It’s taken 30 years, but George Lucas has finally gotten around to showing fans the epic, long-dreamed of Clone Wars first talked about back in 1977. We started fantasizing about high-octane space battles for the first time in the deserts of Tatooine, when Obi Wan Kenobi told Luke Skywalker of a time long ago when he and Anakin Skywalker fought side by side in an expansive war. When Lucas started making prequels, we all assumed those prequels would include the telling of that tale. After all, that’s the one thing his fans wanted to see. George, independent as always, decided to skip around it, skirting the interesting bits his fans longed for in favor of telling us how Anakin whined his way into a black helmet. Now that Lucas has gotten that out of his system, he’s ready to give us what we want. Unfortunately he’s not putting much effort into it.
Whatever zest and enthusiasm George Lucas had left for Star Wars storytelling seems to have been burned out on his last live action movie, Revenge of the Sith. So he’s turned the reigns of his franchise over to director Dave Feloni, and turned his Jedi universe into a cartoon. Make no mistake, Star Wars: The Clone Wars is a cartoon, not an animated movie. Originally conceived of as a television show, Lucas decided to take one of their made for TV tales and turn it into a feature film as a way of introducing the still impending animated television series. It plays out exactly like what it is, a TV show which someone stretched out over a bigger screen.
It’s easy to imagine that Clone Wars might work as a television show, where the smaller screen is more forgiving and so are audience expectations. As a movie it’s stiff, uncomfortable, and dead on arrival. For all their flaws, even in their worst moments, the prequels at least tried to be something more than a collection of hollow special effects. Clone Wars doesn’t try, and instead embraces the idea of simply being a bunch of animation, without any real heat behind it.
That might be more forgivable if the animation was at least good, but it simply isn’t feature film quality. The characters are animated awkwardly, they move like marionettes who’ve had their strings cut, something Lucas insists is intentional, even citing Thunderbirds as one of their influences. Whether he intentionally super-glued a beard on Howdy Doody and handed him a lightsaber, or whether it’s simply the product of asking too much from television-grade animation is immaterial, the end result is still shoddy and, well, kind of annoying. If Lucas and Feloni wanted to give us puppets, then why not just give us puppets, and dispense with all this animation stuff. At least that might have been funny. The characters look alright when they’re standing still, but their limited range of movement makes them decidedly 1989. The pixilated characters in Tron had more points of articulation.
The look is only made worse by some of the film’s atrocious voice acting. Ewan McGregor and Hayden Christensen were unavailable to voice their characters, and so we’re forced to endure stand-ins who cannot act. For those of you who thought Hayden’s acting was bottom of the barrel, think again. Matt Lanter sets a new low for the character. Obi Wan and Anakin are far from the worst acting offenders though. Ahsoka is the newest addition into the universe. She’s Anakin’s Jedi apprentice, and if you’re wondering why we’ve never heard anything about Anakin having an apprentice before, it’s because Lucasworld is inventing a whole series of super secret characters which don’t fit into the established Star Wars universe. She’s just one of them. There’s yet another secret Anakin apprentice being introduced in the upcoming Force Unleashed videogame. This ignores of course, the very nature of Anakin Skywalker who is supposed to be, at his core, basically selfish and fairly unsuited to being a teacher. Isn’t that what pushed him over to the Dark Side? What the hell is he doing doting on some kid?
I’ve gotten a bit lost here, bitching about the plot. The really offensive thing about Ahsoka isn’t that she doesn’t fit into the Star Wars universe, it’s that voice actress Ashley Eckestein reads her lines as if she’s doing voiceovers for a Vaseline commercial. It’s unbearable, and putting up with Ahsoka is like dragging your nails across a chalkboard. The rest of the cast fares little better. Take the new Hutt character named Ziro the Hutt. He’s Jabba’s brother and for some bizarre reason he’s the only Hutt in the known universe who speaks English without the need for a translator. Not only does he speak English, but he dresses up like a drag queen and talks like the bastard step-child of Nathan Lane and Truman Capote. It’s hard to know whether you’re supposed to laugh or cringe whenever he opens his mouth. Is he supposed to be funny, or is it just an awful decision? I laughed, but most of the time I felt more like I was laughing at Ziro, rather than chuckling along with some intentional comic relief.
The plot isn’t much better than acting. For the first movie about something which George Lucas describes as the “World War II of Star Wars”, it’s decidedly small scale. After an interesting, large-scale ground battle it quickly falls back into the same, small, bookended commando style, ground missions we saw in the live-action movies. The plot plays more like it was designed to sell Ahsoka toys than to do anything entertaining. Where are the hordes of fighters streaking through space, blasting away at huge carriers? If this is World War II, where is Normandy? Where is the Russian front? The movie opens with a Starship Troopers style news real, which teases the notion of this massive war going on all around us, but Lucas tells and never shows. All we’re getting here is the kidnapping of Jabba’s son, and a small-scale Jedi mission to run out to a distant, empty planet, and save his little slug from a handful of easily chopped up droid soldiers.
I don’t mean to make Clone Wars sound like a complete disaster. Whenever the characters shut up and get with the lightsaber action it is fun. When things are blowing up, it’s easy to forget the awkward movement or the hideous dialogue and just focus on cool laser blasts. Some of the ancillary characters are interesting too. The movie toys with exploring the lives of some of the clone troopers, and it’s done well enough that it left me wishing for more of them. Clone Wars is an idea that can work on a television screen, but the movie suffers in trying to take a left turn onto the big screen while en route to basic cable. Sorry Obi, buried at the bottom of my television dial is now where you belong. What a depressing thought. It seems only moments ago that Star Wars was the biggest thing on the planet. Now it’s suitable only for Saturday afternoons on the Cartoon Network. As an advertisement for a TV series, I guess Clone Wars works well enough. I can see myself recording this every week on my DVR, I can see it being more palatable in smaller, 20 minute increments on a television. When the television series finally airs, I’ll be there turning in. As a movie… Lucas really should have done something else. The warm glow of Skywalker’s lightsaber has suddenly grown very, very dim.