Saturday, August 16, 2008

Star Wars: The Clone Wars / *** (PG)

Featuring the voice talents of:
Anakin Skywalker: Matt Lanter
Ahsoka Tano: Ashley Eckstein
Obi-Wan Kenobi/4-A7/Medical Droid: James Arnold Taylor
Captain Rex/Cody/Clone Troopers: Dee Bradley Baker
Yoda/Narrator/Admiral Yularen: Tom Kane
Asajj Ventress/Tee-C-Seventy: Nika Futterman
Chancellor Palpatine: Ian Abercrombie
Padmé Amidala: Catherine Taber
Jabba the Hut: Kevin Michael Richardson
C3PO: Anthony Daniels
Count Dooku: Christopher Lee

Warner Bros. Pictures and Lucasfilm Animation present a film directed by Dave Filoni. Written by Henry Gilroy, Steven Melching, and Scott Murphy. Based on characters and universe created by George Lucas. Running time: 98 min. Rated PG (for sci-fi action violence throughout, brief language, and momentary smoking).

You know, maybe I’m still just a big kid. Just a grey-haired version of the little boy who stared at a movie screen in awe back in 1977. But to me there is still something very special about George Lucas’s creation “Star Wars”. It isn’t that I don’t see faults and flaws in anything that comes out of the “Star Wars” universe, but the imagination that informs this very basic entertainment series never ceases to capture my own.

“Star Wars: The Clone Wars”—the first animated feature to be released theatrically in the franchise—is not a thinking man’s fantasy. But then “Star Wars” never was incredibly thought provoking. Despite an infinitely intricate mythology, the “Star Wars” movies have been most successful when they aimed primarily at entertainment. “The Clone Wars” never comes close the cinematic greatness of the original trilogy, but it achieves the high-energy fun and adventure that such an imaginative universe promises.

Taking place between “Attack of the Clones” and “Revenge of the Sith”, “The Clone Wars” tells a smaller episode of the war between the ill-fated Republic and the Separatists that will eventually form the Empire. It involves a plot hatched by former Jedi turned Sith Count Dooku to kidnap the infant son of Jabba the Hut and frame the Jedi for it. The Jedi and the Republic need the Huts as allies—despite their shady nature—to ensure clear passage to the outer rim systems to effectively fight the Separatists.

Jedi, Sith, Separatists, Republic, Huts. This is not a story for the uninitiated to the “Star Wars” universe unless you are under 15. At that age or under the fantasy elements of the story will outweigh any confusion over just what is going on. And yet that does seem to be the age range the filmmakers have targeted for their audience. This is not a tale of grown up “Star Wars” characters. It is based solely in action elements; with all the politics of the prequel trilogy left for the more mature to work out.

The main story arc follows Anakin Skywalker on his mission to rescue Jabba’s son. As an added element, Jedi High Council Yoda has assigned Skywalker a padawan Jedi-in-training to him, a young hotheaded female named Ahsoka Tano. Yoda’s reasoning for this seems to be to reflect Ahsoka as a sort of mirror image to Anakin so he can overcome some of his own weakness in dealing with patience and temper.

And that is about as deep as “The Clone Wars” gets. The movie is wall-to-wall action. It starts off with a quick voice-over introduction to what is going on in the war and proceeds from one battle sequence to the next from there on out. It hits on every major “Star Wars” action signature, from epic-scale space battles to one-on-one lightsaber duels, from giant-sized battle machinery to personality-quirked robots, from the elegance of the ancient warriors of the Jedi and the Sith to the gritty street combat of the Storm Trooper clones and the clunky inefficiency of the Separatist’s robot army.

Like the live action movies, “The Clone Wars” follows multiple characters in their individual adventures. It seems General Kenobi’s role is to endlessly follow behind Anakin and his padawan to try and save them, succeeding only in cleaning up their messes. Padmé Amidala uncovers Dooku’s plot with Jabba’s uncle Zero the Hut to frame the Jedi. And a female Sith named Asajj Ventress shows up to square off with Kenobi and Skywalker.

It is unfortunate the writers chose to make the two heroes—Anakin and Ahsoka—so similar. They both have fairly juvenile outlooks, which gives the whole movie an adolescent feel. There is no strong voice of maturity present in the story. The dialogue is childish, however in this animated format it seems more fitting than George Lucas’s feeble dialogue for the live action movies. It is as if the characters have been dialed down to a more typical animated adventure level.

“The Clone Wars” was originally intended to act as a pilot episode to the television series of the same name to air this fall on Cartoon Network and TNT. In terms of script and story development, it plays like a television episode. But one that George Lucas felt was worthy of a theatrical release. It is actually quite easy to see why. Despite the Saturday morning feel of the movie, it is filled with many of the beautiful images that have helped solidify the “Star Wars” mythos so securely in the movie-going public’s minds. There are some wonderful sequences of animation to relish here, and there is no better place to do that than on the big screen.

I can see where the detractors of this movie are coming from. “The Clone Wars” has taken the epic out of the “Star Wars” universe to a degree and replaced it with a more episodic and even unsophisticated television approach, but it is also a great deal of fun to watch. It isn’t boring and at times it achieves a certain beauty with its stylized CGI animation. It doesn’t achieve the mastery of the former “Clone Wars” traditionally animated series, which also aired on Cartoon Network. But it does promise an entertaining series to come, just not quite on the same level of the live action “Star Wars” films.

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