I’m not usually one to pride myself one way or another on public opinion, but when it comes to the Star Wars Prequels I make no bones about my agreement with the masses about it: they suck.
So when I heard that the Star Wars: The Clone Wars, a show that would have to be inherently based on these movies was good, I was skeptical.
Partly due to that and a plethora of other things to watch it took me a while to get around to it.
But before I got into The Clone Wars I decided to check out the other Star Wars series, Star Wars: Clone Wars which was created by Genndy Tartakovsky.
Tartakovsky, for those who don’t know, is behind such classics as Dexter’s Laboratory and Samurai Jack and also the creator of the quite good (and sorely underrated) Sym-Bionic Titan .
Add on to this the fact that when I saw it when I was younger I remembered loving Tartakovsky’s take on the Clone Wars. I remember especially loving the duel towards the end between Anakin and Asajj Ventress.
The show ended up being another example of nostalgia misleading expectations.
To be fair, the show got a lot of awards when it first came out and I can partly see why. The “micro-episode” concept was, as far as I know, not something that had been widely attempted, at least not in the Star Wars universe. Still, while the animation itself ranges from acceptable to even great, the problem is a matter of focus. Tartakovsky was taking cues from Samurai Jack all the while. For example, sometimes in Samurai Jack, Jack was matched against countless villain after villain, with lots of debris and destruction as a result. Much of Clone Wars busily borrowed from Tartakovsky’s trademark aesthetics.
Unfortunately, Tartakovsky usually had a bunch of brilliant characterization or stories to go with all of his awesome amounts of gratuitous violence that always felt raw, impassioned, and high stakes. In Clone Wars, you just never get that feeling and that’s possibly because we’re supposed to “know” these characters from Star Wars episode I and II the Phantom Menace and Clone Wars but here’s the problem in my unbiased opinion: those movies sucked!
In fact, if I may be allowed, I’ll give the possibly edgy opinion that Clone Wars is actually worse than the Phantom Menace just due to its sheer level of boring. At least the Phantom Menace had introducing its universe going for itself. …Even if that universe sucked.
The real problem with Star Wars Episode II was that we just didn’t have any real reasons to care about the world, the characters or what was going on. Episode I is widely regarded as being entirely skippable because it doesn’t tell you anything about Anakin that we don’t find out in episode II. Most of the major bad guys are either dead or reintroduced in episode II and Obi-Wan isn’t much different from what he is in the first movie.
And episode II doesn’t really improve the situation. One of its biggest problems is that it doesn’t know who its audience is. There’s fairly dull and uninteresting political maneuvering, mass slaughter, comic relief, a forbidden romance a huge war going on and so on. The movie (and the trilogy more broadly, with perhaps the exception of Revenge) never really seemed to be able to pick a tone and stick with it.
Not that this always has to be a bad thing. Sometimes it can lead to interesting but messy films like Super or amazing films like Paranorman that knows its target audience but can still innovate and know to treat its audience as intelligent and give a few winks to the parents.
But episode II never really does that. It never really gives its audience time to understand or care about these characters. They’re all just a part of this big galactic “thing” that can’t really be explained except through a lot of sitting, talking, and downright oppressive exposition mixed with subpar acting.
There’s a lot of ways in which Tartakovsky doesn’t repeat these flaws. He removes a lot of the dialogue for one thing and a lot of the time lets scenes breathe and speak for themselves as well as the characters that inhabit them. He makes characters like General Grievous seem legitimately scary and menacing. And while I’m not sure about the way war is treated in the show it’s certainly more action and less exposition focused than the movie its based around.
But in the end Tartakovsky is relying on two movies that weren’t so great and using these movies to not have to explain them and then used Samurai Jack-esque levels of ultra-violence and style to convey how badass and cool war can be.
Now, besides the fact that depicting war in this style or tone is problematic to me on a few different levels, it’s like Tartakovksy wanted these action scenes to stand on its own as a series. Most of the series doesn’t even have people’s voices or anything to set the stage with. Which, granted, can sometimes make for some really cool ambient scenes.
But on the other hand this feature of the show also makes for a real lack of character, motivations, intentions, goals and so on either being ignored, unpronounced or being simplified for the sanctity of violence. And most of what you got was a lot of simplifying of people’s motivations and goals and what made them who they fundamentally were.
There was a typical “big bad” villain involved and the most interesting and exciting one was Ventress (voiced by the wonderful Grey DeLisle) who didn’t get as much screen time as I think she should have.
But the biggest problem for me while I was re-watching this was the scene with Mace Windu facing an entire army of battle droids on Dantooine with a good portion of the fight having him being unarmed.
Now, look, I’m not against ultra-violence for the sake of ulta-violence. If you can do it right and make it work in the particular universe it’s taking place in. Let it be known that I haven’t yet seen a Tarantino flick I didn’t at least appreciate on some level, if not really like.
But the level of pure and unbridled damage Windu does while unarmed is completely ridiculous. The droids have their “shoot like a Stormtrooper” setting to maximum and the whole thing is more likely to make you giggle then get excited.
In fact and perhaps especially because I was watching this with a friend at the time, I just ended up saying “come on!” more than I said, “yeah!” The whole scene turns into pure ridiculousness for no good reason at all and because there’s been little to no characterization and reason in general to care about what’s going on I was just left shaking my head and laughing along with my friend.
So while that was more silly than enthralling how did Anakin and Ventress’s duel turn out?
While certainly not as good as I remembered (curse you, nostalgia!), it is still a very complex and interesting fight. It even has some hints of Anakin going to the dark side throughout the fight such as his pure aggression, the way his face darkens at one point, etc. This is even before Anakin re-enacts the scene in Return of the Jedi where Luke wails on Anakin’s arm until it’s eventually severed.
So while certainly not as good as I remember it being (I thought originally it was the highlight of the series) it’s still a welcomed part of the series and a solid fight for the most part.
Also somewhat interesting were the last few episodes that showed a tribe that Obi-Wan and Anakin had to save from the Techno Union. It used this opportunity to further explore some of Anakin’s tendencies towards the dark side and for me at least it was in more interesting ways. It also gave us an interesting side-story with a new and interesting culture that was (as far as I know) completely original to this series.
It helped that the story itself was well told and had powerful themes of technology, traditionalism, family, power and so on that can really resonate.
It seems clear to me, in retrospect that even with all of this said about Clone Wars, Tartakovsky wasn’t trying to make it very character or story driven (with some exceptions). He seemed to be mainly relying on the past live-action films and expected the audience to either already know who these characters were or to just deal with it if we didn’t. Then again, it’s unlikely you had no idea what was going on if you were watching the show.
I can’t say that Tartakovsky’s Clone Wars was bad per se’. It never really had the time thanks to its micro-series format (later only expanding from 2-3 minutes to around 15 minutes in its third season) to really stretch out its legs and dig into these characters.
I’d summarize that most of the problems in Clone Wars then come from not taking war very seriously, relying too much on continuity to tell a story and I’d also argue that because it doesn’t take war very seriously (it seems to mostly be a Michael Bay explosion fest) it can’t really have interesting moral conundrums.
Now, granted, Tartakovsky may have just been targeting the youth with this or the pre-teen and teenage demographic. But then again we have shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender that shows that TV programs ostensibly for kids or families can be plenty adult too and still appeal to kids while their at it.
But perhaps I’m being too harsh.
After all it isn’t like The Clone Wars would blow away Clone Wars within the span of one episode, right?
Well, about that…