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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


This review pertains to the theatrical release of the film. A review of the DVD and its bonus features can be found below.

If you're reading this review, then there are some things you should know about me. I throw my trash away in a garbage can that looks like R2-D2. I have a life-size statue of Yoda in my home. I own a replica of a lightsaber that illuminates and makes whooshing sounds when you swing it. When you enter my home theater, you are greeted by a six-foot cardboard cutout of Mace Windu. I play Star Wars videogames, have at least a half dozen Star Wars T-shirts, and kept every Star Wars toy I ever bought as a kid.

My reason for telling you this is simple: watching the computer-animated Star Wars: The Clone Wars, I felt a most unusual mixture of delight and regret, and I think my fixation on George Lucas's billion dollar property will help explain both feelings.

The film is based on a Cartoon Network series that was done in traditional hand-drawn animation, and it's also the precursor for a new show on the same network which debuts this fall. The original show was intentionally light on plot, with each of its extremely short installments focusing on a particular battle or skirmish in the Clone Wars, which are referenced frequently in the Star Wars pictures.

As such, I didn't expect a lot of plot from this movie, and I didn't get it. Jabba the Hutt's infant son has been kidnapped, and he turns to the Jedi for help. (Okay, first of all - Jabba the Hutt procreated? Ewww.) Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi believe that if they can rescue the "Hutt-let," it might be enough to persuade Jabba to allow the Grand Army of the Republic to move through some territory that he controls. However, the evil Count Dooku has manipulated the situation to make it appear as though the Jedi are responsible for the kidnapping. As the search for the missing child is carried out, Anakin is also charged with training his new padawan - a pouty, tempestuous young pre-teen named Ahsoka, who wears a miniskirt, a tube top, and knee-high boots. It's like someone dropped Lindsay Lohan off in the middle of Coruscant.

Yes, Ahsoka is the first in a series of Clone Wars elements that made me say, What the hell? Here's a character who is so annoying and out-of-place that it makes one yearn for the comparative charm of Jar Jar Binks. She has a cringe-inducing tendency to refer to Anakin Skywalker as "Sky Guy" and R2-D2 as "Artooey." The baby Hutt, who Ahsoka dubs "Stinky," is another WTH? element. So is Jabba's uncle, Ziro the Hutt, who dresses and talks exactly like Truman Capote. That is not a misprint. I've always defended George Lucas (who is only a producer here but nevertheless puts his stamp of approval on everything). I've maintained that Episodes 1-3 almost completely measure up to Episodes 4-6. I've held the position that Hayden Christensen gave an appropriate and effective performance in the two most recent installments. I've pointed out that while the newer trilogy had clunky dialogue, so did the original trilogy. And it was on purpose! I cannot, however, defend any of these bizarre new elements, which seem to be directly at odds with what Star Wars has always stood for in the minds of its fans. We want the bravado of Han Solo, or the menace of Boba Fett, not a whiney teen girl and a drooling Hutt baby.

The problem, as perhaps you can tell, is that The Clone Wars is aimed at kids. Very young kids. Like summer's earlier Speed Racer, this movie may have committed commercial suicide by shooting for a younger target audience. Lucas has long clung to the notion that Star Wars was always a kids' movie anyway. Perhaps, but one of the qualities that made it work so masterfully was that it was filled with dense storytelling that didn't condescend to children. The Clone Wars, in contrast, has incredibly simple plotting that wouldn't go over the head of anyone older than five, in addition to humor that is occasionally immature (e.g. "Sky Guy"). Hardcore fans who are hoping for an animated feature that fills in some of the gaps between Episodes 2 and 3 will be mighty disappointed by just how kiddie-ish this picture is.

I have now told you the stuff I hated about The Clone Wars. Thankfully, there were things that I really liked about it as well, and those things mitigate the damage to a degree. The primary thing I dug was the animation. Using 3-D computer animation to create new chapters in the Star Wars saga is, to me, a great idea. We all know Lucas will probably never get around to making Episodes 7-9, so this is a nice way to go. It gives us more Star Wars, without having to take on the pressure of "topping" the earlier films.

And as an animated feature, The Clone Wars looks phenomenal. Some may take issue with the heavily stylized design of the humans (they look like wooden toys come to life) but I found it all gorgeous. The recreation of beloved characters like Yoda, the Jawas, and the Stormtroopers is lots of fun. In that sense, The Clone Wars captures the eye candy vibe that was always a key component of Star Wars. Even when certain factors weren't working for me, I was totally enthralled by the visual style of the movie. As far as I'm concerned, this thing is seriously cool to look at. The action scenes are also well done (although, again, the stuff in the live action movies is better). Action generally takes precedence over story here, so that means there's a constant stream of clever, well-executed adventure going on.

