Once upon a time, in between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, George Lucas got Genndy Tartakovsky of Dexter’s Laboratory and Powerpuff Girls fame to produce a fun little cartoon series chronicling the events of the Clone Wars that unfolds between those two movies. The series was well-loved, which meant that Lucas had to jump on the bandwagon with a followup/retelling in horrible CGI (including a tie-in movie that everyone’s been glad to forget exists), and naturally whilst the awesome Tartakovsky Clone Wars animated series has been declared not-canon by Disney, the Lucas-helmed CGI’d The Clone Wars TV series has been endorsed as canon. I guess Disney either are contracturally forbidden from declaring certain things not-canon, or simply lack the spine to say “No, Lucas made a mistake, this thing he made is not canon and this thing he didn’t make is canon”.
Still, Disney can’t make our DVDs of the Clone Wars series disappear; so, how do they hold up over a decade later?
From the beginning, Tartakovsky does a fantastic job of capturing an aesthetic which is both distinctive to the cartoon series (though influenced by other Tartakovsky works like Samurai Jack) but at the same time captures the distinctive art deco style of the prequel movies – in fact, some shots take on this Tintin-esque ligne claire style, which makes a lot of sense. (If the live action movies are meant to be the descendants of old-time adventure serials, the cartoon can be descendants of European comic books of the era just as happily).
This, of course, created an instant pitfall for Lucas in adapting these for The Clone Wars, since the show simply swipes the cartoon’s original aesthetic and then applies it to CGI, despite the fact that what looks perfectly cromulent when hand drawn (or treated to look hand-drawn) looks awful in more obviously CG’d CGI.
In addition, whilst The Clone Wars is a full-fat television series, this originally unfolded in a series of tiny, bite-sized mini-episodes. This dictates a rapid pace, which is adeptly used by Tartakovsky – for instance, we get a near dialogue-free sequence early on demonstrating how the Republic’s clone army operate, and Tartakovsky is able to capture more complex character dynamics swiftly and easily – the tensions between Anakin and Obi-Wan, and between Anakin and Palpatine on one hand and the Jedi Council on the other due to Palpatine’s flattery of Anakin, are captured excellently. What’s particularly notable is how, with one brief, silent exchange early on, Tartakovsky is able to make the romance between Anakin and Padme seem more believable and emotionally genuine and charming than Lucas was able to for the entire span of Attack of the Clones.
In fact, it’s generally the visuals here which really excel, using a range of ideas not used in the prequels but fitting the general aesthetic of both and the wider Star Wars universe – like there’s a legion of black droid knights who ride on hoverbikes a bit like those from Return of the Jedi and whose designs are a bit reminiscent of one of the droid bounty hunters from Empire Strikes Back. There’s a great sequence on the Mon Calamari homeworld where Kit Fisto, Jedi of head tentacle fame, is sent to lead the Republic forces because he’s aquatic, and Tartakovsky slips in a neat little visual effect reminiscent of boiling water around his lightsaber when it’s underwater – sure, not a big deal compared to the epic visual feast onscreen, but the fact that small details like “what do lightsabers look like when they’re used underwater?” are considered is good.
The DVD release takes the original 3-5 minute minisodes and stitches them together as a 66 minute not-quite-a-movie. Because nothing ever, ever slows down, it feels like a cascade of crisis after crisis after crisis allowing no room for the Jedi or Republic to slow down and take stock, which is both appropriate to Star Wars (which always works best when the characters are stuck in the middle of a crisis situation and the audience doesn’t have time to think) and also is useful in setting up Revenge of the Sith. In the cartoon, precisely because everyone is entirely too busy to stop, think, and take stock, it’s much more believable for Anakin’s slide into the Dark Side and his increasing siding with Palpatine against the Jedi Council to go unnoticed; conversely, the slow-as-molasses pace of great stretches of the actual prequel movies is incongruous for what’s supposed to be a time of severe crisis for the Republic.
Volume 1 sees the introduction of badass character Asajj Ventress, a wannabe Sith who persuades Count Dooku to be her senpai and who is sent after Anakin and the other Jedi by Palpatine. The duel between her and Anakin is the aesthetic climax of the volume, and in particular the sheer rage he unleashes then is the best foreshadowing of his fall we get in anything set pre-Revenge of the Sith; the way the duel is presented is especially nice, with its climax involving Anakin using not his own lightsaber, but one of the matched pair of Sith lightsabers that Dooku had given Ventress, so you get him using a Vadery-red lightsaber underneath a vast blood-red moon and the whole thing is just delightful.
