Thursday, August 28, 2008

Star Wars: The Clone Wars -- Animated groan

Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008) • View trailer for Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Three stars (out of five). Rating: PG, for unrelenting action violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.28.08
Buy DVD: Star Wars: The Clone Wars

OK George, now you're just getting greedy.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars never should have been released theatrically; it's the sort of slap-dash, blatantly opportunistic project for which Disney has become infamous, with its direct-to-DVD "sequels" such as The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea and The Lion King II: Simba's Pride.
As if Anakin Skywalker, right, hasn't enough to worry about, he's also in
charge of the insufferable Ahsoka Tano, his new Padawan learner (apprentice);
when this character isn't getting into trouble, she indulges in too-frequent and
always insufferable bouts of The Cutes.

Although these probably are short-term financial gains, in the long run they do nothing but weaken the original franchise and dilute our pleasant memories of the first films.

The same is true of Clone Wars, which feels like precisely what it is: an overlong promo for the cartoon series debuting this fall on TNT and The Cartoon Network. (Indeed, it's actually three half-hour episodes stitched together.) And, frankly, that's where this film belongs: on TV. It would have made an impressive small-screen first chapter of the series to come ... but on the big screen, commanding movie theater ticket prices?

Not a chance.

Granted, a sizable segment of the Star Wars fan base will gobble up any new visits to this galaxy far, far away; I'm sure some folks even adored The Star Wars Holiday Special, which left glazed eyes on the rest of us back in November 1978. For the truly ravenous, though, too much never is enough; such passion has fueled scores of paperback adventures and kept dozens of marginal sci-fi writers comfortably housed and fed.

Do I sound cynical? It's hard not to, when something like Clone Wars serves up such ammunition. More than anything else, this film demonstrates that Lucas has abandoned any notion of pleasing adult viewers, and now is content to cater to the much younger demographic that probably also loved 1984's The Ewok Adventure (another TV miscalculation).

In fairness, much of this film looks pretty cool, most particularly the space-bound skirmishes between ships of varying sizes, and all land-based encounters with droids and other mechanized agents of destruction. At moments, such action scenes have the imaginative scope and thunderous fury of the beloved clashes between X-wing fighters and Death Stars that still set the hearts of aging fans a-fluttering.

But even this film can't exist without sentient heroes and villains — although, at times, I suspect fanboy director Dave Filoni tries his best to do just that — and the character art is dreadful. I thought so nearly six months ago, when the first promotional stills emerged; I still think so today. The style is blocky, hard-edged and exaggerated in an anatomically unappealing manner: so stylized that it's frequently difficult to determine if somebody has weird hair or is wearing an equally strange headpiece ... particularly true with new character Ahsoka Tano.

Human and humanoid characters move stiffly and awkwardly, as if unfamiliar with their own legs, and lip movements don't even come close to matching the spoken dialogue. (Very handy, then, that so many minor characters' faces are concealed within Storm Trooper helmets.)

The character art also is inconsistent, with respect to familiar faces who do or don't resemble their live-action counterparts ... a decision apparently driven solely by whether Lucas was able to coax the original actors into supplying voices for their animated selves.

Thus, Mace Windu and Count Dooku look very much like Samuel L. Jackson and Christopher Lee, because those two gentlemen agreed to participate. Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker, on the other hand, are given "fresh" looks to reflect the fact that they're now voiced by (respectively) James Arnold Taylor and Matt Lanter.

No disrespect intended, gentlemen, but you deliver nothing better than standard-issue TV-animation voices. Since it's impossible to develop any emotional attachment to these unattractively animated characters, the only hope for audience identification lies with the ability of the voice actors to engage our hopes and fears ... and Taylor and Lanter aren't up for the challenge.

Which brings me to the aforementioned Ahsoka Tano.

She's the primary new character, introduced as Anakin's new Padawan learner (apprentice). I won't say she's quite as annoying as the infamous Jar-Jar Binks, but she comes darn close. She's intended to be young, brash and enthusiastic, but as voiced by Ashley Eckstein — perhaps remembered as Muffy, on TV's That's So Raven — Ahsoka is irritating, obnoxious and insufferably "cute."

Yes, granted, she's also incredibly agile and talented with a light-saber, and Anakin rather quickly comes to admire her despite early reservations about being saddled with such an annoying shadow.

The script — by Henry Gilroy, Steven Melching and Scott Murphy — opens as Obi-Wan and Anakin lead a battalion of soldiers in some nameless city, an effort to hold off an army of Separatists and their never-ending droid legions. It's a typical Star Wars action prologue, much like the breathtaking battle scenes that began The Empire Strikes Back and Revenge of the Sith.

Amid the furious fighting, Anakin reluctantly accepts his new Padawan learner — a "gift" from Yoda, galaxies away — and Ahsoka quickly has a chance to demonstrate her resourcefulness and impressive skill with The Force.

We then settle into the primary story, which concerns the kidnapping of crime lord Jabba the Hutt's infant son. Anakin and Ahsoka are sent to rescue the tot, while Obi-Wan attempts to negotiate with an increasingly irritated Jabba.

We viewers learn, long before our heroes, that the entire kidnapping is a ruse by Count Dooku and his faithful accomplice, the nefarious Asajj Ventress (Nika Futterman) — another new character — which is designed to de-stabilize a pending diplomatic accord with Jabba. The Jedi Knights are to be framed for the murder of Jabba's son, which will prompt the sluglike criminal don to ally himself instead with the Separatists.

In terms of the complicated Star Wars chronology, this story takes place at some point immediately after Attack of the Clones. Anakin still is in his youthful honorable mode, with absolutely no trace of the latent ruthless anger that will drive him to the dark side of The Force, and his future career as Darth Vader.

Indeed, for all intents and purposes he has been cast here as an unblushing hero, with none of the sinister undertones that made his character evolution so interesting — and tragic — in the live- action films.

In a word, Anakin has been whitewashed, purely as a commercial move to make him a more palatable protagonist in the upcoming weekly cartoon series ... and that's just wrong.

Other elements of the Star Wars universe have been similarly "modified" for the younger palate. The tall, slender, humanoid-like Separatist assult droids, so familiar from Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, have become comic buffoons prone to frequent attacks of the stupids.

Setting aside the obvious illogic of a robot that would "reason" its way into idiotic behavior, as opposed to more correctly obeying orders and pre-set programming, these droids now exist mostly to deliver dumb one-liners invariably punctuated by "Oops" and "Uh-oh."

This is the future of Star Wars? Lowest-denominator moron humor?

No, no, no, no, no.

Moving on: Let's talk music. Briefly. While I'm sure composer Kevin Kiner is a nice guy, friendly to animals and all, his musical chops ain't even a microspeck next to John Williams, whose absence is sorely felt here.


Charles Schulz rigorously insisted, particularly as the impressive quality of A Charlie Brown Christmas eventually gave way to much weaker animated specials such as It's the Pied Piper, Charlie Brown, that whatever happened on TV had absolutely nothing to do with the continuity in his daily newspaper strip.

Similarly, I've long chosen to disregard the aforementioned Star Wars TV specials and the too-frequent navel-gazing found in those stacks of paperback books, confining my devotion to the six live-action films, and most particularly the original trilogy.

Having now experienced a taste of what is to come, it will be easy to similarly ignore the upcoming cartoon series.

As for this film itself?

Frankly, I'd prefer to believe it never happened.

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