Thursday, May 6, 2021

Second Look - Star Wars: Clone Wars (2003)

Note: This review contains spoilers for Star Wars: Clone Wars (2003) and the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy.

In the time between the releases of Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones and Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, a series of animated shorts was produced to help bridge the gap between them, under the title of Star Wars: Clone Wars, directed by Genndy Tartakovsky of Samurai Jack fame. The series was originally two Seasons of 10 episodes each, each lasting 3-5 minutes, however positive reception led George Lucas to commission a third Season consisting of five episodes lasting 12-15 minutes, with the intent of providing a direct lead-in to Revenge of the Sith. The series was later compiled into two hour-long features spread across two DVD volumes, the first compiling Chapters 1-20 and the second Chapters 21-25, however this would later be superseded by the 2008 series Star Wars: The Clone Wars, and even declared part of the non-canon Legends continuity by Disney following their purchase of Lucasfilm.

Having grown up watching Samurai Jack when this series first came out, and being caught up in the Prequel Trilogy hype at the time, I made sure to catch every episode as they came on, even the very short ones, and the strong animation and character writing never failed to disappoint. I even got the two DVDs as they came out, which has since made it much easier to re-watch the series over the years even without the context of the trilogy it was based on. Despite this series being officially designated non-canon material, I choose to pretend it still is for reasons that will become evident. While going through a re-evaluation of the Prequel Trilogy, however, I decided it would be good idea to revisit this series again in between Episode II and Episode III. While my general positive opinion of the series hasn’t changed much, I must admit I got a lot more out of it with the full context of the Prequel Trilogy’s events.

Volume One recounts various battles throughout the Clone Wars, though there are two overarching villains, the bounty hunter Durge and the Sith-wannabe assassin Asajj Ventress (Grey DeLisle). Each of these antagonists prove to be powerful in their own right, though the more interesting to me was Asajj Ventress since her motivations with the Sith were presented more clearly and her story arc mirrored that of Anakin Skywalker’s (Mat Lucas) in places, culminating in her even fighting Anakin and pushing him further down the slippery slope. As for Durge, while Obi-Wan Kenobi (James Arnold Taylor) barely manages to beat him, the aftermath of their battle heavily implies that he’s not quite down thanks to his regeneration ability, though this is never given a proper resolution in the series. I understand his fate was later depicted in the (Legends) Dark Horse comic books he first appeared in, though I was not invested enough in the Expanded Universe to bother seeking those out.

Volume Two continues where Volume One left off, providing context for things that would become important in Revenge of the Sith. Among these are Anakin's promotion to the rank of Jedi Knight, C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) acquiring his iconic gold plating, Anakin’s robot arm changing designs and the kidnapping of Chancellor Palpatine (Nick Jameson). The tail end of Chapter 25 even provides a direct transition into the very beginning of Revenge of the Sith.

The final shot of Clone Wars (2003) transitions directly into Episode III.

Watching this alongside the Prequels, it’s also interesting to observe how it furthers the development of both the story and the characters. In particular is Palpatine’s playing of both sides and his gradual rise in power, as well as the relationship between Anakin and Obi-Wan. The story across both Volumes is also told mostly visually, allowing some moments to have a lot more impact, such as a Chapter where Mace Windu (Terrence T.C. Carson) battles an army of Super Battle Droids, though there is still some dialogue to help move the plot forward.

One moment in particular that stood out to me more was during Anakin’s mission on the planet Nelvaan, substituting part of his rite of passage into a Jedi Knight. There, in a scene that feels straight out of Tartakovsky’s later series Primal, he has a vision depicted entirely through animated cave paintings, which seemingly depict either a Nelvaanian story of the “ghost hand” or what happened to the Nelvaanians prior to his arrival. After watching Episode I and Episode II beforehand, this scene had a lot more emotional impact when I realized it was actually an analog for Anakin’s story, including foreshadowing for Episode III, which made the closing shot of the shape of Darth Vader’s helmet more impactful and tragic as a result.

One thing I haven’t mentioned yet, and one reason I like this series so much, is that this is the first appearance of the character General Grievous. In this series, Grievous (John DiMaggio, Richard McGonagle) is characterized as a ruthless Jedi killer, and his relentlessness even in the face of danger, especially since he can take on five Jedi despite having no Force capabilities and can wield multiple lightsabers at once, makes him terrifying and something of a legitimate threat. While this is taken for granted in later depictions, including Revenge of the Sith, the first time he reveals that he actually has four arms was a total shocker to me when I first saw it and the timing of the moment preserves this as well. As a bonus, the ending of Volume Two also explains why Grievous has coughing fits in Revenge of the Sith.

General Greivous (John DiMaggio, Richard McGonagle, center)
makes a terrifying first impression in this series.

It is because of this characterization that I was ultimately a bit disappointed when Revenge of the Sith characterized him instead as more of a moustache-twirling villain, one who runs in the face of danger and can easily be overpowered by a single Jedi. While I know that the 2008 The Clone Wars cartoon has a fandom in its own right, the knowledge that it continues his Episode III interpretation is one reason I hesitate to watch it, as I much prefer his 2003 Clone Wars counterpart.

That said, the 2003 iteration of Grievous is involved in some funny moments of his own, such as when he’s briefly struggling to keep his balance while holding a third lightsaber in his foot and a bit where Shaak Ti (Grey DeLisle) ties his cape to a train to get him away from Palpatine. One moment, in which he has a noticeably stone-faced expression while talking to Darth Sidious, is also unintentionally funny when taken out of context.

One aspect of Clone Wars (2003) that I particularly like is the visual direction, as it filters the Star Wars universe through the art style of Samurai Jack. This allows for some strong designs and fluid movement, as well as some great use of shape language. For instance, when Grievous is wearing his cape out of combat, it covers his whole body and makes it either more like a square or shaped such that it emphasizes how much he towers over other characters such as Count Dooku (Corey Burton).

The series has some strong art direction.

While this series largely uses different voice actors than that of the main cast of the Prequels, their performances work to great effect, often sounding close to the actors. Among these, Mat Lucas and James Arnold Taylor bring out in Anakin and Obi-Wan, respectively, what felt missing from these characters in Episode II, plus their chemistry makes their occasional banter work well. Corey Burton, meanwhile, performs Count Dooku in a way that matches that of Christopher Lee, and both John DiMaggio and Richard McGonagle help make Grievous feel like the unstoppable powerhouse that he is, despite the former voice actor only voicing him in Chapter 20. Notably, Anthony Daniels reprises his role as C-3PO, the only Star Wars actor to do so, with his performance standing up with those of the actual films.

Though John Williams is not the main composer for this series, James L. Venable, who had previously worked on Samurai Jack, is along with Paul Dinletir. Fitting with much of Tartakovsky’s other work, the soundtrack is minimal except in places where it would have the most impact, and when it doesn’t recycle John Williams’ music, it captures the same spirit. One track I found especially memorable was when Grievous took on a handful of Jedi singlehandedly, as it highlighted his ruthless nature.

Nearly two decades after its initial airing, Star Wars: Clone Wars (2003) stands among Genndy Tartakovsky’s best works (alongside Samurai Jack and Primal). The stylistic animation holds up very well and the storytelling is some of the best in the Prequel Trilogy timeline, while also paying respect to the source material and providing a perfect setup for the events of Revenge of the Sith. Between the time this review was written and published, this series has miraculously made its way onto the Disney+ streaming service as part of the Star Wars Vintage collection, presented as on the DVDs, providing an alternative for those who either don't own said DVDs or can't find them at a good price.

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