When Lucasfilm released The Clone Wars movie late in the summer of ’08 I was anything but thrilled. The visual style, which seemed to borrow a bit of its cartoony exaggeration from Genndy Tartakovsky’s Clone Wars shorts from ’04/’05, came off as pretty lacking on the big screen, especially when you look at what Pixar and Dreamworks were up to. Add that with a story that, in my opinion, failed to deliver on the promise of showing the Clone Wars–it was the damn title, for crying out loud!–and I had nothing but a masochistic interest in what the weekly, half hour show would be like.
Color me surprised when I watched a few assorted episodes during the first season’s original run and found myself liking the show quite a bit. It is by no means perfect, but when it hits I have to admit it comes pretty damn close. Season One just came out on DVD so I’ll be writing every few episodes, noting the highs, lows and in-betweens of The Clone Wars.
Episode 1, “Ambush”
The first episode struck me as very similar in plot to the Clone Wars film. In it, Yoda is send to Toydaria–homeworld of Watto the junk dealer–to bargain with their leaders for permission to build a base on their world. In the film, they went to Tatooine to make a similar bargain with the Hutts, which only goes to show they could have used the movies plot for an episode and taken advantage of a theatrical release for something much bigger in scale, but I digress. Count Dooku and Asajj Ventress were at Toydaria to surprise Yoda with a sneak attack in space and putting his skills as a Jedi to the test on the planet’s surface. In the end, Yoda and the three clone troopers he escaped to the surface with come out on top thanks to stronger moral fiber and the fact that Yoda is freakin’ Yoda.
This was a bit of a middle of the road episode. On the down side it had an unnecessary amount of droid humor. The battle droids are exceedingly stupid, which is odd considering they should have, in theory, been built to kill and not in the comedic sense. Their one liners are painful and their ineptitude inexcusable, but my theory is that a) this all makes you root for the good guys even more and/or b) explains why in the original trilogy the Empire uses human soldiers with bad aim instead of robotic soldiers with bad aim and a worse puns. There also wasn’t really much going on or at stake here. It was clearly a case where the good guys would win. It was the first episode after all and though Star Wars does bleak, it never does it right out of the gate. You knew how things would end as soon as the premise was established.
Now for the good side. This was a great showcase for the Yoda that we saw in the original trilogy. He’s wise, all powerful and the physical embodiment of what the light side of the Force stand for, but he’s also a funny, old guy with a really big heart. In one scene Yoda and his soldiers are holed up in a cave and Yoda takes the time to show them that they aren’t just manufactured soldiers, that though genetically they are identical, how the Force flows through them makes them each unique. It was very reminiscent of how he would speak so lovingly to Luke about what the Force is. Later on, when it came to kicking ass we get to see a cross between uber-ninja Yoda from Attack of teh Clones and Revenge of the Sith and the cracked, goofball Luke first meets on Dagobah. He toys with the droids he’s hacking to pieces, by while their slapstick generally goes unappreciated, Yoda’s antics were befitting of the personality that was established for him in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.
Episodes 2, 3, and 4–“Rising Malevolence,” “Shadow of Malevolence,” and “Destroy Malevolence”
The three episode Malevolence arc are a great example of what this show does well. The action is rooted smack in the middle of an important Clone Wars conflict, namely the Separatists new, seemingly unstoppable super-weapon, the flagship Malevolence. Armed with a powerful ion cannon it had been engaging and destroying Republic forces totally unmatched. The episodes follow the efforts of Jedi Master Plo Koon, and later Anakin Skywalker, his apprentice Ahsoka Tano and Obi-Wan Kenobi, to track down and destroy the ship.
The action scenes in these episodes are well crafted and fast paced. Plus, in addition to being a blast to watch, they managed to get back to that classic Star Wars feel without winking at the audience. From the hulking Malevolence blowing Republic cruisers away three at a time, to some dogfights and to, no joke, soldier-to-soldier combat in the vacuums of space it was the kind of adventure I’ve come to expect from Star Wars. Even the look of it–the technology, the environments, etc.–somehow managed to fit in so well with original trilogy design, something I never felt with the prequel trilogy. I mean they had friggin’ Y-Wings! The behind-the-scenes feature for one of the three episodes hits on the creators dedication to giving it that authentic feel. It’s nice to see that not just did they have noble intentions, but that they pulled it off.
There were also a lot of good character moments. Plo Koon is an interesting Jedi, and I like to see that they are willing to give as much time to characters other than the movies’ main protagonists. He, like Yoda, stresses to his soldiers that he doesn’t view them just as clones and this works well in contrast to General Grievous, who without hesitation will decapitate one of his droid underlings or use the Malevolence against a medical outpost. This is a key difference between the Jedi/Republic and the Sith/Separatists. Despite both armies being mass produced, the good guys value theirs while the bad guys view theirs as being expendable.
Anakin also shows some steps forward. The movies didn’t really have enough time to show him grow organically–plus Phantom Menace more or less sidelined the guy–but this series has the potential to fill in some gaps and make him a much more compelling character than the prequels turned him into. He’s taking some responsibility now that he has taken Ahsoka as an apprentice but he still maintains those sparks of rebellious/dangerous attitude that will lead him to question and turn his back on the Jedi. The jury, by which I mean myself, is still out of Ahsoka. She’s a little too sassy for my liking, especially given that she’s supposed to be a Jedi, but her bond with Plo Koon and her personal stake in the mission to rescue him sort of reigned her in a bit. I flat out hated her after seeing the Clone Wars movie. Now I’ve stepped it down to a dislike/general ambivalence towards her. That there’s maturity and personal growth. Here’s hoping she continues to show some through out the season.
See what I did there?