At least one admirable decision has come out of the creation of George Lucas' tragically legend-crumbling Star Wars prequel trilogy, and that is to hire Samurai Jack's Genndy Tartokovsky to animate a series of short fill-in-the-backstory cartoons to expand the universe of the feature films. The Cartoon Network, in association with Lucasfilm, presents Star Wars: Clone Wars as a striking series of 20 three-minute micro-cartoons that essentially fill in the storyline between 2002's Episode II: Attack of the Clones and 2005's Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, dramatizing the fabled Clone Wars that will be largely skipped over by the movies, which tend more toward talky, silly material than, you know, wars in space.
If you're at all drawn to the Star Wars universe—and I admit with heavy heart that I am, despite my feelings about the prequel trilogy so far—then this fun little anime-influenced project (reminiscent of the Matrix films' accompanying Animatrix shorts) will surely entice you, particularly now, as we're mere months from the theatrical debut of the final Star Wars prequel. This Clone Wars series should serve as a perfect lead-in to the events of the film, showing us key events in the legendary wars and even introducing a key character who will play a large role in the resolution of the prequels. This DVD compilation of the first two seasons of Clone Wars collects all of the available 20 episodes and edits them seamlessly together to form one long, 70-minute feature, and it's an action-packed extravaganza of fights and humor—along with a fair dose of the now-typical Lucas juvenilia thrown in for good measure.
Before you get too hot and bothered about Clone Wars, know that these first two miniseasons don't quite fill in all the gaps. You won't be able to buy this DVD and be primed and ready for Revenge of the Sith. No, the Cartoon Network plans five more 12-minute episodes—another hour—of material to air about when this "Volume 1" DVD is released. These episodes will comprise "Volume 3" of the animated Clone Wars saga and will finally lead into the feature. So consider this half of the story. From a consumer perspective, that's not ideal—particularly when you realize that some verbage in the special features of this DVD suggest that the whole "bridging of the episodes" notion is realized on this one DVD. Personally, I'd rather Fox had waited to serve up all pre-Sith installments in one package. Perhaps that's wishful thinking, and perhaps it's all complicated by the conflicting rights of Fox/LucasFilm and Warner/Cartoon Network. Nevertheless, viewers not completely versed in this series and its aim are bound to be disappointed that they'll be forced to watch material not on this DVD to complete the "bridge."
That's my main complaint about this DVD—it doesn't really bridge the films, as it sorta promises. But I can't deny that these little cartoons are a kick, and it's cool to see them now. I've been a big fan of Tartokovsky's Samurai Jack since close to that series' inception, and when I heard that he was partnering with Lucas for some cartoons, my expectations were high. Perhaps this would be a glimmer of promise—a "New Hope," if you will—in the Star Wars universe. And now that I've seen the results of their collaboration, I have to say I'm more entertained by it than by the feature films themselves. Now, that's not saying these little chunks of animated fun are perfect, but they certainly boast a great deal of energy and creativity and boldness that's missing from the prequels.
You'll recognize Tartakovsky's unique style right away—all rectangles and stark, heavy lines. Lanky bodies, sloping shoulders, boxy eyes. Scrumptious backgrounds, long moments of dramatic silence, letting the imagery do its work. He was a perfect choice for this project, and I'm still thankful that it came to pass, even if the end results aren't quite as spectacular as hoped.
And I'm not blaming Tartakovsy for anything. The problems begin early on, as soon as we hear one of those damn robots squeak "Roger roger." You know what I'm getting at. The problems are in the material Tartokovsky has to work with. No matter the level of his artistic genius, no matter how cool his animation, he's still at the mercy of the direction the Star Wars prequels have taken under the elder Lucas.
For what it's worth, the series begins with a focus on Obi-Wan Kenobi as he leads a squadron of clone troops against droid armies and faces the dread Durge. The focus later shifts its focus to Anakin Skywalker as he shows off his dogfighting skills and ultimately faces a daunting foe in the form of Asajj Ventress, who aspires to the Sith. Perhaps the best component of the interplay of these two plots is the way the relationship between Kenobi and Anakin becomes increasingly strained. Throughout these primary plot threads are laced ancillary adventures involving side characters such as Yoda, Mace Windu and other Jedi Knights, Padme and the droids C3P0 and R2D2, the dread Count Dooku and General Grievous. (Good heavens, these names…)
There are many rib-pokes for the attentive fans, scenes or moments that recall classic scenes from both the original and prequel trilogies. A few of the characters can be heard to state dramatically, "I've got a bad feeling about this." And we get another ice world, and we get a familiar scene of C3P0 saying, "There are several creatures approaching from (wherever)…" In fact, as the cartoons progress, they become crowded with such nods—there are scenes reminiscent of Dagobah, there are ships that look a little too much like Sandcrawlers, there are trench dogfights, there are Gamorean Guards mingled with Wampas and other minor characters from the Star Wars universe. There's even a precursor to the Imperial Probe Droid, landing on another ice planet.
