Robot Chicken: Star Wars Review
Following swiftly on the heels of Family Guy’s Blue Harvest, Robot Chicken: Star Wars is the second spoof version of George Lucas’s opus to arrive on DVD this year. While it’s easy to see such releases as simple cash-ins (which, at the end of the day, they are) the episodes themselves are made by a generation that worships the original trilogy so that even if their commercial exploitation can appear a little cynical their content are labours of real love. That said, I didn’t care for the Family Guy version too much; while the special had some good gags, too often it appeared that the writing was content to simply replicate scenes from the film and think that by substituting Peter and co into them that was enough to raise a laugh. Fortunately the Robot Chicken version is somewhat better.
For those who don’t know, RC is a stop-motion sketch show, the brain child of Seth Green and Matthew Senreich, which uses animated toys and models for its stars - essentially a modern version of what Adam and Joe were doing over a decade ago with marginally better animation. Airing on the US network [adult swim] and like many of that channel’s shows riffing on popular geeky culture, its anarchic, fast paced and disposable style is geared towards a youthful audience as used to watching youtube videos as anything longer than five minutes on TV. Like all sketch shows, the quality of the show is variable; when it’s good it’s as sharp as anything on television, when it’s not it comes across as little better than an animated version of drunken banter heard at three in the morning at a convention.
Fortunately the Star Wars episode, which at twenty-two minutes is twice as long as a regular instalment, has more good points than bad, with one sketch in particular - their version of the “He doesn’t like you - I don‘t like you either” cantina scene - so strong that it will be impossible for me, at any rate, to watch the real version again without chuckling. Despite having George Lucas’s blessing (the great man even cameos as himself) it’s also not afraid to be critical - the scene between Jar Jar Binks (voiced, as in the films, by Ahmed Best) and Darth Vader encapsulates precisely why the character is so disliked, while the offhand comment about midichlorians in the scene spoofing Luke and Vader’s battle at the end of Empire Strikes Back echoes the general feeling about that particular piece of Star Wars lore. That said, it's probable that those unfamiliar with the minutiae of the films won't get as much from it as hardcore fans (not least with the model work, deceptively good despite its rather primitive appearance) and there are inevitably moments which just fall flat. There’s an extended George Bush sequence which did nothing for me, while the “Yo Mamma” battle is something which no doubt sounded funny when the makers were goofing around but doesn’t have much of a punch line. Fortunately, the speed of the thing ensures that whenever one sketch isn’t as successful, there’s always something better coming round the corner, and the whole’s exuberance and extended cast (including several alumni of the six films) make it an amusing way to spend twenty minutes.
However, it’s certainly not worth paying for on its own. To compensate there’s a huge raft of extras, detailed below, and an additional three additional episodes from the [adult swim] network. There’s another episode of Robot Chicken itself to start with, The Deep End, which isn’t as strong as the feature attraction - a fun version of the Real World starring superheroes is counterbalanced by a lazily blasphemous skit of Kill Bill. Far better is the episode of Harvey Birdman, a cartoon like a couple of other [adult swim] shows recast old Hanna-Barbera characters in new roles and which in this case has as its central gag a new angle on Fred Flintstone. I don’t really want to spoil it but it’s a very funny conceit that is well executed and has as many laughs in its eleven minutes as the whole of the main feature. On the other hand the episode of Frisky Dingo, called Pimp My Revenue, relies too much on a couple of jokes recycled again and again, and is easily the weakest of the four shows on offer.
The episode is released on a single DVD stuffed full of supplementary material. As you might expect, the AV is not the most important thing on the disc, but it’s fine for what it is - occasionally the Video is a little blocky with some notable interlacing, but there are no real complaints, while the Audio track is perfectly serviceable, if a little harsh with some of the music,and there subtitles for the episode itself, though not the extras.
The big attraction, though, is in the sheer volume of Extras. There are no less than seven commentary tracks - SEVEN - divided into two for actors, two for writers, two for assorted crew members and one with George Lucas‘s two children Jett and Katie, neither of whom sound all that interested in either Star Wars or Robot Chicken. If that wasn’t enough, there’s a video commentary as well, Chicken Nuggets, with Seth Green and Matthew Senreich, one of those in which you wait for a symbol to appear on screen and then click to branch into the two talking. They discuss every sketch, sometimes at great length, with Green being surprisingly earnest while Senreich grins at the camera. There are similar video intros, featuring various cast and crew members, to both the Deleted Scenes (4:18) and the Alternative Audio (10:09) featurette. The latter is simply a collection recordings of adlibs by the actors in character and as such are full of blather, while the five deleted scenes, shown only in storyboard form with the recorded dialogue playing over them, were all wisely ditched.
Moving away from the actual episode, there’s a fairly typical Behind the Scenes (6:47) featurette. Far more informative is the Production Design (19:03) which is extensive footage of the model makers working accompanied by a commentary by Green and Production Designer Jed Hathaway. Green returns in the rather mystifying Animation Meeting (6:37) which is not at all what it sounds but is rather highlights of Green describing what happens in the show while looking at a primitive animatic. Meanwhile the Time Lapse (3:07) extra is speeded-up footage of some of the scenes being shot and is one of the few features not accompanied by any sort of commentary. If by this time you still haven’t seen enough of behind-the-scenes fmaterial, there’s also a Photo Gallery which, if you don’t skip through, runs for 43:12 and come with jokey captions.
The On Air Bumps (13:59) are a collection of intros the cast did for a Robot Chicken night on the network which has more jolly hijinks. Finally there’s a Panel Presentation (5:48) of Green and co larking around at a convention, an Easter Egg (0:42) of photos of the crew visiting Lucasfilm and a collection of Promos (6:43) for the special thrown in.
Never, I would hazard to guess, has a single twenty-minute episode of anything been the focus of so much comprehensive coverage, and if you do what I did and try and watch all the extras at once the sheer number of them is nothing short of exhausting. Of course, so much attention is lavished to cover the fact that the main feature is rather slight and it’s difficult to think of many people beyond those involved in the production who are going to be as absorbed for so long by the making of the special. However, one can’t help but acknowledge the effort which has been put into the disc - even the menus are attractively designed and very user-friendly - and it’d be daft to criticise a DVD for having too many extras, even if there is some repetition (and really, who is going to want to listen to seven different commentaries?) The relatively cheap price makes the package even more attractive, so, while there's still a good argument to be made that no single episode is worth an entire DVD release, if you’re as fascinated by this show as its makers are by Star Wars, this will be as welcome as a tauntaun in a snowstorm.