The image of the Star Destroyer in a trailer for the 2015 “The Force Awakens” inspired curiosity in animator Genndy Tartakovsky, not just for the more universal wonder–the glimpse relics in the old movies inspired worldwide hype–but something more personal. It reminded him of the Star Destroyers in his own 2003 animated series, “The Clone Wars.”
If there is proof that a creative property can be entrusted in the hands of an another artist (as oppose to its own creator) and produce marvelous results, the 2003 Clone Wars microseries is one of them. The jokes that this mircoseries is infinitely preferred over George Lucas live-action prequels are not just a punchline, but a candid affirmation. What was designed as supplementary fodder to the movie canon, the lead-up to the 2005 “Revenge of the Sith,” ended up having its own self-contained charm.
Despite the rumor that George Lucas was envious of how good the series was, he did pushed for more episodes, extending the series longevity into a short third season (but with episodes 12 minutes each as oppose to 3 minutes per episode in the early seasons). While the series earned acclaim and Emmy wins, it would slip into the shadows of other Star Wars properties.
Make a fine note that George Lucas is credited as Writer for every episode and handed Genndy the plot outline, but it’s Genndy who lorded over the project as Director. It was George who conceived General Grevious but handed the character execution to Genndy’s team. As a result, the animation gave more leeway to elevate the robotic psychics of Grevious, which pales in comparison to his CGI appearance in “Revenge of the Sith”–granted, the finale episode supplements an in-universe explanation why Grevious isn’t as powerful in the film. The action sequences are “Star Wars, Accelerated,” and have a more natural velocity in movement than in the live-action big screen.
The Star Wars universe was always about depicting an inhuman physics in the nature of aliens and the Jedi, fueled by the invisible matter known as The Force. So traditional animation can appropriately illustrate the inspired Jedi physics in the nature of animation and make the characters’ jump seem like believable flight. Clone Wars succeeds in its stylization with characters drawn in harsh solid-lines. Some character designs might throw off some viewers, but they are adjustable to the eye once the characters are in action.
The story, divided into 25 chapters, serves fragments of the wider plot. The premise, as fans know, takes place right after “Attack of the Clones” in the wake of Jedi-apprentice Anakin’s secret marriage to Senator Padme (Grey DeLisle) and the war between the Republic and the Sith army. Chancellor Palpatine (Nick Jameson) of the Republic requests for the promotion of young Anakin Skywalker (Mat Lucas) in battle. Although the Jedi Council, including Anakin’s master Obi-Wan (James Arnold Taylor), is wary of letting the rash Anakin advance, they are overruled by Palpatine’s decision. As Anakin begin to lead the ranks, other Jedis also lead battles elsewhere with their clone troops.
Tartakovsky brings in the “Silence is Golden” technique that made his “Samurai Jack” a masterpiece. The stormtroopers gestures their battle strategy as they advance to their goals. Jedi stare into the setting and wonder what threats lie around the corner. When the battle emerges, noise is dominated by the battery of war–the whirl of lightsabers, the showering beams of lasers, metallic crushing–rather than words. It’s telling that the sparsity of George Lucasian dialogue works to the cartoon’s advantage.
As Tartakovsky was cautioned into not overplaying the famous movie leads, he set the spotlight on other Jedis, some who served as mere background cameos and decoration in the live-action movies. There’s even one chapter focused on the antagonists with Count Dooku (voiced by Corey Burton who belts down Christopher Lee’s sophisticated gruffness) and a certified Sith-wannabe Asajj (Grey DeLisle), who is the perfect distorted mirror to Anakin’s inner ambitions and tranquil fury.
It’s unfortunate that the spotlight on the “supporting characters” is mostly to stage action setpieces, rather than inducing an emotion core like in “Samurai Jack” where the audience is familiar with Jack long enough to care for his sake and goals. But perhaps it’s not needed to know each Jedi personally. It’s good enough to enjoy them as breathing legends, figures in Saturday morning cartoon. But the flickers of character moments, such as Ki-Adi-Mundi’s motivational speech and Shaak Ti’s resolve of sacrifice, makes me wish for more time with them. While I welcome the focus on the other Jedi, I also do bemoan that the series was too severely limited by its time frame to really get to know these characters, even the stormtroopers, who have the limelight in Chapter 3.
My favorite moment occurs in Chapter 12, which opens on a young voiceless farm lad scurrying out to witnesses a battle from afar. Mace Windu is leading this battle but loses his lightsaber. But with sheer use of his bare hands and the Force, he demolishes the entire robotic army. The normally stoic Jedi allows himself to smile at the boy, who happily offers the Jedi a drink from his water canteen. And the Jedi rushes off to yet another battle. The young boy’s awestruck reaction is a mirror of the viewer’s reaction–It’s like a comic fan encountering Superman face-to-face.
Although Season 1 and 2 have these inspired moments, one does have to wait through action fest to get to a consistent emotional core. The meat of that core arrives late into the Season 3 (where the animators were permitted more running time for each episode), concerning the dynamic between Anakin and Obi-Wan.
Anakin is growing up and apart from Obi-Wan, his father-figure. Anakin, eager to grow out of the padawan-apprentice state, using disobedience as an expression of his ambition. As far as he knows, his rage-fueled attacks have more productive results, as proven by a dazzling battle sequence with the Sith wannabe Asajj. The hard-lines animations does wonders for his facial performance, something to be desired in Hayden Christensen’s take, whenever Anakin is holding back his fury. And there’s a visionary scene in a cave I am tempted to spoil by gushing about it, even if it’s a prophetic outcome all Star Wars fans know about, but it took only three minutes to delve into Anakin’s forthcoming tragedy than it did in the hours of the prequels films. Growing up too fast appeared to be a factor in Anakin’s hubris.
Although I have yet to fully see its six-season long CGI 3-D spiritual successor, I can only hope it utilizes the privilege of its length to expand on characters and plot points. I feel, however, from the previews and commercials, that the character movement are tethered to restraining realism of CGI. Star Wars would spawn many extended canons (not including the somewhat erased Expanded Universe post-Return of the Jedi) in the medium of comics and other CGI shows. But I’ll always champion Tartakovsky’s rendition as one of the best visual extensions of the Star Wars mythos.
Despite the tragic foregone conclusion that will befall Order 66 in “Revenge of the Sith,” it’s still exhilarating to witness the Jedi flashes of victory. Like the farm boy, we cannot ever lose the image of one jedi single-handedly winning a battle, even if he’s fated to not survive the endgame of the war.