(Which all speaks to one of my major beefs with the prequel trilogy—that it's dramatically and annoyingly "inbreeding" the Star Wars trilogy that I've loved so much. Why are these stories so teeming with coincidences? Was it really necessary for the Fett family to be so instrumental in the creation of the clones and the original films' Storm Troopers? Did Anakin really need to be the guy who creates C3P0? Why is the universe suddenly so small and convenient? It's all very distressing and deflating. But I guess that's another story.)
But then there are the really cool moments of originality. We get to see the effect of raindrops on lightsabers. We get to see a Legolas/Oliphaunt moment between uber-cool Mace Windu and an earth-shattering Sandcrawler-inspired Republic behemoth. There's also some pretty wicked lightsaber duels in this cartoon, not to mention some truly energetic space battles. And we meet the multitalented General Grievous, about whom we'll see lots more in Revenge of the Sith. These moments are enough to put this series over the top and leave me wanting more. Which gives rise to the already-stated complaint—the rest of the story preceding Episode III should be on this disc.
One of the more satisfying elements of this production is the inclusion of genuine Star Wars sound effects, which do a remarkable job of placing you in a familiar universe—that of the original trilogy. It's as if Tartokovsky had total access to all of Ben Burtt's effects, from lightsabers to speeder bikes, from R2D2's beeps and machinations to various laser-blaster sounds—not to mention actual John Williams music cues. This disc is worth its price for this feeling of nostalgia.
HOW'S IT LOOK?
Fox presents Star Wars: Clone Wars in a wonderful anamorphic-widescreen transfer of the show's original 1.78:1 presentation. Detail and sharpness are exemplary, reaching way, way into backgrounds, although I noticed very minor instances of aliasing on my 65" monitor—nothing distracting, but it's there. A particular strength of the presentation is the color palette, which is vivid and rich. I mean, look at those lightsabers! Reds, which are often problematic, are solid and vibrant. Instances of edge haloing are very minor to nonexistent.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
The disc's Dolby Digital Surround track is quite powerful for its limited nature. Spaciousness across the front is admirable, and by far the most impressive aspects of this presentation are the sound effects and score, which come across with great strength. I can only imagine how amazing this material might have sounded in Dolby Digital 5.1 EX. On the downside, I noticed some curious breakups on high-end dialog.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
The most interesting special features are two audio commentaries by producer/director Genndy Tartokovsky. As I clicked on the first, called simply Director Commentary, I was anxious to hear Tartokovsky talk about all the behind-the-cels trivia and gossip involved in the making of the cartoon, but unfortunately, he succumbs immediately to the deadly affliction of simply narrating onscreen action. This track is a real disappointment that becomes almost laughable, particularly in the early chapters.
Fortunately, Tartokovsy redeems himself heroically by giving it another go in the Hyperspace Commentary, which was originally a StarWars.com exclusive. This track is crammed with all the information I was hoping for, all the geek trivia that an ol' Star Wars fan would want, and I found his enthusiasm for the project infectious. He talks about tossing ideas by Lucas to get approval, and he goes into the details of animating favorite characters, and so on. This is by far the more interesting commentary of the two. You could easily skip the first, particularly because he repeats the rare good stuff from the first commentary.
The 8-minute Clone Wars: Bridging the Saga is a fun informational piece in which George Lucas, Genndy Tartakovsky, and others talk about why the show was created—to fill in the crucial Clone Wars storyline that occurs between Episodes I and II. We get a peek into the Cartoon Network offices where the cartoons are created, and I was amazed by the messiness of the workspaces. The tour introduces us to some key animators and artists. Also, watch for some enticing new footage from Episode III.
Under Videogames, you get a 1-minute Episode III Game Trailer, a 3-minute Star Wars Republic Commando Game Trailer, and a Star Wars Republic Commando Xbox Demo, which you can play on your Xbox console.
In a Behind the Scenes section, you get a 4-minute Featurette that fills in a little more information about the series. This feels more like an EPK piece for Cartoon Network, describing the aim of producing 20 3-minute episodes to tell the Clone Wars story. We also get to see some voice actors doing their work. The section also includes a couple of extensive Still Galleries that you can click through: Sketches & Storyboards and Posters & Artwork.
Finally, you get the excellent 2-minute Episode III Teaser Trailer, presented in anamorphic widescreen and Dolby Surround.
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
Tartokovsky's Star Wars: Clone Wars DVD is a success despite its sometimes silly subject matter—and the fact that it doesn't tell the whole story. Still, these micro-cartoons manage in many ways to engage more thoroughly—at least for this fan—than the actual films. Image quality is superb, and audio is good. Supplements are mostly illuminating.