Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Animated Wars Makes One Wonder: Star Wars: The Clone Wars Disappoints

The Good: Moments of animation and plot
The Bad: Unsurprising story, Light on character development, Blockish animation, Pacing
The Basics: Paving the way for a terrible new animated series, Star Wars: The Clone Wars has Anakin Skywalker and a new Jedi in the middle of an obvious kidnapping plot.

In the summer of 2008, I first experienced a summer filled with films that mostly disappointed me. I was surprised that summer as I traveled the convention circuit to discover how few people actually new there was a new Star Wars movie hitting theaters. Is it possible the franchise truly was dead and only the die-hard fans are clinging on for more stories? It certainly felt that way talking to people about Star Wars: The Clone Wars, prior to the new animated film's release. When I returned from a midnight showing of the movie, I was left with the question I had going in:

What is the point?

For weeks now, I have been asking fans of the Star Wars franchise: "What is the point of The Clone Wars movie?" Unlike the Star Wars prequel trilogy, which had a general story every fan knew (Anakin Skywalker turning into Darth Vader), The Clone Wars tells a very specific story fans know that lacks the real intrigue or greatness of the prequels. Nestled in between Star Wars: Attack Of The Clones and Star Wars: Revenge Of The Sith, The Clone Wars focuses on the battles that transformed the galaxy from a place where the few Jedi Knights maintained law and order to when the Clone Troopers became the military force that kept thousands of star systems in line. We get it.

My problem - going into The Clone Wars movie - was that far too much was already known. After all, Count Dooku (and why isn't he being called Darth Tyrannus - it's not like he's hiding he's a Sith anymore!) gets away, any new Sith brought in won't survive and any new Jedi fortunate enough to survive the series won't last through the mythos of Episode 3. In other words, there are no surprises for fans. But more specifically, the story has already been told . . . in an animated form! Shortly before Revenge Of The Sith was released, the Cartoon Network produced The Clone Wars (click here for Volume 1 review, click here for Volume 2 review). Prior to seeing The Clone Wars, my feeling was that there are far more interesting Star Wars movies to be made filling in far more vital missing links in the universe (for example, why didn't Yoda and Obi-Wan go back, set off an EMP to disable Darth Vader while he was still young and lurching and then take out Palpatine? I mean, c'mon! Twenty years to take out one geezer when the good guys know who he is and where he is is truly riding the edges of suspension of disbelief!).

Having now seen it . . . it is hard not to feel much the same way.

With the Clone Wars having begun with the Separatist Army being led by Count Dooku, the Jedi Knights begin to disperse throughout the galaxy with legions of Clone Troopers to try to stop them. Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi are assigned with young jedi Ahsoka Tano to secure a planet in the Outer Rim and recover Jabba The Hutt's infant son when he is kidnaped. While Obi-Wan attempts to figure out who is responsible for the kidnapping, as well as dealing with the Sith assassin Ventress, Anakin and Ahsoka battle droids to recover the baby Hutt.

Nothing being what it seems - of course - this is all part of the machinations of Dooku, who is determined to bring the Hutts over to the Separatist side by sowing distrust between the gangsters and the Jedi. And all that stands between Dooku and his success is Anakin Skywalker and his plucky new Padawan.

Never in a hundred years could someone have convinced me that on a night when I made a double feature of Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Pineapple Express I would find myself more entertained by the latter than the former. This is, however, precisely what happened tonight. I laughed at a few moments in the middle of Pineapple Express; I was almost homogeneously bored by The Clone Wars.

Fundamentally, the problem with this movie is with the animation. Okay, the problem with The Clone Wars is in the animation when one knows anything about the special effects to Star Wars Episodes 2 and/or 3. In The Clone Wars, the special effects are erratic and it is for this reason: so much of the prior installments were done using computer generated special effects that moments of the movie attempt - and realize - reality-quality special effects (most notably in certain space battle sequences) while others just seem . . . cartoonish. To make it clear, some of the special effects shots of giant starships in space were done in Revenge Of The Sith with computers to be as realistic as possible and they succeeded; The Clone Wars utilizes some of that technology and skill. Unfortunately, when focusing on characters, the animation is blockish and entirely animated in a way that looks like it was conceived by a computer.

