Star Wars: The Clone Wars

By Tim Grierson

A visually engaging action-adventure movie geared to kids, “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” is a mixed bag of the strengths and weaknesses of the sci-fi universe George Lucas created over 30 years ago. In some ways improving on the wooden acting that doomed the recent prequel trilogy by doing away with humans in front of the camera entirely, this animated feature is hip and fast-paced, but its insipid dialogue, strained humor and weak story continue to demonstrate that Lucass empire values technological advancement over human concerns.

Set between the events of “Episode II: Attack of the Clones” and “Episode III: Revenge of the Sith,” “The Clone Wars” follows the adventures of Jedis Obi-Wan Kenobi (voiced by James Arnold Taylor) and Anakin Skywalker (Matt Lanter) as they battle the evil Separatists, led by Count Dooku (Christopher Lee). Needing to build alliances with strategic partners, the benevolent Republic assigns Anakin to find the kidnapped baby of Jabba the Hutt (Kevin Michael Richardson), a crime boss who would throw his support behind the Republic if the Jedis can bring the child home safely.

Much to Anakin's chagrin, he is assigned to be the mentor of Ahsoka Tano (Ashley Eckstein), a young girl with a smart mouth and budding Jedi skills. Anakin and Ahsoka must work together to rescue Jabba's son, but Count Dooku's foot soldiers, including the villainess Asajj Ventress (Nika Futterman), want to thwart the plan and convince Jabba that the Republic is actually behind the kidnapping.

After six feature films, the world of “Star Wars” is such an elaborate maze of interrelated planets, loyalties, characters and robots, it's practically impossible to fully appreciate the plot points of this new animated feature without having a decent knowledge of the backstory. But considering the immense popularity of these films, Lucas and his creative team don't have to worry too much about getting the uninitiated up to speed.

Rather, “The Clone Wars” appeals to the easy familiarity of the fans with material that's as ingrained in popular culture as any, if not more, cinematic franchise. Telling an interesting story takes a backseat to rekindling memories of lightsabers, bulky ships zooming through the starry depths of space, and the calming presence of Yoda.

Serving only as executive producer, Lucas cedes the directorial duties to first-time director Dave Filoni, while the script is credited to Henry Gilroy, Steven Melching and Scott Murphy. But although fresh voices offer some much-needed spark to this laboring series, which was especially undone by Lucas's uninspired direction of the three prequels, his meddling influence can still be felt.

Most notably, the jokey juvenile streak running through “The Clone Wars” is reminiscent of the prequels and the recent “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” which Lucas executive produced. Even in the midst of frantic, violent battles, characters enjoy hurling snarky one-liners at each other, as the complete absence of death makes war seem like one glittering videogame.

Additionally, the film' dialogue fluctuates between dull exclamations in the “Here we go again!” vein and obligatory exposition that aims to move the story forward, but doesn't always succeed. Character development is at a minimum, and the contentious pairing of Anakin and Ahsoka seldom rises above simple name-calling and bickering.

What's interesting, though, is that by moving the action into the animated realm, “The Clone Wars” has a zip and edge that the prequels lacked. One of the loudest complaints about the prequels was that because Lucas focused so attentively on their elaborate special effects, the fine cast (which included Liam Neeson and Natalie Portman) turned in lobotomized performances, unable to convincingly emote in front of a cold green screen.

“The Clone Wars” removes that problem by not needing traditional performances. Although Obi-Wan and Anakin resemble the human actors who portrayed them–Ewan McGregor and Hayden Christensen, respectively–it's startling how much looser and more emotive they are as cartoon figures. On that same note, the voice actors called upon to replicate the famous stars' cadences accomplish their mimicry disturbingly well, with James Arnold Taylor doing an uncanny McGregor impression.

The CG animation slightly recalls the darker tones of Japanese anime, succeeding better in the action sequences and interior backgrounds. Character movement and dialogue scenes are more stiffly rendered, but that is compensated for by the expressive drawings of the villains' features–particularly Asajj Ventress, who has a slithering menace that would be difficult to capture in live-action. And the lightsaber battles benefit from animation's freedom of movement, as the combatants twist and turn briskly without being encumbered by choreographing physical bodies.

If the mostly impressive animation had been matched by equally innovative storytelling, “The Clone Wars” could have pointed the way for Lucas to reinvent his “Star Wars” brand in a fresh medium. With their archetypal characters and black-and-white delineation of good and bad guys, the “Star Wars” films are really big cartoons, with only the masterful “Empire Strikes Back” showcasing an emotional resonance or meaningful sense of heroism.

Consequently, the transition into animation suits Anakin and his fellow Jedis, and for a while, experiencing “The Clone Wars” is to be reminded what made “Star Wars” so thrilling in the beginning. But a fairly simplistic plot, which is mostly just a clothesline to string together effective action sequences, eventually runs out of gas and the momentary recapturing of the old thrill fades away. No matter how Lucas tries to repackage the franchise, its fundamental flaws frustratingly refuse to go far, far away.

Voice Cast

Matt Lanter (Anakin Skywalker)
Ashley Eckstein (Ahsoka Tano)
James Arnold Taylor (Obi-Wan Kenobi/4-A7/Medical Droid)
Dee Bradley Baker (Clone Troopers/Captain Rex/Cody)
Tom Kane (Yoda/Narrator/Admiral Yularen)
Nika Futterman (Asajj Ventress/Tee-C-Seventy)
Ian Abercrombie (Chancellor Palpatine/Darth Sidious)
Corey Burton (General Loathsom/Ziro the Hutt/Kronos-327)
Catherine Taber (Padme Amidala)
Matthew Wood (Battle Droids)
Kevin Michael Richardson (Jabba the Hutt)
David Acord (Rotta the Huttlet)
Samuel L. Jackson (Mace Windu)
Anthony Daniels (C-3PO)
Christopher Lee (Count Dooku)


A Warner release of Lucasfilm and Lucasfilm Animation
Producer: Catherine Winder
Executive producer: George Lucas
Director: Dave Filoni
Screenplay: Henry Gilroy, Steven Melching, Scott Murphy
Editor: Jason W.A. Tucker
Music: Kevin Kilner, with original “Star Wars” themes and scores by John Williams

Running time: 98 minutes