Star Wars: The Clone Wars Review
Hey, folks, here's another movie that I covered earlier this year upon its theatrical release. We've already reviewed the US Blu-ray, but this is the new UK disc. My opinions about The Clone Wars still stand and, having been following the unfolding series and, essentially, having enjoyed every minute of it so far, my appreciation for such colourful, energetic and bold derring-do is pleasantly confirmed. I now look forward to having the entire series on BD at some point. Anyway, here's what I said about the film version that kick-started this new franchise with a few tiny extra bits thrown in.
“Jedi - poodu!”
Well that may be the mighty Jabba's opinion ... but it certainly isn't mine.
Dave Filoni hurls the introduction to George Lucas's pending Clone Wars animated series across the big screen with a kind of nostalgic reminder of how the camp, but great 80's Buck Rogers In The 25th Century started life - as a couple of episodes strung together and released theatrically. But whilst some may groan and wonder just why bother when the whole thing will be consigned to the small screen where its domain is sure to remain, the nifty thing to remember is that this particular rainbow-coloured spectacle of light and laser is lavishly rendered here in sumptuous 2.35:1 and, even if it lacks the thematic grandeur of the (partly) live-action movies, it feels appropriately big and broad and exciting on this canvas.
Fitting in somewhere before the events of Revenge Of The Sith, during the height of the Clone Wars, this non-stop blast-a-thon packs in conflicts aplenty on three planetary Fronts, when a nefarious plot by Count Dooku, Asajj Ventress and Darth Sidius sees to it that Jabba's slimy little son, Rotta the Huttlet, is kidnapped and used as pawn that will bring the Jedi into disrepute and open up the fringe systems for Separatist alliance. Naturally, with this being of the new Star Wars ilk, the politics of the matter are fundamentally ridiculous, but this doesn't matter one iota because the whole thing is merely an excuse to plunge us headlong into a raging war-zone from start to finish. Generals Kenobi and Skywalker (voiced now by James Arnold Taylor, who does a fair impersonation of Ewan MacGregor, and Matt Lanter, who sounds absolutely nothing at all like Hayden Christensen) have command of the troops on a thoroughly devastated planet that is rapidly falling into the vile clutches of the wonderfully monikered General Loathsome - like Grievous, with a name like that he could never have been a good guy, could he? - when news from Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) and Yoda (Tom Kane, who also provides the very thirties-style scene-setting voiceover at the start) comes through regarding the plight of the Huttlet. It soon becomes a race against time to get Jabba on their side and return his son to him if the Republic is to maintain troop movements through the Outer Rim - a Hutt-controlled area that is strategically essential (apparently) to both sides. With armies as vast and mighty as those of the Republic and the Separatist Movement, it is hard to imagine a clan of gangsters ever standing in their way - but this is Star Wars and, thankfully, logic doesn't hold much sway here.
With the now customary splitting up of the heroes as they each go about their separate missions for the greater good of the galaxy, constant shimmery-blue hologram communications between them all and more double-dealings and backhanded negotiations than the bureaucratic wing of the US War On Terror, Clone Wars delivers thrills and visual eye-candy by the bucket-load. When Genndy Tartakovsky's bite-sized animated series came out, it defiantly wowed us with its varied battlefields, insistence on displaying ultra-cool fighting (Mace's one-man assault on the droid army - yay!) and never-pause-for-breath attitude. Well, this introductory broadside to the new series proves that the same hell-for-leather approach is being firmly adhered to. The mini-sagas within the narrative all have their own compelling drive and the whole breathless tangle of “deceit, fight, revelation, fight, scheme, fight!” hurls itself together with such chaotic vigour that the innate needlessness of it all is easily forgotten amidst the humming of light-sabres and the shrieking frazzle of blasters. With new characters introduced - hats off to Jabba's scandalous Creole-inspired pimp of an uncle, Ziro The Hutt (Corey Burton, who also voices the toad-like Loathsome) whose purple markings, feathered bling and hinted-at depravities in his brothel - love that band - remind me of a disgusting cross between Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet, and the extra allowance made for us to get to know the clones, themselves - blonde-haired Captain Rex (Dee Bradley Baker, whose forte is obviously the helmeted brigade since he voices practically all of them) is like an SAS superstar, his memoirs will be out soon, I'm sure - the film makes a very agreeable stab at widening our appreciation of the story and those inhabiting it.