Thankfully, whilst the original treatment of her story here was rendered non-canon, she was a cool enough character to end up in The Clone Wars, so Ventress is at least canon, and it’s pretty undeniable that her treatment here is the iconic one which made her worthy of canonisation in the first place. Other fun character inclusions are Luminara and Barriss, adding substantial additional female representation to the Jedi Order compared to the prequel movies.
The conclusion of this Volume sets up the action of the next one nicely by introducing us to General Grievous, who’s the big bad for that Volume. If you’ve only seen Grievous in Revenge of the Sith, where he cut a rather uninspiring figure, you may find that hard to credit, but his introduction here does an excellent job of establishing him as a force to be reckoned with.
As far as the established characters go, they by and large come across well. Yoda’s fighting here somehow seems more Yoda-y than in the prequel movies – I think because the animation here, unlike there, manages to retain the sense that he is simultaneously old and frail but also powerful and swift, a paradox that the CGI in the prequels doesn’t capture, tending to instead present him as being so smooth and agile that his apparent age comes across as an outright illusion. Anakin gets in some even more impressive piloting than he does in the prequels, at last fully justifying Obi-Wan’s original description of him back in Star Wars as a really ace space dogfighter. (He also does the exact same thing he does in Attack of the Clones in assuming that the pilot of a vehicle he’s chasing is a dude, baselessly.)
The voice actors are by and large not the actual actors from the movies (Anthony Daniels as C-3PO being a major exception), but differing interpretations of the characters are fun. I find James Arnold Taylor’s better able to get across Obi-Wan’s cocky side better than Ewan MacGregor, with the result that I can see either interpretation growing into Alec Guinness.
The second season undergoes a gear shift – rather than being comprised of lots of short episodes, it’s made up of 5 12-minute ones, which allows for somewhat more involved plotlines. In fact, the second half of it is set against the backdrop of a single long-running battle – General Grievous’ invasion of Coruscant, which of course ends with his capture of Palpatine that kicks off the action of Revenge of the Sith.
That doesn’t mean it’s without interesting little asides here and there, however – Obi-Wan and Anakin end up aiding a group of blue cat people who look remarkably like the creatures from Avatar – or rather, since it came out 4 years after, the Na’vi look like the suspiciously similarly-named Nelvaanians here, right down to the uncomfortably direct riffing on Native American cultural aesthetics. In fact, since Anakin goes on a spiritual vision quest for them with initiatory undertones, I do have to wonder whether Cameron was more than a little inspired by this. (Perhaps the most fun bit there is a hallucination Anakin has, in which a cave painting comes to life and re-enacts a Nelvaanian legend which would seem to have more than a little relevance to his own destiny.)
You get to learn how C-3PO ended up gold-plated (he got it done to look nice as a Senator’s aide), and you get to see Yoda shoving troop transports about with the Force. You get to see Jedi Master Saesee Tiin (the most Satanic-looking of all the Jedi in the prequels) leading an absolutely badass boarding action. Perhaps most importantly, you get to see Mace Windu crushing Grievous’ chest with the Force, causing the cough which was affecting him during Revenge of the Sith – a plot point which nobody who hadn’t caught this show would have picked up on back when the movie came out.
The show does clash wildly with the events of Labyrinth of Evil, an Expanded Universe novel released at around the same time and which is also supposed to depict the events immediately preceding Revenge of the Sith; the last three episodes were developed based on early outlines for the novel which weren’t representative of the final version. That won’t bother anyone who isn’t especially keen on reconciling different bits of canon with each other, but if you have read Labyrinth of Evil (Why? Why would you do that to yourself? Are you alright?)
The different format for the season makes the whole endeavour feel somewhat less briskly refreshing and fun as the previous volume, and I think that Genndy and Lucas made the right call in ending Clone Wars here. Between the two volumes, you have about a movie’s worth of material nicely filling in the gap between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith – and setting up some strands for the latter which really help the movie put its best foot forward – and you can digest it in an afternoon, rather than the multiple binge-watch sessions you’d need to take in all of The Clone Wars.