Review: ‘The Clone Wars’ is far from perfect, but most impressive

Movies, Sci-Fi & Fantasy

Star Wars Clone Wars Lucasfilm Warner Bros Anakin Skywalker Rex

LUCASFILM/WARNER BROS. PHOTOS

Star Wars:
The Clone Wars

>> Directed by Dave Filoni
>> Starring Matt Lanter, Ashley Eckstein, James Arnold Taylor, Catherine Taber, Samuel L. Jackson, Christopher Lee and Anthony Daniels
>> Rated PG; 98 minutes
>> Opens Aug. 15
>> Grade: B+

I said I’d never go to a theater to see The Clone Wars, the latest addition to the Star Wars saga that fills the gap between Episode II: Attack of the Clones and Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. But I came to my senses and woke up early Saturday to get a spot in line for a sneak preview, and I’m glad I did. The movie isn’t perfect; it has quite a few flaws, in fact. But it’s 98 minutes of nonstop action and it lacks the gaping plot holes that made the live-action prequels such a chore to watch. And it’s funny. Yes, Star Wars is lighthearted again. And it’s real humor, not slapstick Jar Jar Binks shenanigans that make you yearn for the sweet release of a red lightsaber through your brain.

Hit the jump for a comprehensive review. Or, check out the shorter version that ran in Get Out magazine.

More...Spoilers ahead — you’ve been warned

From the beginning it’s very a different Star Wars. No 20th Century Fox fanfare (it’s distributed by Warner Bros. now, so you hear the Casablanca theme “As Time Goes By” instead). The first thing you see after the shiny Lucasfilm logo is the words “Clone Wars” — then the words “Star Wars” creep into the picture.

And the biggest surprise of all: There is no opening crawl. Instead, they took the Starship Troopers approach and ran with it, going with something that looks and sounds a lot like a WWII-era newsreel, only slicker. It was a big gamble, but it really works.

The good, the bad and the ugly

Star Wars The Clone Wars Lucasfilm Obi-Wan Kenobi Warner Bros
CAREFUL — YOUR FACE WILL FREEZE THAT WAY.

The biggest problem this movie has is its look. But while bad animation can kill an animated movie, TCW gets by because most of its characters are helmeted troopers, featureless droids or bizarre aliens. The exotic locations, vehicles and gadgetry look just as they should, but where TCW fails is in the human faces. They’re stony, even the hair (check out ol’ Obi-Wan Kenobi, above, and you’ll see what I mean). At worst, it’s kind of like watching Star Wars as it would have been performed by the ancient thespians who used masks to represent different characters. And in an odd way, that’s somewhat appropriate for this saga.

Star Wars The Clone Wars Lucasfilm Rex Ahsoka Warner BrosTHE JEDI AND THEIR CLONE REGIMENT LAY SIEGE TO A MOUNTAINTOP MONASTERY.

The CGI allows the Jedi to perform the acrobatic feats and Force powers we’ve been waiting to see. There is one particularly memorable scene in which the Jedi and their clone troopers scale a cliff wall under heavy fire from droids (pictured above). It’s often argued that Star Wars degenerated into a cartoon over the course of the prequel trilogy, so this seems a natural evolution. Maybe it’s how the prequels should have been produced from the beginning.

Who’s that I hear?

One thing I really like about the CGI Anakin Skywalker is how much he reminds me of Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker from the classic trilogy. That, and he’s neither Jake Lloyd nor Hayden Christensen. With Hamill being such a big-time voice-over performer these days, I’m surprised he doesn’t appear in TCW. Here, Anakin is voiced by Matt Lanter (Heroes, Commander in Chief).

The only voices to return from previous live-action Star Wars films are Christopher Lee as Count Dooku, Anthony Daniels as C-3PO and Samuel L. Jackson as (briefly) Jedi Master Mace Windu. Reprising their roles from 2003’s animated Clone Wars shorts on Cartoon Network, James Arnold Taylor is Obi-Wan and Tom Kane is Master Yoda. Veteran character actor Ian Abercrombie, who played Bruce Wayne’s butler Alfred in the short-lived WB series Birds of Prey, takes on the dual role of Chancellor Palpatine and Darth Sidious.