The thing is, there is no need for the poor animation quality or even a movie that appears animated at all. Fans of the Star Wars franchise have a lot of information readily available to them, little facts like that there were no Clone Trooper armor sets made for filming. In Episodes 2 and 3, all of the Clone Troopers, Battle Droids, Super Battle Droids, and larger ships and droids were all created using computer generated special effects. Those characters melded seamlessly with live-actors portraying the Jedi characters. What fans also know is that there were digital doubles for many of the principle characters: Obi-Wan Kenobi and Count Dooku were both rendered as CGI characters in important sequences in Episode 2. So, why, then the bother of an animated movie that appears animated? George Lucas and director Dave Filoni had the chance to create a truly groundbreaking film by making an apparent live-action film with all animated characters . . . who looked like they had been filmed. Instead, they went for a pointless, obviously animated movie that has moments of realism that tear the viewer out of the film-watching experience.

All of this griping on style matters is an attempt to avoid the substantial problems with the lack of substance to The Clone Wars. First, the plot has moments where is borders on clever or what would be clever were it not something we have already seen before. We get that the Sith are sneaky individuals and we know that Darth Sidious is manipulating Dooku to manipulate Jabba in the hopes of destroying the Republic. So when various characters explain the rapidly unraveling plot, the exposition feels both unnecessary and like a complete overstatement. The only people who are not likely to see the plot a mile off are children.

Sadly, that appears to be who The Clone Wars is geared toward. After all, the ridiculous character conflict between Anakin Skywalker and his padawan, Ahsoka, is pointless, juvenile and makes no sense from the perspective of any character who is supposed to be a Jedi in training. Ahsoka has no respect for her elders and the film is further insulting to anyone who loves the Star Wars films by taking a full hour before even paying lip service to the Force. The Force is mentioned twice in the movie and it is only applied in a violent fashion to further combat or as a convenience, as when Obi-Wan uses it to move something near him to sit on. The rest of the time, it is solely in conflict that the Force rears its powerful head.

Devoid of philosophy or originality in plot, one might at least hope for some decent character development or innovative voice performances. Instead, we get neither. After an hour of battles between lightsaber wielding Jedi and disposable droids, there are fractured bits of dialogue that do not even sound like the correct character speaking. Honestly, there is a moment when Anakin delivers a set of lines opposite Obi-Wan and it sounds like all three lines are spoken by different people! But none of the characters truly develop.

Ahsoka is a pretty generic Lucas whiny woman (think how Leia nags and Padme defers). She is more of a thorn in Anakin's side than anything else . . . but of course, for all of her annoying qualities, she happens to be right about a great many things. Obi-Wan and Anakin do not develop, merely rehash their past triumphs and the new to the big screen Sith, Asajj Ventress enters unexplained and contradictory. Ventress works just fine as Dooku's Sith apprentice up until the moment that she and Dooku share a scene with Sidious (didn't they watch "Episode 1?!").

Perhaps the terrible lack of development for the characters was why so few Star Wars actors did voice work for this movie. For sure, Hayden Christensen, Ewan McGregor and Natalie Portman might have taken some serious arm-twisting to come back; they are serious, busy actors. But Temuera Morrison and Frank Oz (the Clone Troopers and Yoda, respectively) would have seemed like easy-ins for the roles their characters had. Morrison, in fact, seems like he was available, based on his IMDB page . . .

But in the end, it is hard to blame them. This is a movie that attempts to wow the viewer with big battles, as if to show off what great computer animation can do these days. Instead, it falls incredible short because we have all seen better, lifelike computer animation . . . involving exactly these scenarios and characters. This is a devolution of effects which fails to mask a recycled plot, a terrible lack of character development and an utterly uninspired movie experience.

On DVD, The Clone Wars appears with three featurettes on the making of the film and providing the voices for the movie. There are four deletes scenes which add nothing impressive to the movie and the trailers. As well, there are the web-documentaries on the second disc and a commentary track on the feature, though director Dave Filoni has no inspiring reason that this movie had to be made.

If there were ever a Star Wars movie to avoid watching, this is it.

For other cinematic works in the Star Wars franchise, please check out my reviews of:
The Phantom Menace
A New Hope
The Empire Strikes Back
Return Of The Jedi


For other movie reviews, please check out my index page!

© 2010, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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