Star Wars: The Clone Wars Review

Doesn’t feel quite right over on this side of the site…

So Ewan McGregor leads the cast as Obi-Wan Kenobi in this tale of… Except it would appear that he doesn’t. Still, it’ll have Hayden Christensen reprising his role of Anakin Skywalker won’t it? Apparently not. I don’t know what else Christensen is up to these days – one would think very little given that not even the most generous of Star Wars fans would say that his performances in Episodes II and III were anything like a match for McGregor’s – but even he seems to be too busy for The Clone Wars. Supermarkets to open, no doubt. Also too busy for Clone Wars are Natalie Portman, Ian McDiarmid and Frank Oz.

Looking down the rather short cast list (several of them seem to double up) and through the likes of Matt Lanter (Anakin Skywalker), James Arnold Taylor (Obi-Wan Kenobi) and Ashley Drane (Ahsoka Tano), one eventually finds Anthony Daniels and gives some small thanks. At the same time, one must remember that it’s only Anthony Daniels and he hasn’t let anything Star Wars pass him by since 1977. Aged eight and beaming at the thought of having Star Wars wallpaper, even I suspected we might have Daniels knocking at the door and offering to lend a hand. But it’s something. And, yes, there is Samuel L Jackson (Mace Windu) and Christopher Lee but one’s contributions amount to less than a minute while, regardless of the respect that anyone might have for Christopher Lee, his casting is no guarantee of quality. His being in a whole clutch of cheap horrors is testament to that.

Underwhelmed is what comes to mind when watching The Clone Wars. Breaking with Star Wars tradition, there is no opening crawl, no 20th Century Fox, no scene-setting sweep down to the planet on which the action begins to unfold and not even the famous John Williams music. The theme is there but it has been re-recorded and simplified, sounding as though, rather than having a professional orchestra do the honours, Lucas and company handed duties to an amateur outfit who just about stay in tune and in time. This cheapening of the theme tune isn’t merely a small part of the experience of watching The Clone Wars but a perfect example of what’s wrong with the film. Just as every Boston Pops-styled orchestra dallied with the Star Wars theme and managed to sound a bit like the original, so this looks a bit like a Star Wars film. The lightsabers, the Force and the characters are all there but the attention to detail is missing. The Clone Wars looks flat, dull and lifeless, with the backgrounds fading into a fog while the foregrounds are absent of the bustling streets and cities that Lucas has previously brought to the screen. The irony is that there may be less computer animation in this CG film than in any one of the three live-action prequels.
The biggest problem, though, is the story. Actually, the story is nearly always the problem in Star Wars but it’s so bad that almost all memories of Jar Jar Binks are wiped clean. With it concerning itself with the Republic gaining access to the trade routes in the Outer Rim, we’re firmly back in The Phantom Menace territory rather than the more exciting Episodes II and III. Jabba The Hutt’s son has been kidnapped by the Separatists in the hope of forcing the Hutts to take sides in the Clone Wars. The Jedi are dispatched to rescue the child but there is still the matter of the battle between Kenobi’s Republic forces and General Loathsom’s Separatist armies on Christophsis and the arrival of a young Jedi from Coruscant, Ahsoka Tano (Ashley Drane), who is instructed by Yoda to become Padewan not to Kenobi but to Master Anakin Skywalker. Her impatience will make her well-suited to Skywalker.

Aside from the story, all the usual Star Wars nonsense creeps into The Clone Wars. Padewan, Hutts and the bizarre accents that are part and parcel of the Star Wars universe are all present and correct. Kenobi’s clipped English stands in contrast to Loathsom’s broad Scottish, which makes one wonder what point, if any, Lucas is making on English/Scottish rivalries. This viewer hoped to see Loathsom’s forces tear down the goalposts on the Republic side of the battlefield and take them back to wherever it is the Separatists call home but it wasn’t to be. Things get worse when Ahsoka Tano is described not as a Padewan but as a youngling. And in spite of thinking that this may be the low point in the movie, it continues on its downward spiral with the little Hutt being described as a Huttlet.

Oddly for a Star Wars film, this sits in complete contrast to the live-action movies. Given that Star Wars (and ILM) has always pushed what was possible in CG, The Clone Wars takes a massive step back. The spacecraft are little better than the boxy, fuzzy ships of computer games from several years ago, Unreal 2 or thereabouts, while the characters look to be carved out of teak. On any other film that would be a criticism of the acting, particularly so as regards Hayden Christensen, but on The Clone Wars, it really is what they look like. Kenobi isn’t sporting a beard so much as wearing a small pleated skirt on his chin while the question of, “Why the long face?” has nothing to do with Count Dooku’s mood, more that he has been animated with an abnormally long head. Had he turned out to have four legs, a saddle and a liking for sugar cubes, one wouldn’t have been at all surprised. And it’s a very small moment but when Kenobi takes a drink from a tin cup while on the battlefield in Christophsis, it’s clear that no liquid passes between the cup and his lips. It’s not a detail that a Brad Bird or a John Lasseter would have missed. And neither would George Lucas in his making of Episodes I through III. Such shortcuts in the animation make this no better than the television show that it first was.
Yet for all of its problems, it’s undeniably a Star Wars film. The use of animation allows the Jedi to cut loose in a way that was denied them in the live action films. Kenobi, in particular, goes some way to justifying his reputation in the Star Wars world with this film. His duel with Sith assassin Asajj Ventress is the highlight of the entire film. Ventress reprises Qui-Gon Jinn’s way with a locked door while animation affords Count Dooku the means to duel with Skywalker in a way that wasn’t possible in Attack Of The Clones. No amount of CG was going to see Christopher Lee matching Hayden Christensen but he does so here, throwing himself into the fight with abandon. Otherwise, the space (and ground) battles look almost as good as they do in the live action films while the sound is Star Wars through and through. One can never complain about the hum of lightsabers.

Although Genndy Tartakovsky is no longer involved in the production of The Clone Wars, this is closer to his series than to Lucas’ films. One can complain too much about it and while it’s very far from being without problems, it’s also intended as the opening chapter in an animated television show and works reasonably well for that. By no means should it be counted alongside Episodes I-VI, which probably explains Lucas’ decision to change several key Star Wars motifs, but it serves its purpose. I’ll be watching The Clone Wars when it eventually comes to television but it, and this, are far from being as memorable as the movies.

Eamonn McCusker

Updated: Aug 21, 2008

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