Following the tepid reception to the big-screen animated The Clone Wars movie, Cartoon Network’s Star Wars: The Clone Wars series is no more nor less compelling, but provides an avenue for the diehard Star Wars fan to explore the untold stories in this murky period of time in the George Lucas-created universe.
Although the actual duration of the Clone Wars is relatively brief, the scope is wide and varied, which means that each episode can focus on the details of a tiny skirmish or maneuver and still not have the well run dry for hundreds of episodes. Initially, it would seem that the eventual clone betrayal of the Jedis that we’ve seen in the films would be problematic. How can we root for the clones working with the Republic when we know it ends with a Jedi massacre?
In this case, the story is all about the journey, and for the most part it works. In the first two screened episodes, the focus is placed on General Yoda and Anakin Skywalker with his cute Padawan Ahsoka Tano, respectively. Since Darth Vader and Yoda are probably the most iconic figures in the Star Wars universe, they’re good choices to provide a sense of continuity. Other familiar characters include Count Dooku, Chancellor Palpatine, Padme Amidala, General Grievous and R2-D2, among others.
Padawan Ahsoka, a teenager of the Togrutan race, provides the kids watching the series someone to identify with, an attempt to draw in a young audience that may not feel the nostalgic pull the Gen-Xers and older are subject to. In some respects, the youthful focus is a bit heavy-handed. That Ahsoka needs a firmer rein on her tongue and spirits is apparent, but to be fair, at least her emotions are acknowledged as legitimate.
Like many cartoons aimed at a young audience, Clone Wars teems with lessons and bits of wisdom. And while these are worthwhile and helpful, their obviousness and frequency occasionally overwhelm the cartoon, putting the action and story in the background. Each episode begins with an un-attributed quote that sets the lesson for the episode, just in case it’s not apparent later.
In the episode "Rising Malevolence," the intro text instructs us, "Belief is not a matter of choice, but of conviction," a theme that’s played out when Ahsoka insists that her former instructor the Jedi Admiral Plo Koon is still alive even after his fleet has disappeared after the latest Separatist attack with a mystery weapon. In addition to that life lesson, we also learn: 1) how to question authority correctly, 2) to never give up hope and 3) to not stick with the status quo.
An underlying theme that seems to run throughout the series is the worthiness of the clones. Yeah, they may all look alike and were created for the express purpose of being expendable soldiers, but clones are people too. Plo Koon and Yoda in the episode "Ambush" assure their clone followers that they matter. This is perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the series and hopefully will be explored further. As it stands though, the message is mixed since we really don’t get to know the clones, who admittedly look all the same or at least appear uniformly unidentifiable with their helmets on. Having one or two clones become the focal point in the series would do wonders to drive this point home and provide sympathy for the reluctant sacrifice they must make later when ordered into betrayal.
A benefit to the series is that now each of the universe’s races can get their moment in the sun, as with the Toydarians in "Ambush," and new characters can be introduced that lighten the mood. Asajj Ventress stands out as a fun villainess, bald and malevolently sexy. She spews hate well and wields not one, but two light sabers. In contrast, the previously mentioned Ahsoka becomes even more adorable and relatable when Anakin slips and addresses her by the nickname "Snips." Also, audiences will get some laughs out of the battle droids, who are depicted to be rather chatty and ineffectually bumbling.
Like the movie, the new series uses a stylized CG animation that works better in some situations than others. In the creation of characters, humans and those that appear nearly human look strange — with an odd quality to the skin that’s kind of creepy. In this case it appears the animators ran into the "uncanny valley" problem, which shouldn’t have happened since the characters are so stylized. The animation is more successful with the characters that are either robotic or obviously alien like Ahsoka, Yoda or the Toydarians.
Where Clone Wars’ animation shines, however, is in the sets and action. In "Ambush," we see a gorgeous alien landscape featuring giant purple coral-like plants and arid rocky crags. Watching Yoda leap around this area with his green light saber flashing is a visual treat. The animation is also especially effective for the space battles and shootouts, a staple for the franchise.
All in all, Clone Wars, which premieres with back-to-back episodes on Friday, Oct. 3, won’t blow anyone away. It suffers from the same syndrome of Episodes I-III: Somehow, the characters and the action just don’t capture our hearts and enthusiasm like the original Star Wars trilogy did. Nevertheless, Clone Wars has plenty of action and intrigue and provides pleasing visuals and just enough newness to a familiar world to keep fans coming back.
What did you think? How does it compare to the movies? What new things/characters do you enjoy?