The inclusion of enthusiastic teenage padawan Ahsoka Tano is surely set to split the camp right down the middle, bringing to mind the irritation caused by a certain Gungan doofus with an errant tongue and the most patience-testing patois in the cosmos. With her near-constant presence on screen and chirrupy voice, brazen attitude and grudging petulance, she is almost duty-bound to get on the nerves of any adult in the room after the first couple of minutes of meticulously dedicated sass-deployment. However, just as she does with Anakin's reluctant Jedi mentor, Ahsoka manages to worm her way into your affections by virtue of cheek, tenacity and some pretty awesome battle-skills. Voiced by Ashley Eckstein, the slightly framed warrior-ess has an immediate penchant for calling Anakin Skywalker “Sky-Guy” and, you guessed it, rushing blindly into combat before giving the situation the appropriate consideration. Yet far from becoming a stale riff on Anakin's own reckless personality and his own relationship with Obi-Wan, this actually leads to some interesting dynamics between the two. If both are foolhardy and impetuous then the stakes for their placement in dire jeopardy have been raised quite considerably. Of course, the point of all this is actually to have Ahsoka assume the role of kiddie-empathy conduit for the film, which is essential for a story such as this. With primarily faceless armies endlessly charging into one another and both Obi-Wan and now Anakin seemingly so experienced in their art that younger minds feel a tad removed from them, the plucky (God, I hate that word, but it does happen to apply here) go-get-'em energy of heroic youth becomes their imaginative stepping-stone into the mythology. Sure, this is kit-assembly storytelling, the tale's conception and delivery following the play-it-safe template to the letter, but Lucas' ongoing odyssey has always conformed to certain narrative strictures - good and evil, rogues and royalty, master and apprentice. At least, and the numerous moaners would do well to reflect upon this for a moment, Lucas doesn't go for the moral-sermonising any more than, say, the action films of Jet Li, Sly Stallone, Schwarzenegger et al. Bad guys are offed, as are good guys. Limbs are often removed - usually hands in the films, heads (droid and Clone) in the cartoons. Violence proves to be the only way to sort out problems, no matter what the Jedi Council might choose to think, and the ass-in-the-grass message of bravery, swift justice and getting close enough to the enemy to smell his or her breath (or WD40) is about the only spiritual ethic you'll take away from these adventures. The clue is in the titles, nearly all the way across the board - WARS, MENACE, ATTACK, REVENGE etc. Disney may have had a dark heart once, when they ransacked medieval folklore for entertainment purposes. But the plethora of kids' material these days is so watered-down and neutered by sappy morals and futile do-gooding (steady on, Chris, getting controversial now) that rip-roaring, carnage-heavy shoot-em-ups like this are possibly the only antidote if a formative mind is not to grow up dangerously lulled by feel-good misconceptions in which villains are politely taught the error of their ways and then honourably concede to safer, more caring, sharing values in the future. Lucas may have envisaged Star Wars as the new take on the old sci-fi cliff-hangers from yesteryear, but what he has really done with this immense opus is to bring the Hollywood take on World War II from the gung-ho and righteous forties and fifties - endless danger-filled missions and glorious last stands from the hinterlands of western Europe to the frond-dappled Pacific Rim - into the 21st century without any of the emotional weight nor the realistic baggage that goes with the fallout when filmmakers go down the revisionist route.
This is grand-scale chivalry just for the sheer hell of it. That it leaves many adults feeling somewhat under-nourished is par for the course, I suppose. But the same could be said a huge proportion of medieval, ancient, Western and war movies whose sole purpose was to create spectacle and excitement via conflicts both great and small.
