I remember when going to the cinema was an event. I remember when going to Leicester Square to see a film was a near once in a lifetime experience. For you see, in 1977, I remember walking in London, seeing Stormtroopers in shop windows, queuing at the doors, looking at the lobby cards imagining what it was I was going to see; this was the third day of its release in this country - I've never managed to capture that excitement again .....
As an adult and with a little perspective I can see why Star Wars was such a monumental success; over and above the timing aspect, Lucas, in his writing, cast his net far and wide for inspiration, and in that net was a hook that caught Akira Kurosawa's Hidden Fortress (1958). It is this film that marks why Star Wars was such a success, not only are they similar in story, but they are identical in structure. If you're going to steal - sorry homage - then use the best and Lucas certainly used the best. Directing the film nearly destroyed Lucas, so much so that he vowed never to direct again, shame he didn't listen to his own advice. So when it came to Empire (1980) with Irvin Kershner at the helm, no one really expected another hit on the scale of three years past, how wrong they were! Under his direction a darker story driven plot concentrating on the emotional, lead to what has become the highest regarded of the six films. Unfortunately it was the success of Empire that sealed the fate of the franchise, for Lucas was now firmly in the driving seat, he was well on his way to becoming the mogul he is today and the studio, Fox, that had managed to hold him in sway for the first two films no longer had the clout to reign him back, enter insane plot devises and cutesy aliens, the slippery slope was formed and Lucas was already at the top.
Several years and many, many different re-releases of the original trilogy later Lucas came up with the three prequel films, now on top form there was no one to slow him down, no one to say no and no one to stop him. Enter Jar Jar Binks and poop jokes. It is a real shame because structurally Phantom is actually a pretty good film, I still think it contains the best lightsabre fight of any of the films and has pretty much everything that makes a Star Wars film great. Next was Attack, a darker, less well structured, digital opus that had the chance to get right back on track; but failed miserably by playing Anakin as a spoilt brat rather than the power hungry killer he will become (scene in question is immediately after he killed the Sandpeople, instead of being all powerful and commanding a killers presence we were treated to “it's not fair” pffff). And finally Sith, that completed the transformation of Anakin into Vader, darker still and quite vicious, structured well but lacking the conviction and a daft premise. So why this lengthy introduction? So you know when I talk that although I am a fan I am not a fan boy and like to think I can see both sides.
Between Attack and Sith was the Clone Wars, inspired by a throw away line in the original film to give some small amount of back story. Being 'war stories' this area is ripe for the picking and many areas of the universe can be explored, from new characters to new ideas. Of course this idea has already been tackled 2003 with a series of short cartoon stories, which were everything that the prequel films were not, exciting, emotional, engaging and above all entertaining. In fact one particular scene stands out as quintessential Star Wars and contains more emotional weight than the whole of the prequel films put together; that of Anakin killing Asajj Ventress atop that mountain - here was some real depth, some real insight into a tortured soul destined to become the most feared Sith Lord ever. However the creators obviously felt that this area was still ripe and have created another TV series to further explore it, no longer standard animation, but CG. And to promote this the pilot was made bigger and bolder and released to a cinema audience, much like Battlestar Galactica (1978) and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979). Enter tonight's feature Star Wars: The Cone Wars (the 'The' denoting the difference between the two Clone War animations!)
George Lucas had a small hand the making of this film, in much the same way as Stephen Spielberg had a small hand in the making of Poltergeist (1982)..... As such there are certain aspects that ought to have been left out, such as the stink jokes, or Obi Wan sitting down to a cup of tea with his opposing general while the battle rages on and his troops are being killed. However the whole the film, as presented, does well as a piece of the Star Wars Universe.
The plot involves the kidnap of Jabba the Hutt's son (exactly when did Jabba become quite so powerful that he can demand and receive help from Jedi's in what is initially presented a random kidnap/ransom - surely if he is so all powerful he'd just go after his son himself ...? But I digress) and since he has a controlling stake in the outer rim trade lanes (what?) the Jedi respond to his call for help since such access would be invaluable during the war effort. The two Jedi's chosen are Obi Wan and Anakin, but unfortunately they are busy loosing ground to the separatist forces and require reinforcements. The Council think that it is also a good idea to give Anakin a Padawan learner during this battle. Fortunately things go well and the rescue mission is a go, but it is soon apparent that darker forces are at work to try and discredit the Jedi and that the cold hand of the Sith is behind all the dark manoeuvring and it is not long before the forces of dark and light are battling to gain favour with the Hutt's.