On that note, I'm going to be brutally honest. This stuff works for me no matter what, and it's the reason why I feel some affection toward The Clone Wars despite the inclusion of those WTH? elements. I'm a sucker for whooshing lighsabers, Stormtroopers firing lasers, Imperial fighters roaring through space, the very sight of Yoda, etc. I've been obsessed with Star Wars for 30 years. I eat, sleep, and breathe it. I'd still like to see a more grown-up computer-animated depiction of this potentially interesting sub-story, but there were enough imaginatively-rendered versions of the stuff I love to hold my attention.

In the end, I feel about The Clone Wars the same way I feel about the many Star Wars novels that flood the shelves of bookstores. I pick one of them up to read every once in a while. None of them ever strike me as being particularly good, yet I relish the chance to submerse myself in this world once again. The Clone Wars is no doubt flawed. It's aimed too much at young kids, occasionally even denting the integrity of the franchise in the process. It is also an ambitious attempt to re-imagine well-known characters and scenarios in an animated format. The ambition works, the childishness does not.

Afterthought: I think the whole enterprise would have seemed less disappointing had it been either A.) a straight-to-DVD release; or B.) a made-for-Cartoon Network movie. Putting it up on the big screen - where so many of us have such strong memories of being transformed by the Star Wars saga - feels unfair. I plan to watch the new show when it debuts this fall, and I have a feeling that, on TV, the material that doesn't work in the movie will somehow seem less jarring on a smaller screen.

( 1/2 out of four)

DVD Features:

Star Wars: The Clone Wars will be available on DVD in widescreen format starting November 11th. You can purchase it in a movie-only edition or in a 2-disc special edition loaded with bonus features. A Blu-Ray version is available as well. All versions feature running audio commentary from the key creative team behind the project. The supplementary features on the special edition offer a wide variety of material.

In "The Clone Wars: The Untold Stories," George Lucas appears briefly to talk about how the wars were only peripherally mentioned in the series, and how he recognized the opportunity to tell many more Star Wars stories by finally exploring them. The 30-minute feature has director Dave Filoni and a few others essentially breaking down the TV series episode by episode, showing how they sought to bring Lucas' edit to reality. It appears that they have some intriguing plots lined up.

"The Voices of The Clone Wars" is a behind-the-scenes look at the recording process where actors give voice to the characters. It's a pretty interesting process, as most of the actors physically perform at the same time that they vocally perform (it helps them "get into it" a little more). We also discover that a few actors do multiple roles. At about nine minutes, this segment is fun and informative.

"A New Score - Scoring Star Wars: The Clone Wars" is a highly entertaining look at the music. Composer Kevin Kiner had to meld the original John Williams themes with his own original compositions to create something new. This in-depth feature has Kiner talking about the decision to make the score percussion-heavy. He also reveals that he used a different style of music for each planet in the film so as to help create their "native sounds." We additionally get to see a 90-piece orchestra recording the music in Prague. This was my favorite bonus feature in the set.

Four deleted scenes are also found on the DVD, the best of which finds Anakin and Ahsoka battling Asaaj Ventress in a Rancor Pit. It exemplifies what the series does best: combining stunning animation with cool action sequences. There's also a confrontation between Anakin and some battle droids on a landing platform. All in all, the deleted scenes are pretty good and could have stayed in the film. Presumably they were only cut for time.

Six webisodes, each running under four minutes, focus on crucial aspects of this new version of Star Wars, including the desire to bring epic battles to the small screen, the creation of Ahsoka as a new character in the franchise, and how the creators (under guidance from Lucas) tried to give each of the clones his own bit of uniqueness. The best of these webisodes focuses on the villains. In order to create more stories, they decided to give larger roles to baddies who were only on the sidelines in the films, such as Asaaj Ventress.

Lastly, you will find a photo gallery consisting of 43 production sketches, as well as two theatrical trailers and a preview of some new Clone Wars videogames hitting the Nintendo Wii and DS this fall.

I've been watching the "Clone Wars" series on the Cartoon Network, and I have to say that this iteration of Star Wars definitely feels more suited to television. The show has been good so far, capitalizing on the best parts of the movie and downplaying some of the flaws (i.e. Ahsoka is not nearly as annoying on the tube as she seemed on the big screen). For that reason, the film feels like a natural on DVD. While I had some mixed feelings about The Clone Wars theatrically, I do think the DVD is a necessary addition to the collection of any serious Star Wars fan. It's not a perfect movie by any means, but when taken as one part of a larger project that spans both the big and small screens, the film is certainly a fascinating ingredient in the Star Wars universe.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars is rated PG for sci-fi action violence throughout, brief language and momentary smoking. The running time is 1 hour and 36 minutes.

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