The animation is marvellous. People seem to love heaping scorn upon the highly stylised look of the characters - the solid mass of unmoving hair and the crazy length of some faces, such as Dooku's for example, who now looks like a caricature of Vincent Price - but I completely embrace the manner with which Filoni's team of conceptualists and animators capture the look of living sculptures, rather like the inimitable action-figures, themselves, brought to life but blessed with infinitely more points of articulation. He handles the fierce set-tos with an emphasis on mood and colour and the often startling combination of hard, fast action with a broad “cartoony” rendering that manages to be both violent and bloodless, both amazingly intricate and yet supremely smooth. The dazzling finesse of Asajj Ventress (who looks uncannily like one of I Am Legend's Dark Seekers here) as she pirouettes her way around the calmly effective, but decidedly less extravagant, single blade of Obi-Wan, her interconnecting sabres the Star Wars equivalent of Bruce Lee's celebrated nunchucks. The rip-roaring melees and large-scale battles are simply terrific. The floods of multi-coloured laser beams criss-crossing the screen mesmerise and the wild, do-or-die skirmishing of the clones - full of desperate heroics and John Woo-style diving and cartwheeling about the debris as ceaseless ranks of droids close in - are fascinatingly choreographed and wonderful fun to follow. The hand-held camera shtick so galvanisingly used by Spielberg and Scott in their mutilation-heavy war-flicks (Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down, respectively) is brought into play here, just as Lucas had done with the big battle in Attack Of The Clones, and it works well without ever being over-employed. The editing is extremely swift and you have to be quick to really savour some individually striking shots, such Obi-Wan's single-handed lightsaber-ship early on, or the fawning perusal down the length of a clone's rifle, or Captain Rex's athletic two-gun twirls.
But the Big moments are what you are bound to remember most vividly.
An unstoppable army of droids and tanks, safe within a satanic-tinged cloak of deflective energy, progressing menacingly towards a rapidly dwindling band of clones ratchets up the tension early on. Lightsaber duels crackle with death-dealing athleticism, a toe-to-toe confrontation between Anakin and Dooku (voiced with Christopher Lee precision by gob-maestro Corey Burton) beneath the moody, unforgiving ball of a full moon is a standout, although I have to emphasise that the deep, demented single-mindedness of Asajj Ventress, now even crueller-looking with the added facial texture that Filoni's CG provides is still a thing of grim beauty. Yet, the most awesome set-piece just has to be the massed rescue attempt on the mountaintop stronghold in which little Rotta has been imprisoned. Climbing a sheer cliff wall and avoiding strafing fire from above, clones and Jedi become the commandos of a galactic Guns Of Navarone. Vertical combat becomes a dizzying work of animated genius, imbecilic droids plummet and squat-legged personnel carriers forge the heights like giant gun-toting ladybirds. Droids on cloud-skipping STAPs whiz across the screen and hurtle towards us with heartless conviction and our heroes enjoy skipping from one clump of metal wreckage to another with supremely enviable prowess. It is a breathtaking sequence that is literally the highpoint of the movie.
With such slickness taking place, it comes as a surprise just how many scenarios ensue. There's even some covert espionage from an undercover Amidala and lovers of the bounty hunters get a little wake-up call too - especially when we are treated to the sight of all that remains of them. It's nice to see the IG series of droid getting some screen-time too, and the Jawas are returned to their originally eerie, opportunist, and pesky, selves, scurrying about the desert sands with eagerly scavenging desires.
I even liked what Kevin Kiner did with the score. Taking elements of John Williams' established motifs and fanfares and mixing them into a contemporary and quite upbeat new vogue is something that will certainly not please everyone, but he also supplies enough fresh material to more than make up for it. The ethnic touches - read female warbling along the lines of Hans Zimmer-regular Lisa Gerrard - made quite an impression on me, and the rescue mission to free Rotta is lent a decidedly unique and rewarding sound because of this varied and individual approach. I promised you a full review of the score ... it is coming soon, folks.
