Dave Filoni | 98 mins | Blu-ray | PG / PG
The Clone Wars can boast an awful lot of firsts within the Star Wars franchise: the first animated Star Wars in cinemas, the first not to feature Frank Oz as Yoda, the first not to open in May, the first not to have a text-crawl intro… It’s also the first not to open at number one at the box office. None of these facts are likely to endear itself to die-hard Star Wars fans. I’m not one, but it did little to endear itself to me either.
Things go wrong immediately. For fans, the Warner Bros. logo is horrendously incongruous (so I’m told — the original six films were all released by Fox), but for even the casual viewer there’s something seriously odd within minutes: no opening text crawl! This is meant to be Star Wars? Instead, a chunk of exposition — which sounds exactly like the opening crawl would, and so has clearly been designed to replace it — is read over a montage of the events it describes. Do they think children can’t read? In fairness, I’ve been to Star Wars screenings where there were children young enough that parents were having to read the crawl to their kids… but considering the live action films are “kids’ movies” too (as Lucas was so keen to remind us when everyone hated the prequels), surely what’s good enough for them is good enough for this?
Omissions such as this could be forgiven if more important aspects went well. But they don’t. The script is so good it could’ve been written by George Lucas himself. There are too many weak dialogue exchanges to even consider listing them, but Ahsoka’s habit of calling R2-D2 “Artooey” is memorably grating. Much of the voice acting is just as bad, with James Arnold Taylor’s Obi Wan accent particularly off-centre. Catherine Taber’s Padmé impression is probably the most convincing of the lot and, coincidentally sharing the same scenes, Corey Burton’s Truman Capote impression as Ziro the Hutt is entertainingly obvious. Count Dooku doesn’t particularly benefit from the involvement of Christopher Lee, but at least Samuel L. Jackson is vaguely recognisable lending his actual voice to Mace Windu. Most of the cast deliver the kind of performance you typically find in kids’ cartoons — i.e. not all that good, no doubt due to the pressures of producing as many episodes as possible as cheaply as possible. Dubious line readings abound, though in fairness this may be down to the awkward lines they’re forced to deliver.
In between the poor dialogue there are plenty of action sequences. The first battle is a bit dull: masses of troops just firing at each other, until the bad guys suddenly decide that actually they ought to retreat because of the cannons — cannons that have been firing on them throughout. At least the repeat performance ten minutes later features some tactics and diversions. Later fights are better, though not by a huge amount. There are certainly a fair few, though there’s little real variation between them. The big battles and space dogfights are adequate, if lacking in focus, but the lightsaber duels miss the heft of their live-action equivalents, animation robbing them of the physical skill involved in a real sword fight (even if those in the prequels involve a fair degree of CGI themselves). The much-trumpeted vertical battle is a great idea that’s competently executed, but the change in perspective is too little used — apart from the odd moment or shot, they may as well be progressing slowly on a horizontal plane.
All of these sequences are scored by stock-sounding ‘epic action music’. Kevin Kiner’s music is nothing like as original or distinctive as John Williams’ work on the main series. Other than re-using some of Williams’ themes, it’s a rather generic action score — perfectly pleasant for what it is, but not particularly memorable. A slight remix of the main Star Wars theme gives the opening a distinctive air… as if the Warner Bros. logo, war talk over the Lucasfilm logo, and lack of text crawl didn’t do the job by themselves.
The animation itself is certainly stylised, which annoys some, but then it’s not billed as an Avatar-esque “it’s real, honest” style, or even the lower level achieved (if one can call it an achievement) by Beowulf. It’s surely a sensible decision — look how far from real Beowulf turned out to be on a feature budget and timescale, and when you’re churning out a weekly series (as this was always intended to be) such aspirations as photo-real CGI are far too lofty, not to mention expensive. Personally, I quite like the style. The painterly textures are slightly odd, but probably preferable to flat slabs of colour, while the cartoonisation of the cast (allegedly inspired by Thunderbirds) fits the lightweight tone and keeps things visually interesting. Besides, as noted, the visual style is the least of the film’s problems.
It may sound like a piece of trivia that this was originally conceived as three episodes of the TV series that now follows it, but where the breaks would fall is disappointingly clear — note, for example, that at around 25 minutes the first battle is won, Anakin resolves himself to teach the Padawan he previously objected to, and Yoda arrives to kick off the next part of the story. It could only be more like the end of an episode if credits rolled. It’s also the apparent need to fit two or three action sequences per episode that keeps them coming at regular intervals in a film which sticks three back-to-back.
There’s an overarching plot, thank goodness, which is immediately established… before being put on hold for half-an-hour while the events of what-would-have-been-episode-one play out: a battle that isn’t particularly significant in itself and has absolutely no relevance to the rest of the story, immediately betraying the three-episode origins. After that’s done the main plot resumes in two clearly-divisible chunks — the precise moment of the second transition isn’t as obvious as the first, but which subplots belong to which half is. Maybe the story joins are invisible to those who don’t know the production’s history or something of narrative structure (i.e. normal people), but they were blatant to me. It particularly shows in the final act/third episode, as the story switches from epic battle sequences to some out-of-nowhere political wrangling and lower-key lightsaber-based confrontations.
Although it has high-quality animation, a largely cinematic scale, particularly in the battles, and direction that isn’t as obviously TV-only as some TV-bound productions, The Clone Wars still feels like watching a compilation of TV episodes rather than a film in its own right. It’s partly the episode structures that remain unconcealed, partly the shortage of real voice talent indicating a lower budget, partly the relative insignificance of the story — it just doesn’t have the epic quality that imbued all the other Star Wars films. Not every film has to be an epic, even ones set within the same universe/storyline, but by wheeling out all the main characters and then showing them complete just one moderately low-key mission, The Clone Wars does feel like a single instalment of a TV series and not an appropriately-scaled cinematic experience.
This might’ve made a pretty strong set of opening episodes to a half-hour TV show, and I hear the series has gotten quite good as its first season progressed. If that’s true, it’s a shame such a weak beginning will have put so many off giving it a go, because as a standalone film The Clone Wars falls far short.