After a week’s hiatus, I am back with on the Clone Wars train. But not the 2008 and on CGI series that is still considered Star Wars canon. No, I’m diving into the 2003, hand drawn animation series, headed up by Genddy Tartakovsky (Samurai Jack, Dexter’s Laboratory), which acted, in George Lucas’s own words, as a pilot for the longer, more continuity-driven second series.
I’m going to be tackling these as they were released on DVD, with the first two ‘seasons’ of 10, 2-3 minute episodes as volume one this week, and season 3’s 5, 12-15 minute episodes, as volume two following next week.[Note: While the CGI series is The Clone Wars, this series is just Clone Wars. It’s cleaner.]
1. A visual treat
Having kids, I see a fair amount of animation in my life, and the vast majority of it is computer generated. And while I certainly enjoy a lot of CGI stuff, there is something really stunning about well done, hand drawn animation. Coupled with that is the extremely vibrant color scheme, with reds, blues, and greens popping off the screen. Because of that combination, these episodes look so different than most other animation – especially The Clone Wars – and really do a bang up job of putting you right into the thick of it.
These episodes, and specifically the first ten, are little snapshots of battles within the titular Wars (note: I hate how Lucas often refers to it in interviews as one war. Motherfucker, you created this, why didn’t you call it the Clone War in A New Hope, or at least change the title of the show to Clone War? This is laserswords all over again). There is very little dialogue and no narration in these shorts, so you’ve got to infer a lot about what’s happening on screen, and just go with the flow a lot of the time.
And that’s not really a problem – seeing Obi-Wan sneak around and jump in a tank will never not be dope. But I can understand why Lucas didn’t think that this series gave enough meat to the situation, either. For instance, in the half-dozen or so The Clone Wars episodes that Ventress appears in, she is given a lot to do. Here, she is prominent, but because there is so little dialogue, you can’t really tell if she’s important or just a passing enemy of the moment.
The character that came out the best from this treatment was Mace Windu, who has one of the most badass scenes in any Star Wars media, where he absolutely destroys an army of droids using every conceivable Jedi power. Damn, that was a dope sequence.
2. A poor job with Anakin
For years, many people – including my friend Matt, who lent me these DVDs – have been telling me that The Clone Wars enhances the prequels quite a bit, as you’re given reason to like/care about/root for Anakin. And, having seen the first season, I get that. The show doesn’t totally undo all the Lucas dialogue and Hayden Christensen woodenness, but it creates a much more fleshed out version of the character, and one who I could see myself rooting for in ways that just aren’t just “I hope Luke’s dad is ok!”
But that isn’t present here at all. Anakin barely speaks, and when he does, it is to be a moody little shit. He defies Obi-Wan multiple times, nearly gets himself killed by Ventress, and is just as whiny as he is in the films. This is fascinating to me, as it shows that Lucas may have, retroactively, realized he fucked up Anakin, and crafted The Clone Wars around that rehabilitation. Here, he is doubling down on that characterization, which confirms that it is 90% Lucas’s shitty dialogue and bad writing that brought down the prequels, not the acting of Christensen, though I’ll toss a small amount of blame his way.
Side note: Mat Lucas, who voices Anakin here, was praised for how closely he mimicked Christensen’s voice, something I didn’t necessarily hear. I don’t think that Matt Lanter, of The Clone Wars is exactly a perfect match either, but Lanter is given far more to do with his dialogue than Lucas is.Continued below
3. Old school
While The Clone Wars tends to traffic in the tone and look of the prequels, I was getting a far more pre-Phantom Menace vibe from a lot of what we see here. Now, part of that is in 2003 the old Extended Universe was still a thing, and so a lot of the iconography and visual cues the series was borrowing from had an antecedent from pre-1999. But more than that, the score by James L. Venable evoked a serious original trilogy vibe, for reasons that I can’t quite pin down.
But there were also little hints to other past Star Wars media, specifically the look of C-3PO heavily echoing the Star Wars: Droids series. In some ways, this feels like a glyph to connecting the prequels to the rest of the Star Wars extended universe, and I dig that.
4. Comedy and Anime
Two very different elements pop up more than I would expect here, and that is the presence of comedy, and the influence of anime. The comedy is not of the Jar Jar Binks, “exqueeze me” variety, but more of subtle, but no less physical humor, often times punctuated with a beat or a faux-look at the camera. Part of that is the influence of Tartakovsky (more on him soon), and it is the rare humorous element that works in any of the prequel-era media.
I felt the biggest anime influence was the pacing of the show, with its long periods with no dialogue and its more visually innovative action sequences. I’m not an anime expert by any means, but there were a lot of moments in the first volume that were totally ok with being something that didn’t, at all, feel Star Wars-y, and I appreciate that. I’ve often praised The Clone Wars for expanding the palette of Star Wars, but I feel this may have done even more, and in a far shorter time span.
5. Very Genddy
Again, I cannot call myself an encyclopedia Samurai Jack fan, but even if I didn’t know Tartakovsky was a part of this show, I think I would’ve guessed that anyway. Part of that is from the angular designs, which share a bit of the DNA of his other Cartoon Network projects, but just as big of a part of it is the overall attitude brought to the project. This, despite being sometimes really dark war stories, has a certain playfulness to it that is really unique to what Tartakovsky does.
And while Dave Filoni has done such an amazing job expanding the Star Wars universe, I wish that Lucasfilm would roll the dice on more folks like Tartakovsky (which I felt they were doing with Phil Lord and Chris Miller, but we all see how that went), who can bring their own touch to Star Wars, rather than simply be a good shepherd of the brand. Again, I’m not trying to marginalize Filoni’s or anyone else’s work; I just think that the Star Wars universe could, and should, feel more diverse in its storytelling than it does.