Yes, the dialogue is risible, but you would have to be a complete fool to have expected otherwise. The inhabitants of this universe are not going to suddenly start spouting sly subtextual anecdotes, deeply profound sentiments that couldn't first be written down on the back of a postage stamp or stunningly observed and lyrical postulations on the meaning of the Force. Yes, the Battle-droids' endless comical banter grates on the nerves of anybody over the age of ten, but let me assure you that my seven-year old has been repeating many of their lines from this film and the ensuing episodes. It is worth mentioning that one of the later stories, involving rookie clones - called “Shinies” - does a brilliant self-deprecating mickey-take of their “Roger, Roger” routine. Most younglings laugh out loud every time one of them bleats some banal witticism that has you and me rolling our eyes in frank dismay. But this is the point, isn't it? Star Wars is for kids. It was always meant to be for kids. And those of us “grownups” wringing our hands in frustration and denouncing George Lucas for raping our childhood memories need to remember this fact once in a while. Just because we like to think that we never really grew up and began paying bills and commuting to work every day, our matured and supposedly ever-wiser knowledge of movies (and how we believe they should be made because we know, don't we?) inevitably breeds a glum cynicism within us that just loves to vent itself over Lucas' expansion of the Star Wars saga from our innocent imagination of long, long ago. We need a reality-check, folks. We aren't the same people anymore and just because these newly-crafted stories don't meet with the same breathless approval that our younger selves would have extended them does not mean that they don't work, or that Lucas has lost the plot and is playing some sick, money-grabbing joke on us. He surely doesn't need the dough and, most importantly, he's creating these tales for the kids of today just like he did for us back then, fostering his mythology - already tried and trusted on us - for a new generation. I looked at the faces of the children in the audience when I saw this at the flicks (we even took three ourselves) - they adore this stuff. We hated Jar-Jar, but who was the kids' favourite character from Phantom Menace? Yep, you got it. The buffoonish battle-droids and their Christmas cracker-joke bickering is a low point but, once again, the sound of kids laughing at them drowns out the groans from the dads (still not many mums enjoying this universe, are there?).
Sadly, such defence of what is a simple animated adventure is fully justified. The vehemence that I have heard and read regarding George Lucas and the new Star Wars stories has, frankly, reached such a ludicrous and idiotic level of unfounded and misinformed scorn that I feel I must make a stand. A certain site over the Pond has, now that their, ahem, reviewing-embargo been lifted, taken this film so damn personally as an affront that I despair of such supposedly knowledgeable film-fans. I would say grow up but, ironically, it is the opposite that is required. It's a cartoon - with lightsabres and relentless Boys Own battles. What's not to love?
So, my advice for all the naysayers out there, who are doing themselves down more than anything else by leaping on the all-too-convenient hate-wagon and firing off vitriolic spiel all over the franchise, is to “let themselves go ... and to take another step into a wider universe” and to try to find that innocent, eyes-agog child that they once were, the child that was eager to accept anything with the only provisos being that it excited, stimulated and transported them to another time and place and granted them adventure. And, if you can't allow yourself to do that, then, hey, don't buy the disc. It's that simple. Wither away in your cynicism if you want to, but just shut the hell up about something that still brings enormous pleasure to its intended audience - the young and the truly young at heart. Back in 1977, Star Wars changed the medium of film and what it meant to enjoy the viewing of one. For many that magic has been carried like an eternal flame ever since, but for some, jaded now and perhaps too drunk on the spectacle and extravagance from every blockbuster that has come along in the sci-fi classic's wake, the flame has been snuffed out. Blame the cash-cow industry that is Tinseltown. Blame George Lucas if you want. But blame yourselves as well for allowing your own expectations and blind follow-the-crowd opinions for the failings you perceive in these still thrilling, still inventive, still immensely enjoyable stories - because, in actual fact, very little has changed since that groundbreaking, genre-defining debut in 1977. Except some of us.
Star Wars: The Clone Wars does exactly what it says on the tin, and it does it with style, a breakneck pace and, best of all, the tantalising promise of what was to come with a series which, as far as I am concerned, has been terrific so far. Just as fast-paced, just as action-packed and, if anything, revealing animation that improves as the series progresses.
Great stuff and a strong 7 out of 10 from me.
May the Force be with you.