I expected to come stumbling out of the theater from Star Wars: The Clone Wars with tears streaming down my face. Hitching and mewling, I assumed I’d screech something like, “That monster George Lucas! What he did to my childhood can NEVER be undone!” Fortunately for me, the damage to my childhood Star Wars love has already been done, but just because The Clone Wars doesn’t scrape the depths below The Phantom Menace doesn’t mean it is any good.
Falling into place between Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones and Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, The Clone Wars is four episodes of the upcoming Clone Wars TV series knitted together to form a vaguely big-screen adventure for Anakin Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda, and company. It was supposed to be a treat for the fans; I’m kind of leaning towards cheap cash grab, but there are a lot of people who want new Star Wars adventures, and are willing to take them however they can get them.
The war between the Trade Federation and Count Dooku’s separatists and the Republic rages on. Thanks to an effective blockade, the Republic’s clone troopers are separated from the bulk of the warring planets, meaning that the Jedi are in hot demand to come in and swing the tide of battle. Of crucial importance to the troop movement issues are the Hutt-controlled systems of the Outer Rim, and when you’re dealing with Hutts, you’re dealing with just one Hutt who matters: Jabba.
When you’re dealing with a gangster, there’s never anything free. You give something to get something, and what Jabba wants requires the help of the only two Jedi currently not in the middle of a battle, Obi-Wan (James Arnold Taylor) and Anakin (Matt Lanter). Thanks to a multitude of communication problems, the only way to get in touch of Obi and Ani is to send a messenger in person. That messenger, Ahsoka Tano (Ashley Eckstein), just happens to be the new padawan learner Obi-Wan requested. The only wrinkle is that the padawan isn’t Obi-Wan’s, but Anakin’s. Yoda (Tom Kane) thinks it’ll be good for Anakin. Their mission? Recover Jabba the Hutt’s obnoxious slugbaby son, Rotta, aka Stinky.
With the character of Stinky, George Lucas’s obsession with disgustingly cute critters reaches new lows. Stinky the Hutt is worse than the Gungans, more obnoxious than the Ewoks, and has a worse name than Chewbacca’s son Itchy. But there’s much worse in this film, namely a certain youngling.
Oh, Ahsoka Tano. That character is the most clichéd of all clichés: the abrasive, smart-mouthed kid who knows it all and saves the day on more than one occasion. Combine her and her annoying voice with Anakin’s complaining, angst-ridden character, and it’s no wonder the battle droids keep trying so hard to kill them. I’m actually surprised that Obi-Wan and the clone troopers didn’t turn their weapons on that pair, too.
While Christopher Lee’s return as Count Dooku is very important, and lends a certain gravitas to the proceedings, the rest of the voice acting is mediocre to say the least. Ashley Eckstein’s Tano is a bit too high pitched and sugary-little-girl for my tastes. Samuel L. Jackson and Anthony Daniels have, roughly five lines between them. The new Obi-Wan is a step down from Ewan McGregor, and the new Anakin isn’t a step up from Hayden Christiansen. The fact that Frank Oz kept away from this series, or was kept away, should tell you just about everything else you need to know about The Clone Wars. Tom Kane does the Yoda role justice, but it’s just not the same.
In some ways, the animation is wonderful. I love the way the ships were rendered. The uniforms of the clone troopers and the battle droids look great, as do some of the aliens. However, the human characters? Not so good. And the gravest sin of all is the hair! Every character with a shred of hair on its head flips, runs, contorts, shoots, and dives without his or her hair even moving slightly. Even Yoda’s head of wispy gray hair isn’t done justice, as he’s given thick, clumpy blocks of hair. The less said about facial hair, the better. I’m well aware that it’s a stylistic choice on the part of Lucas and company, but did we really need to make Christopher Lee look like one of the giant stone heads of Easter Island?
The animation is freeing. The Jedis are free to use more powers and to move and fight more naturally (if naturally is the proper way to describe folks who use magic parasites to fight with laser swords). The battles feel a bit larger, and there’s more freedom of movement in the course of the battle in ways that wouldn’t be practical with real cameras. Despite being made for television, and shot for television with lots of facial close-ups, there’s good use made of the letterbox format, and some impressive wide shots, especially during combat.
There are some very good combat moments fortunately, but the character interaction is strained to say the least. The script, by Henry Gilroy, Steven Melching, and Scott Murphy, is very weak. Ahsoka is entirely too sassy for her own good, coming off as more obnoxious than spunky. Her chemistry with Anakin is incredibly forced, and the journey from two people that don’t like one another to friendly-ish seems rushed. The Battle Droids are back to being goofy and dumb. The one-liners and attempted jokes land with a Hutt-like splat. The lack of John Williams’ familiar score hurts more than I would have expected when it comes to underscoring the dramatic moments and heightening the tension in the action scenes. It comes off flat.
Perhaps I’m getting too old for Star Wars. Or maybe Star Wars is getting too young for me. While the initial trilogy started to run out of steam towards the end, and the new trilogy picked up steam towards the end, The Clone Wars is pretty much without steam from the very beginning. It has its moments, and will probably be much better in smaller TV-sized doses, but as a big screen event the struggle to get Stinky the Hutt is a let-down. Either I expected too much from the first CGI Star Wars animated film, or this beverage never had any fizz.