The new kid on the block

Star Wars The Clone Wars Lucasfilm Anakin Skywalker Ahsoka Tano Warner Bros
WILL ANAKIN BE ABLE TO LET GO OF HIS SPUNKY NEW PADAWAN WHEN THE TIME COMES?

TCW elaborates effectively on one of the main themes of the prequel trilogy: attachment. Specifically, Anakin’s got a problem with letting go of the people in his life. To break Anakin of this complex, Yoda arranges for him to mentor a young Padawan learner named Ahsoka Tano (voice of Ashley Eckstein, The Disney Channel’s That’s So Raven). She tries to coax her new mentor into opening up about his losses, but he resists discussing his past as a slave and his mother’s death on Tatooine, despite a large chunk of the movie taking place there.

There are some truly corny moments in this new relationship (he calls her “Snips” because she’s snippy with him on their first meeting, and she calls him “Sky Guy”), but as Anakin and Ahsoka grew on each other, the duo also grew on me. Frankly, I was tired of the forced Anakin/Obi-Wan interplay of Episodes II and III. This is something fresher, and it hints at all the possibilities that exist for a good young man like Anakin Skywalker to make his mark on the galaxy. (Well, it’s fun to imagine what might have been …)

That being said, Ahsoka is definitely as whiny if not whinier than her Master Skywalker. It’s a brilliant stroke that actually makes us like the brooding Anakin more.

Scum and villainy

Star Wars The Clone Wars Lucasfilm Anakin Skywalker Asajj Ventress Warner Bros
VENTRESS CONTINUES TO HUNT SKYWALKER. I’M NOT REALLY SURE WHO TO ROOT FOR …

Aside from Ahsoka, another female steals the show in TCW: Count Dooku’s Sith apprentice, Asajj Ventress (veteran voice-over actress Nika Futterman). With a thirst for revenge that we can actually understand for once, she eclipses the villainy of Dooku and his master, Darth Sidious, who remains mostly in the shadows for this outing.

One aspect of the movie I ridiculed sight unseen was the plot involving the kidnapping of Jabba the Hutt’s son, Rotta. The Jedi need access to Hutt territory if they hope to gain an advantage in the war against the Separatists in the Outer Rim. Separatist leader Count Dooku conspires to abduct Rotta and blame the Jedi, so it’s crucial that Anakin and Ahsoka free the Huttlet and return him safely to Jabba.

I thought this would be preposterous — Jedi helping the vile Hutts! But it works precisely because it’s so crazy. The mission sticks in Anakin’s craw big-time, but he’s unwilling to let his hatred of Jabba stand in its way.

We also get to meet a new Hutt, Jabba’s effete uncle Ziro who lives in the Undercity of Coruscant and stars in his own subplot with Senator Amidala (voiced here by Catherine Taber, who has a small but important role in the upcoming video game The Force Unleashed and was the voice of Mission Vao in the popular BioWare RPG Knights of the Old Republic).

Passing grade: B+

Star Wars Clone Wars Lucasfilm Warner Bros Yoda
SOMETHING UP HIS SLEEVE FOR YOUNG SKYWALKER, MASTER YODA HAS …

TCW left me eager for the TV series’ October launch on Cartoon Network. And it hints at all the possibilities that Star Wars still holds.

Setting aside the forthcoming live-action TV series, I would love to see more corners of the Galaxy Far, Far Away explored in animated form. It would be a great way to see Han Solo and Chewbacca in their glory days as smugglers, tearing up the galaxy in the Millennium Falcon. Expanded Universe fans have been clamoring for years to see film adaptations of Alan Dean Foster’s Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, Timothy Zahn’s “Thrawn trilogy” and the universe-shaking “The New Jedi Order.”

And maybe it’s time to dust off and re-imagine the Droids Saturday-morning cartoon (though Ewoks is probably best forgotten).

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