Friday, May 4, 2012

May the Fourth be with you – Begun The Clone War Has

Most fans of Star Wars abhor the words “Clone Wars” with a passion, picturing in their minds that horror of a CGI show that currently airs every week.  Although we all recognize that the latest representation of the wars is an inept, juvenile, and utterly lackluster catastrophe, few are aware that it was preceded by two other animated movies which were truly faithful to the spirit of George Lucas’ saga.  These films were made the old-fashioned way, by artists wielding pen and paper, with little computer assistance to guide the process.  These films offered character development and gripping storytelling in addition to exhilarating action sequences.  These films captured the appeal of their live-action relatives and delivered excellent animated entertainment which was helped, not hindered, by their different presentation.  If you enjoy Star Wars, you must consider these short movies necessary viewing. 

Star Wars: Clone Wars was released on Cartoon Network between 2003 and 2005.  The series is meant to serve as a bridge between the events of Episode 2 and Episode 3 by explaining the events that led to the opening of Revenge of the Sith: how Anakin advanced to Jedi knighthood, how General Grievous obatined his famous cough, and how Chancellor Palpatine is abducted by Separatist forces.  The first volume of Clone Wars compiles an almost ceaseless series of battles in which heroic Jedi and their fearless clone allies resist the combined power of Sith warriors, battle droids, and other adversaries.  This installment is without doubt lighter on story than the other, but the fight scenes are still fantastic.  The second volume continues right from the cliffhanger not-ending of the first; it further expounds the characters of Anakin and Palpatine while introducing us to one of Star Wars’ most intimidating villains: General Grievous.

The first volume pales in comparison to the second, mostly due to the format of its televised publication.  Neither of these 1-hour movies was shown all at once initially: rather, they were originally released in short episodes which, for the first and second seasons, clocked in at about 3-5 minutes each.  There was a perceived requirement that violence or other mayhem be inserted into every one of these episodes, so the action on the first DVD (which merely strings together all the episodes chronologically) is almost nonstop.  This hurts the narrative pace of the film, because every good story needs dialogue or at least breaks in the action to progress.  The incessant nature of the fighting also mitigates the impact it has on the viewers’ senses, which is a shame as the storyboarding and choreography of the battles is excellent.  If you examine any of the great, action-filled movies, such as The Dark Knight, Inception, Lord of the Rings, Sergio Leone’s classic westerns, The Matrix, or any of the Star Wars films, you will find that the directors of these works amplify the significance of the action exactly by lowering its frequency through breaks or pauses to advance the plot. In general, the fewer special effects, galactic duels, and gravity-defying hallway stunts we see, the more effective become those we do witness.  Clone Wars: Volume 1 is handicapped by the way it was produced and aired, for it lacks any significant gap between its periods of blaster battles, lightsaber duels, and starfighter chases.  Thus, frantic action sequences and massive battles which would normally be stunning are rendered repetitive and slightly dull.

This is not to insinuate that Clone Wars finds no time for story progression whatsoever.  These two hour-long installments arguably probe deeper into the motives and desires of their characters than the new TV series has done in 3 years, and they do so even in spite of their sparse dialogue.  The series as a whole places a special focus on Anakin Skywalker and his descent into the dark side.  We see the escalating tension between him and his master, Obi-wan, which manifests his rebellious craving to be liberated from all his superiors.  We also observe how Anakin frequently resorts to that all-corrupting passion of anger to dispatch his foes.  The narrative structure, character development, and overall storytelling are undeniably better in the second volume, however.  The final episodes were released in segments of 12 minutes each, which allowed plenty of time for action and plot progression.  The latter film is also the most relevant to the rest of the saga, for it excellently depicts the events that lead up to Episode 3, concluding nicely with Anakin and Obi-Wan flying in to rescue the devious Chancellor.

Depending on your taste, you will either consider the artwork to be childish or stylish.  For me, the quality of the art varies.  Some characters, including the clones, battle droids, and Jedi, have fantastic designs, but others, such as Padme, Shaak Ti, and that little would-be-Windu farm boy, are just too cute in appearance when juxtaposed with the rest of the galactic cast.  Whatever the case, they’re all far more appealing to the eyes than those ugly, CG wooden puppets from the new series, and the animation is better as well.  The clash of the lightsabers, the droid carnage, the massive space battles, and the billowing red smoke clouds from heavy weapon collisions are all exceptionally well drawn by the animators, who clearly know their craft.

The action, while excessive, is highly entertaining and even manages to surpass some of the movies’ sequences.  The extended attack on Coruscant which results in Palpatine’s capture is especially noteworthy.  The intensity of the scenes where the Jedi flee through the city from Grievous cannot be understated, because you are fully aware they’re being hunted and their efforts to evade the droid general  only “prolong the inevitable”.  Grievous is actually fairly frightening throughout the series, more so than he is in Revenge of the Sith; there are several “jump moments” centered around his unexpected appearance and annihilation of various unlucky victims.  The first volume closes with the cyborg overwhelming four Jedi warriors in brutal fashion, even hurling two through the air with only his feet.  This is not as kid-friendly as the new show.  Also great are the fights between Obi-Wan Kenobi and bounty hunter Durge, who is an almost indestructible menace.  Some of the feats executed in the films are wildly implausible (e.g. the Jedi's leaps, rapid deflection of blaster fire with lightsabers, hammering of fists through droids’ bodies, destruction of walking clone tanks with javelins, etc.), but they aren’t too glaringly bothersome since the cartoon format allows some stunts which the live-action movies did not.

In summary, Clone Wars is a little recognized but highly entertaining animated gem that excellently depicts the incidents which preceded Episode 3.  I give it 9 out of 10 midichlorians.

“Darker the coming storm grows.  I fear the dark cloud of the Sith shrouds us all.”

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