darker, more mature, and more complex (without, presumably, alienating its core viewers).

Here's what I'm really excited about: the chance to explore these characters in a format better suited to detailing nuance and the evolution of relationships and personalities. In ninety minutes, the film/pilot opens up all sorts of enticing avenues. What will Ahsoka discover about Anakin's past and how will this affect how she sees him? Will she also figure out what's going on with him and Padme? How will Anakin's role as a mentor impact Obi-Wan's and Yoda's - and Palpatine's - perceptions of him? If the clone troopers are more individualized than we've been led to believe, how will their own emotional experiences be represented in the series (I know that at some point preparations for Order 66 will come into play)? How will Ventriss' resentment and desire to prove herself to Dooku and Sidious be explored? With Jabba presented here in an unusually and relatively sympathetic light, will we be seeing other heavies get a bit of the human touch over time? Will the series use its expanded format and leisurely pace to incorporate aspects of different parts of Star Wars? (It was a blast seeing Return of the Jedi's Jabba palace at an earlier stage.) Will we get a peek at the impact these wars have on the "home front," or on the soldiers fighting them? The Clone Wars series has the ability to combine the visual impact of the films with the exploratory quality of the expanded universe literature, and it's going to be a pleasure digging into the hidden corners of Star Wars over six seasons.

Before closing this "prologue" phase of the viewing diary, there's one more entry I want to share: tomorrow I will publish chats with Bob Clark on the prequels, the Tartakovsky series, and this film. Going forward, we will convene for future discussions after each season (possibly after each episode "arc") to reflect on its events, themes, and style.

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