by Evan Hernandez
[Note from the Editor: after a decade and a half of pretending that the Star Wars franchise ended in 1983, fans are excited again. But while we all salivate over the teaser for J.J. Abrams’ forthcoming series revival, friend of The Curiograph Evan Hernandez is discussing the animated series that might just legitimize the folly of the prequels. PD]
I love Star Wars, but I never thought I would be able to enjoy the story of Anakin Skywalker. Hayden Christensen’s portrayal of him (perhaps further sabotaged by George Lucas) in the prequels was so broken in the second and third film that I wrote off that character entirely. Darth Vader had nothing at all to do with the whiny kid who just wanted his way all the time. The description of a wise and brilliant warrior, and very dear friend, as given by Obi-Wan in A New Hope, just doesn't fit with this portrayal at all.
Then I watched Star Wars: The Clone Wars, an animated series produced by LucasFilm and directed by Dave Filoni that aired from 2008 until last year; first on Cartoon Network, then a final season on Netflix. It fleshes out the events between Episodes 2 and 3, and for the first time Anakin became real for me. The new character design gives him size and presence. The voice actor, Matt Lanter, gives the young jedi maturity and gravitas. The television medium gives him a range of experiences and challenges that brings life to his relationship with Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Somehow a Saturday morning cartoon broke the bounds of its genre, bringing genuine character development to roles rendered flat by multimillion dollar feature films. That is part of the incredible feat of The Clone Wars; they redeem the often-wasted characters from the prequels, reestablish the emotional depth of the Star Wars universe and transcend the limits of what cartoons are supposed to accomplish. Anakin is only the tip of the iceberg. Obi-Wan (James Arnold Taylor) shows heart and vulnerability with an inevitably tragic love story; going back to watch the original trilogy, I feel a new sense of connection to "Old Ben" that the prequels didn't give me. Even Yoda (Tom Kane) learns and grows as he glimpses the true darkness behind the war he is fighting. This is a prequel as it should be, showing us the weakness and hopes of characters we see only in their final stages in the original trilogy.
The animation is distinctly stylized, but gorgeous: imaginative character designs, new ships, epic battles in space, underwater, or on brilliantly imagined landscapes. And the effects only get better as the show goes on.
The animation helps keep the world rooted as well. Since everything is animated there is none of the jarring “uncanny valley” bullshit CGI of the live-action films. You can lose yourself in this animated world, which stays true to its own rules and logic.
After the first season there are few, if any, single episode arcs. Everything takes place in a series of "to be continued" arcs of 3-5 episodes that allow the exploration of fairly complicated stories and ideas. Streaming the show now you can experience the arcs intact, like mid-length features instead of 25-minute episodes. And in these adventures we meet a wide range of new characters who fit the Star Wars universe perfectly: space pirates, force-wielding witches, and even students assembling their first lightsabers. The Wookie Padawan makes one with a wooden handle, which I geeked out about.
One of the most powerful elements of the show is the expanded use of the clones. While all of them look identical, each clone has his own distinctive hairstyle, tattoos, or armor customizations to give a sense of their personality. Eventually we are introduced to a particular batch of clone recruits whose stories we continue to follow. Sometimes to the bitter end. (The body count in this "children's" show is remarkably high!) Seeing these clones discover the dark secrets of the Republic, and make dangerous choices as a result, lends itself to some chilling, even tragic story arcs.
Some new characters, including a host of Jedi we've only glimpsed before, make welcome additions. Two new villains, Asajj Ventress (Nika Futterman) and Cad Bane (Corey Burton) are now some of my favorite characters in the Star Wars canon. Both of them are used to reveal dramatic weaknesses in the Jedi that are often passed over in the films.
By far, the most essential character addition is Ahsoka Tano (Ashley Eckstein). She is the female Jedi so many of us have been longing for. Brave, intelligent, independent, filled with empathy and wielding two green lightsabers with bad-ass, ninja fury – hers is the true journey of the show, and she’s the only Jedi that noticeably ages, both in physical appearance and maturity. She becomes so central to the history of the Star Wars universe that by the time she meets Chewbacca in a multi-episode cameo I felt the same kind of nostalgic satisfaction as if Obi-Wan had met him instead.
The Clone Wars has weaknesses, of course, especially in the first season. Anakin's padawan, Ahsoka Tano starts out with a whininess reminiscent of the live action version of her teacher. Episodes centered around Jar Jar, C-3PO, or Padme prove a little too childish and preachy for my tastes; overindulging on lame slapstick and cloying morals. Though these flaws also tend to work themselves out in later seasons. Even Jar Jar (Ahmed Best) has a clever story arc in the final season that pairs him with Mace Windu (Terrence C. Carson) and gives both characters a depth of character that the prequels denied them.
While the whole series is worth watching, the final two seasons are tightly written and truly cinematic in scope; they bring the story to a tantalizing conclusion in preparation for Episode III: Revenge of the Sith and the original trilogy beyond. By Season 5, a change occurs in the design of the clone uniforms that brings them an essential step closer to looking like Storm Troopers. The result is an eerie sense of foreshadowing and malevolence. The soon-to-be Emperor (Ian Abercrombie) also gets a long-anticipated moment in the spotlight: the Imperial March plays as he brings a pitiable end to two opponents you would never have otherwise thought to feel pity for. There also are two mystery stories, centered on Ahsoka and the clone named Fives, which are lightly reminiscent of film noir and the Bourne series.
There is only so much depth that an animated television show can bring to the table. Cartoons are, after all, the undisputed domain of product placement, but The Clone Wars makes an effort to transcend its genre and give the Star Wars mythos a worthy home. Star Wars is no longer just for the silver screen, just as Star Trek is no longer just for the living room. And after The Clone Wars, the way we view the potential of cartoons should never be the same.