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TV REVIEW

‘Clone Wars’ Lacks That Old Lucas Magic

Star Wars Micro-series Too Little Too Late

By Philip Burrowes

Star Wars: Clone Wars

Directed by Genndy Tartakovsky

There have been several animated interpretations of the Star Wars universe. Boba Fett was introduced in 1978’s “The Star Wars Holiday Special.” Despite Fett’s popularity, there’s no denying he is a marginal character in the films, and the Holiday Special’s notoriety does not help matters. Seven years later, the series “Droids and Ewoks” featured already-established faces, but both occupied ambiguous eras in the Star Wars chronology. When the 20-chapter “Star Wars: Clone Wars” micro-series premiered on Cartoon Network last year, fans of the franchise thus had much cause for concern. After all, the prequels were enough of a disappointment; the inevitable dilution they would experience as a made-for-cable, spin-off was a fate better left not contemplated.

Some, however, chose to be cautiously optimistic. The five-minute shorts were being directed by Genndy Tartakovsky, who had over a decade’s experience helming Hanna-Barbera / AOL’s flagship original programs. With a long schedule and relatively short production load, there was hope that neither the viewers nor the creators would experience burnout on the project. Finally, and most importantly, the plot promised to be not just canonical, but to lead directly into the forthcoming film installment, not unlike “The Animatrix.”

Yet Unlike “The Animatrix,” there was little emphasis on visual innovation. The spectacle aspect to the Star Wars experience is totally lost in Clone Wars. Like most of the Tartakovsky’s series (e.g. “Dexter’s Laboratory”), the character designs are sparse; economic or “iconic,” if you want to use euphemisms. While the animation is fluid and the backgrounds rich, they’re nothing extraordinary. Indeed, if not for the various vehicles, Clone Wars could pass as a more lackluster episode of Tartakovsky’s striking “Samurai Jack.” Judging from director commentary available on the show’s Web site, time constraints prevented Tartakovsky from using as much detail he hoped. Often the production team resorts to such timesaving shortcuts as reusing animation wholesale under the guise of new action, a trick poorly hidden at that.

Given the superficiality of all Star Wars stories, it is not surprising that the plot cannot make up for aesthetic failings. There are three intertwined narratives: Obi-Wan Kenobi leading an ARC Trooper crew; the introduction of villainess Asajj Ventress; and Anakin Skywalker commanding a fighter squad. Mace Windu gets two installments to himself, while females Senator Amidala, Barriss Ofee, and Luminara Unduli team up with Master Yoda to bring gender balance to the Force in a three-parter. Chapters 5 and 20 are both one-shots, the former featuring amphibian Jedi Kit Fisto and the latter introducing the Episode III villain General Grievous in an oversized, extra-hyped finale. It’s as jumbled as it sounds.

Granted, the shorts weren’t meant to be viewed as a linear tale. Rather, they were constructed to tease, to make you want to watch the next installment, with the ultimate episode not being 20, but next year’s Episode III. In that regard, they are successful, but that does not mean it is a satisfying experience. The main way the shorts enticed was by being so, well short. While they were advertised as five minutes, they averaged less than three and a half. After each premiere was an exciting and excruciatingly short (around three seconds) preview of the following chapter. Here was the real hook, luring fans with the hope that the feel of that clip could be maintained for the chapter’s duration.

Of course, it always failed. While poor writing is probably the most expected fault of the micro-series, it is still the most disappointing. At the very least, one should expect continuity with the films. Yet the Jedi exhibits powers far beyond what they had displayed on the silver screen. For example, Obi-Wan easily defeats three “droidekas” by himself in Chapter 9, enemies he was forced to run away from while with his master Qui-Gon Jinn at the very beginning of “The Phantom Menace.” This lent itself to fun sequences of Jedi tearing through legions of droids, but it again undermined the notion that this was Star Wars canon.

Anakin is the one character whose power expansion is narratively explained. In both prequels we are told that he is a Force-talent of unprecedented potential, but all he has to show for it is a pod race victory and a severed hand. Tartokovsky said he intended Anakin’s dogfight sequences to highlight his exceptional piloting abilities. More importantly, Chapters 17-19 present the first time Anakin gives into the powers of the dark side of the Force. Still, 19 episodes is a long way to go for a one-minute moment of weakness.

A DVD of the series is due some time this year, but in the meantime you can watch all 20 episodes at http://www.cartoonnetwork.com/clonewars/.