[14 August 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
You’ve got to give George Lucas credit. Who else but the man behind the whole Skywalker family space saga could systematically rape his past while still producing staunch defenders? While he used to bemoan his inability to make “small, arthouse fare”, he now seems permanently stuck in Gene Simmons mode (read: endlessly remarketing his myth for future fans - and profits). After completing his horrendous prequels, many thought he was done with a galaxy far, far away. As it turns out, he was just getting started. As a live action TV series looms, we are currently being treated to the theatrical release of the pilot for his soon to be weekly animated effort, The Clone Wars. Based on the lifeless collection of computer generated chaos offered, things may be ending before the even begin.
For those unfamiliar with the storyline, a separatist movement, led by Count Dooku, is attempting to overthrow the Republic. The Jedi, including Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker, have been put in charge of keeping things from spiraling out of control. As we catch up with the characters, Jabba the Hutt’s son has been kidnapped, and Yoda wants his two best knights to negotiate his return. Unfortunately, they are engaged in a massive battle on a far away planet. Adding to the problems is a new padawan, Ahsoka Tano. The youngling is assigned to Anakin, much to his initial chagrin. They eventually form an uneasy alliance. After tracking the huttlet to an abandoned monastery, the trio heads out to battle Dark Lord Asajj Ventress and her droid forces. While concerned over the safety of the hostage, they fail to realize that this may all be a trap to poison the Jedi in Jabba’s eyes.
Welcome to George Lucas’ latest bad, bad decision. Star Wars: The Clone Wars, is easily classified as an “if you don’t mind” styled production. If you don’t mind unfocused battle sequences that seem to go on forever, if you don’t mind characterization clearly aimed at the under seven set, if you don’t mind overly cute merchandising bows and dialogue as ditzy as any Jar Jar monologue, you probably will enjoy yourself. But if the very thought of a drag queen Jabba the Hutt horrifies you, or if your fandom is killed by the concept that our future Darth Vader is referred to, lovingly and often, as “Skyguy”, Clone Wars will close the door on your love of this series forever. Sure, it’s merely the set up for an upcoming Cartoon Network/TNT series, but leave it to Lucas to drive a stake in his space opera’s vampiric heart once and for all.
It’s not an altogether unpleasant experience, at least at first. We are given a simple set-up -Anakin gets new padawan, she’s a spunky little thing, they both learn lessons from each other while saving a baby slug from some slightly confusing double cross. Dooku does his thing. Cue John Williams inspired theme. But thanks to the relatively lifeless realization of this material by director Dave Filoni (who almost out snores Uncle George in the filmmaking department) and writers Henry Gilroy, Steven Melching, and Scott Murphy, we are stuck with nothing but cause and effect. It’s all set up and problem solving, the characters given limited access to anything imaginative, instead relying on the same old moves and screenplay mechanics to maintain the story arc.
Once we get beyond the narrative pleasantries, The Clone Wars has little else to offer. The battle sequences are sloppy and wooly, delivering little scope and even less excitement. The proposed suspense never arrives, and since we know the fate of these characters beforehand (some, if not all, have to survive to star in Revenge of the Sith, right?), there is little surprise or satisfaction. The newer additions are merely tossed in, given little time to impact the uninitiated. Unlike live action clashes, where character and other physical elements can be added to up the adrenalin, the flat 3D characters present simply spin around like videogame targets. There’s none of the stylized grace of Genndy Tartakovsky’s excellent hand drawn version of these events, which is odd when you consider that animation is as much about art as anything else.
No, the stench of preplanned marketing pours off this title like sugared cereal and sickening kid sweat in a Shrek queue. Everything here is dumbed down, turning potential science fiction and fantasy into overly cute concepts for toys and bubblegum flavored toothpastes. Looking even more closely, you can see the reach for the highly coveted girl demo (a speculative rarity), the equally elusive under 10 set (awwww - isn’t little stinky Rotta the Huttlet adorable!), and even those interested in alternative lifestyles. Yes, Star Wars gets its first openly gay icon in Ziro, Jabba’s wildly flamboyant and campy Uncle. Speaking like something out of a Tennessee William’s play and doing everything else to suggest homosexuality aside from lisping, this totally misguided creation is like a hate crime waiting to happen.
And speaking of anger, fans will be furious when they hear the sound-alike voice actors hired to bring their former favorites to life. Ewan McGregor, Hayden Christiansen, Natalie Portman, and Ian McDiamond are nowhere to be found among the credits. In their place are capable mimics, accented by the real voices of Christopher Lee, Samuel L. Jackson, and Anthony Daniels. Granted, we don’t get the return of Jar Jar Binks, but one imagines the lilting nasal whine of Ashley Eckstein (as Ahsoka) will be enough to give devotees a migraine. She turns this epic battle between good and evil into a highly costumed High School Musical. Indeed, everything is pitched so far over into outright juvenilia - the imbecilic droids and their incredibly dumb shtick, the lack of realistic violence, the continual arrival of new creatures - that the entire production feels like a love letter to Saturday morning spendthrifts
While it only truly drags toward the end (at almost 100 minutes, it’s 20 too long) Star Wars: The Clone Wars clearly suffers from a severe case of “why?” Why did we need more connective material between already unnecessary Episodes Two and Three? Wasn’t the first time through under Tarakovsky’s imaginative reign good enough? Why aim this material directly at kids? Don’t you realize that your biggest supporters remain the arrested adolescents who fill up Comic-Con with their aging geekdom, Smart Cars, disposable income, and costume making fanaticism? Clearly, the powers behind this convenient cash grab can’t see the real reason Star Wars remains culturally significant. The Clone Wars is proof that, in some people’s minds, it’s nothing more than an easily reconfigured revenue stream.