*½/**** Image A- Sound B+ Extras C+
screenplay by Henry Gilroy, Steven Melching, Scott Murphy
directed by Dave Filoni
by Bryant Frazer Anyone over the age of 12 will quickly detect the distinctly secondhand elements comprised by Star Wars: The Clone Wars, a journey into George Lucas's ever-dorkier galaxy far, far away that panders relentlessly to the tween demographic so prized by the Lucasfilm empire. This is clearly a Star Wars movie, borrowing design elements, stylistic tropes, and even specific camera angles and editorial strategies from the live-action films. But the kid-friendly strategies sink it--there has to be some mileage in dramatizing the heretofore un-chronicled adventures of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker, but there's a glibness to the execution that makes this cut-rate excursion among the least compelling hero's journeys in the Star Wars canon. Even the "Knights of the Old Republic" videogame is a more rewarding endeavour.
While youngsters might enjoy the imaginative production design and stylized characters, it's hard to imagine how rapt they'll be held by a storyline that's predicated on the sci-fi geopolitics that apparently occupied Jedi board meetings during the gap between Episodes II and III. As the film opens, the Jedi are working overtime to locate the kidnapped son of Jabba the Hutt. Yeah, that's right: The screenwriters have given the ruthless giant talking slug from Return of the Jedi a complicated backstory that involves a cute baby slug Jabba refers to, inexplicably, as "my little punky-muffin" as well as a scheming, effeminate uncle who talks like Truman Capote. Our heroes are kissing up to Jabba to gain political advantage against the separatist movement that will one day become the Galactic Empire. Anakin is exasperated by the presence of his new sidekick Ahsoka Tano, a sassy, blue-eyed padawan ("Don't call me youngling!") who insists on referring to her mentor as "Sky Guy." The arrival of a female counterpart to the saga's bad-ass male heroes would be heartening if it didn't feel, seven films in, like such an afterthought, or if she weren't quickly relegated to a stereotypical gender role, playing surrogate mommy to the farting, big-eyed Hutt baby.
The supposedly beloved main characters come off badly. Obi-wan (voiced by James Arnold Taylor) is portrayed as a smug dandy, and the perpetually glowering Anakin (Matt Lanter) is as uproariously petulant as ever (and, if you can imagine it, even more wooden in his CG incarnation than as performed by Hayden Christensen). When the levelheaded Amidala (Catherine Taber) shows up an hour into the film, she seems in some ways like the first adult batting for Team Jedi. This is a movie where the good guys' triumphs draw not on their wits but on the unremitting stupidity of their foes. It's unclear why the evil Count Dooku (voiced by Christopher Lee) and company would work so hard to ingratiate themselves to a gangster like Jabba rather than merely crushing him underfoot, or why a successful interstellar crimelord would be gullible enough to believe the line of guff they feed him. As for the various droids, it's hard to imagine something with the brain of a pocket calculator acting any dumber than the various bodyguards and robot armies depicted here. But the final insult is to the intelligence of the audience, who may not realize until the film's rushed, strangely perfunctory denouement that it has just paid good money to sit through what amounts to a glorified handful of episodes from an animated TV series now airing on Cartoon Network. Kids and Star Wars completists may get a kick out of this, but movie buffs will find it to be mighty thin gruel. (Samuel L. Jackson and Anthony Daniels cash some checks, too, but don't generate much goodwill.)
Visually, it's at least marginally seductive. Coloured in gorgeous soft pastels, this feels in some ways like a more organic rendering of the universe inside Lucas's head than any of the live-action incarnations. Yet a big part of the original movies' charm was that we sensed they had their creator's fingerprints all over them. Despite its groundbreaking motion-tracking visual-effects work, the first film was mostly a ramshackle space adventure that borrowed plot points from American westerns and Japanese samurai flicks and then staged them with unknown actors on not-terribly-expensive sets. Its audacity and can-do spirit were part of its charm for a generation of moviegoers. The sterile CG animation of Star Wars: The Clone Wars captures some of the house style but precious little of the Star Wars magic--the saga was, fundamentally, a product of its time, and while the one that launched the franchise hasn't aged so badly, glossy technology isn't so felicitous a match for its Buck Rogers brand of derring-do.
|Click for hi-res BD captures|
THE BLU-RAY DISC
That said, The Clone Wars certainly looks good on Blu-ray. Because the 'toons are computer-generated, there's no film grain and very little nuance to distract the eye from the bold, simple animation style. The feature is letterboxed to 2.35:1 and compressed for Blu-ray Disc using the VC-1 codec, and the movie stream takes up about 17.2 GB on disc. Colours are vibrant and the image every bit as detailed as these pictures demand. It also sounds pretty good, an enveloping Dolby 5.1 EX track (I listened to the 640 kbps core of the Dolby TrueHD option) generating audio front and centre, on the sides, and (this is the EX part) directly behind you, assuming you have the proper speaker configuration. The mix itself lacks that rip-roaring feature-film quality--a probable limitation of the production's low-budget origins--but it's a solid effort. In addition to the English TrueHD, there are 5.1 EX Dolby Digital tracks in English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese.