The plot line, such as it is, and much like Phantom, is quite complex and it takes a while to fully unravel giving a well layered feel to the film; this in turn means it is reasonably well structured with twists and turns coming and going at just the right time to keep the pace moving. However, it does disclose its TV pilot origins with the introductions of new characters such as clone commanders and principally Ahsoka Tano, the new Padawan. A lot of negativity has been levelled at this character but most is unfounded; she is there as a devise to relate the story to, someone for 'the kids' to identify with and on that level she succeeds, her dialogue with Anakin (“stinky the Hutt” for example) might be awful and there as the lowest common denominator but on the level she it set it works. When we first meet her she is ballsy and keen, eager to please and not willing to listen; traits, we are lead to believe, that Anakin himself had. But as the film progresses she becomes sharper and focused and, much as Anakin does, we too form a bond. She has an infectious enthusiasm. All this is in her favour, but I question the motives behind her character. Oh I know why she is there, but she is completely unnecessary, take a look at the original films, or the original animated series, no such character was needed, and really none was needed here. What she does do is show us that Anakin is 'human' that he has feelings and responsibilities before the dark side takes him, so instead of following his descent to the dark side we are treated to a light and fluffy Ani. Somehow that doesn't work, much like his spoilt brat scenes don't work in the feature films. This Jedi is the Chosen One, something this animated film fails to even mention.
However, when it gets it right, the film really gets it right; take a look at the massive battles that take place both on land and in space, these easily match anything that was produced in the feature films - in point of fact they look so good they could easily be mistaken as coming from either Attack or Sith! Legions of clone troopers battling it out against hoards of Separatist droids, their battles are fierce and, a first for the series, not without consequence; watch as a trooper calls for a medic for a fallen comrade. It contains lightsabre battles aplenty, Obi Wan duking it out with Asajj Ventress for example. In fact it has the over all look of a Star Wars film. Even down to the music. For the first time John William's is not scoring the film, that job was given to Kevin Kiner, and you know what? He does a fantastic job. His score is dynamic and energetic, whilst never sounding like William's he has managed to capture that essence and during battle scenes his music enriches the visuals to a point where they become indistinguishable from the feature films. He also pays homage to William's pieces, Luke's theme for example. However, where I feel the music did drop the ball was with the opening and closing credits; a Star Wars film should have the same music - now I know this is actually a glorified TV show, and that the music was written for that, fine, keep it and use it as such, but for the big screen - and this is/was on the big screen - keep the music the same because it simply does not work as it should, sorry.
Another problem levelled is the lack of opening crawl, another Star Wars prerequisite, now I can just about forgive this aspect, the opening montage and 'news reel' narration taking its place, but I must say it does grate, and for the same reasons I gave for the music above; if this film is being marketed as a Star Wars film, then it should have all the hallmarks, most are there (including the opening line “Once upon a time ..” ) and work very well so why not go all the way? Change it for the TV series, fine, no problem, but for the film, keep it in context. Very odd to not see the Fox logo either!
A word about the animation style, some like it others do not; I'm in the 'it's ok' camp. Imagine the original animated series made into CG 3D, that is what you have got; it is very stylised and blocky with little attempt at realism - no Final Fantasy this - but again in its context I feel it works very well. Backgrounds, weapons and spacecraft all look remarkable, there is a solidity and weight to them. And when combined with some very nifty camera moves really gives you a sense of scale; something that live action can sometimes fail to achieve. The voice acting is rather stilted, each actor trying to imitate their filmic counterparts, this on the whole works pretty well but it also manages to carry over the woodenness of those roles, this may have been intentional, but I doubt it. Amazingly Ashley Eckstein as Ahsoka comes of far better, even if her voice is a little whiney!
On the whole you have to take this film for what it is, a Star Wars feature aimed at a younger audience - on that level is works very well indeed - it's just that it is not a very good film. And that is its biggest problem, like everything that has come after Star Wars and Empire, they are just simply not very good films, excellent for the universe, but not universal and that is what divides the audience so. Immerse yourself in the culture and you'll probably get a great deal out of it, watch it as a film and you'll no doubt be disappointed.
Our Review Ethos