Wednesday, August 27, 2008

In Theaters: Star Wars: The Clone Wars

Poster from
I didn’t go into THE CLONE WARS with high expectations, and for a while I wasn’t sure whether to see it at all. The reviews have been terrible, of course, but after filtering out the obvious “George Lucas is an Enemy of Fun” nonsense they’re more mediocre than catastrophic. And the fact is I am in the market for this kind of movie; I like STAR WARS, I like space opera in general, and the idea of a Star Wars movie that’s not really part of the saga and more just a simple adventure is appealing in its way. Essentially the first few episodes of a new Cartoon Network series blown up on the big screen, THE CLONE WARS isn’t really a good movie, but as a pilot it has some promise.

After an uncharacteristic opening lacking the traditional scrolling text, we are taken into the midst of the titular Clone Wars, the struggle between the Galactic Republic and a group of Separatists trying to secede. In the midst of the chaos, kidnappers have made off with the son of infamous crime lord Jabba the Hutt (yes, he has a kid, which raises more questions than it answers.) The Republic would like the cooperation of the Hutt gangsters in getting access to their space lanes, so they send a few Jedi to recover the child. Chosen for the task are, coincidentally enough, Anakin Skywalker (now voiced by Matt Lanter instead of that Christensen fellow) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (James Arnold Tanner). Also, Skywalker has been saddled with an apprentice, a young alien girl named Ahsoka Tano (Ashley Eckstein) who’s more than eager to prove her worth. But to find the Hutt child, the Jedi and their Clone Trooper allies have to fight their way through the now-familiar hordes of droid armies, and reckon with a double-cross being set up for them by the Separatists.

As some of my readers probably already know, this isn’t the first CLONE WARS cartoon; a 2-D series supervised by SAMURAI JACK creator Genndy Tartakovsky debuted between Episodes II and III of the theatrical saga to bridge the gap between them. For whatever reason he’s not on board this time, and the animation is now full 3-D and computer generated. It’s highly stylized and quite jarring at first, especially on the characters who all have very squarish features, but I got used to it. The backgrounds are sort of staticy, and it doesn’t have the kind of detail that the live action films did, but the colors and textures are enhanced by lovely brushstroke effects. It’s an interesting touch that I hope will survive to the TV series.

This is obviously much more for the kids than any previous STAR WARS adventure; the stakes are lower, the violence muted, and there’s a lot more comedy. Some of this involves my old favorites, the battle droids, acting as doomed and twitchy as they ever were, and you’ve got a cute but also goofy Hutt baby whom Ahsoka and Anakin quickly dub “Stinky.” Some of this works, and there’s even some nice banter and a few small jokes on the sides (most notably a World War II style pinup on the side of one of the Clone Trooper attack transports.)

What really hurts this film is the structure. It’s all too obvious that these are individual episodes of a television series stitched together (so far only FUTURAMA has managed to pull that off.) Even at their slowest, the STAR WARS movies have had a nice momentum; they’re always moving forward at some speed or another. Here, however, we spend the entire first quarter of the film on a big battle that isn’t even related to the main plotline, but just serves to establish the Clone Wars and the main characters. Fine for a pilot episode, not so much for a feature. Even after the mission gets underway, it moves in fits and starts, and the required battle sequences actually serve to slow the story down. The film doesn’t have the kind of freewheeling dexterity that STAR WARS does so well; there should be more planet hopping, more sudden detours, more reversals and serial chapter craziness.

Finally, the introductory plot is pretty slight and inconsequential, which much of the time is okay, but it results in a weak climax. There isn’t the kind of buildup to a big showdown that the live action films always had, so instead the plot just reaches its natural endpoint and the credits roll. Again, fine for television, but a feature film needs a good showstopper at the end.

I will give one more positive point; the character of Ahsoka is a welcome addition. She’s brash and energetic without being too petulant, and since her favorite pasttime is backtalking Anakin Skywaker (who, as much as I enjoyed the prequel trilogy, has had it coming), she can’t help but be likable. And it’s nice to have a female Jedi play a prominent role in this series.

On the downside, I actually think it may have been a mistake to involve Anakin and Obi-Wan in this series to start with. As characters, their trajectory is already set, and nothing too important can happen to them in the course of this film or, likely, the show. The most successful STAR WARS spinoffs (like the KNIGHTS OF THE OLD REPUBLIC games and comics) have had enough distance from the principal characters of the films to forge their own stories, to recreate that epic feel without stepping on any toes. This is a less comfortable fit, and though the main characters aren’t exactly unwelcome, there isn’t too much to be done with them.

As space opera goes, THE CLONE WARS is strictly average. Fortunately for me, I like space opera, so I enjoyed myself. I can’t give it a good grade as a movie, but it might have promise as a cartoon series, and I’ll keep an eye out for that. You probably won’t want to spend movie theatre prices to see this, but it’s by no means bad, just okay. Your kids might like it.

Based on characters, etc. created by George Lucas
Written by Henry Gilroy, Stephen Melching, and Scott Murphy
Directed by Dave Filoni

Grade: C+

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