This edition of The Clone Wars includes the format-exclusive "A Creative Conversation," a picture-in-picture commentary running the length of the film that zooms out from the movie frame to drop in smaller video windows (see hi-res capture #3 above) featuring some of the key personnel (director Dave Filoni, editor Jason W.A. Tucker, producer Catherine Winder, and others) talking about the movie, behind-the-scenes footage, in-progress frames and designs, and even the odd scene from one of the live-action films to explain an allusion in the animation. It's amusing to listen to these guys go on and on about Star Wars mythology, demonstrating a mastery of the lingo that must come from a combination of years of fandom and time spent in the service of Lucas himself, conversation with whom about Star Wars-related matters must be a bit of a trip. It's not clear why this is exclusive to BD, since it makes no use of Blu-ray navigation or interactivity--in fact, it's encoded to disc as a standard-definition 480p video stream. There is a problem with the frame cadence that causes all the footage from The Clone Wars to stutter oddly, an apparent artifact of the conversion between film and video frame rates.
Sitting through the special features, you quickly realize that the purpose of this release is twofold: first, it functions as an extended commercial touting the new "Clone Wars" television series and all the ancillary revenues that come with it; and second, it gives everyone involved a chance to genuflect and kiss the ring of George Lucas himself, the Godfather of Skywalker Ranch. "The Clone Wars: The Untold Stories" is a 25-minute, 1080i HD commercial for the TV show that has Lucas and company going on about the relationship between the various live-action films--which Lucas calls "the Skywalker saga"--and the current animated spin-off. (I didn't see the hated Jar Jar Binks in the film, but sure enough he pops up in the series.) "The Voices of The Clone Wars" is a shorter (10 mins.), 1080i featurette on the voice acting that includes B-roll of many actors recording their roles for the movie and television show. It's the kind of lovefest you've seen on dozens of DVDs, with Filoni addressing the camera to give props to the performers. Next up is "A New Score" (11 mins.), a 1080i look at how composer Kevin Kiner followed in the shoes of John Williams; much orchestral footage (but only two-channel 192 kbps Dolby Digital audio) of action on the scoring stage in Prague intervenes, as well as some tidbits about the creative process as we see Lucas demanding ethnically-inflected "indigenous themes" for different planetary locales. (Scenes with Binks, apparently, are scored like Hindi musicals.)
Chewing up close to 21 minutes of disc time in 1080i HD, six "webisodes" consist of more gabbing from Filoni about the new series ("You're gonna see a lot of clones," he promises) in addition to glimpses of the animation process that are unseen elsewhere in the special features. I may as well admit that the nerd in me found the HD excerpts from Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back sort of thrilling, though I'd say the most interesting segments deal with the character design for Anakin and Count Dooku's female disciple, Ventress. Around eleven minutes of deleted scenes are offered in 480p only, which would be a disappointment if not for the fact that animated films so seldom give up deleted scenes at all--generally you don't render material at high quality until you're damned sure you're going to use it. The elisions look really good, but they're probably missing a render pass or two that would have added polish, and a few of the shots still bear burned-in codes and are therefore clearly unfinished. I'd tag "Rancor Pit" as a highlight but for the Shrek-level vomit gag that finishes it out.
The film's effective "Launch" trailer (2 mins.) is offered in 1080p/24 HD, as is a second trailer, "Dark" (2 mins.), that's less enticing despite its use of very distinctive John Williams themes from the original trilogy. A trailer for the Nintendo videogame tie-in (SD, 1 min.) is available just in case you'd like to spend money on that, too. The platter is rounded out by "The Hologram Memory Challenge," a Jabba's Palace-themed concentration game where you're rewarded for demonstrating your short-term memory prowess with clips from the exciting new Cartoon Network series "Star Wars: The Clone Wars". I played long enough to win one bonus scene that was maybe 20 or 30 seconds long. (Although it was encoded in HiDef, the picture stuttered as if only every second or third frame survived the transfer.) None of this extra material is especially compelling--it's testament, mainly, to Lucas's still-formidable cross-media marketing strategies--and the relentless sales pitch for the TV show will inspire buyer's remorse in some customers who may as well have held out for the inevitable super-duper boxed set. If nothing else, Lucas remains a master of repackaging. Originally published: December 29, 2008.