After six movies that mixed live action with effects, with the CGI element coming increasingly to dominate in the later installments, the “Star Wars” feature franchise goes the full animation route with “The Clone Wars,” though there was an earlier television series of cartoon mini-episodes and another is forthcoming. Alas, it’s no improvement on George Lucas’ disappointing prequel trilogy of “The Phantom Menace,” “Attack of the Clones” and “Revenge of the Sith.”
The story, in fact, derives from that trio, elaborating on the conflict touched on in the second of those pictures pitting the renegade ex-Jedi Count Dooku (Christopher Lee), leader of a separatist movement, against the forces of the Republic, led by Jedi master Obi-Wan Kenobi (James Arnold Taylor) and his partner Anakin Skywalker (Matt Lanter). In particular it focuses on a mission assigned the two Jedi warriors to rescue the kidnapped son of pirate Jabba the Hutt (Kevin Michael Richardson) in order to secure an alliance with the bulbous fellow that will allow passage for Republican troops through his territory. It’s not a simple task, however, since Dooku is behind the entire business as a way of discrediting the Jedi in Jabba’s beady eyes and possesses a formidable henchwoman in Asajj Ventress (Nika Futterman). But the duo have female assistance of their own in Ahsoka Tano (Ashley Eckstein), Anakin’s newly-assigned Padawan, who may be green (though she’s actually sort of russet-colored) but proves a match for anyone.
Other old friends make token appearances—syntactically impaired Yoda (Tom Kane), two-faced Chancellor Palpatine (Ian Abercrombie), lovely Padme Amidala (Catherine Taber), stalwart Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson), and of course R2D2 and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels). And there’s one more important newcomer, Jabba’s uncle Ziro (Cory Burton), who’s played like a swishy slug with a Truman Capote voice.
Most of “The Clone Wars” is devoted to battles, some—like an opening struggle over a planet—large-scaled, and others—like the periodic light-sabre matches—one-on-one. They’re staged well enough, but get repetitious after awhile, especially because the animation isn’t all that impressive. It’s very good on monstrous figures, machines and futuristic backgrounds, but the character construction is stiff and wooden, opting for a stylized look that makes the humanoids appear more like marionettes than people. One can understand the aversion to go for greater photo-realism, but the result does diminish the impact of the protracted fight sequences.
Still, one doesn’t object much, because the more intimate intervening scenes are hobbled by paint-by-numbers characterization and consistently lame dialogue. The expository material is simply dull—Dooku intones far too often how “All is going according to plan” (a ridiculously convoluted plan, by the way), and those strategizing on the opposite side aren’t any more interesting—but it’s the supposedly humorous banter between Skywalker and Ahsoka that falls the flattest (she calls him Skyguy, he calls her Snip). Jabba has it easiest; he still speaks in his native dialect that has to be translated by a droid. Visual wit is similarly lacking—there’s one good moment, when Ziro shouts for everybody to run and we then see him oozing away in the background at a snail’s pace, but that about it. Otherwise the movie too often takes itself with the same tone of glum seriousness that marred the second “live-action” trilogy, even though it tries at some points (as in the opening battle) to mimic the silly serial approach of “A New Hope.” And the Huttling humor involving Anakin and Ahsoka’s attempts to protect Jabba’s infant, whom they christen Stinky, is both low-brow and sappy.
A glance at the above precis will reveal that most of the stars of the earlier pictures declined to lend their voices to this one. Only Lee, Jackson and Daniels participated, and the stand-ins prove pretty lackluster by comparison. But the sad fact is that even enthusiastic contributions from all the members of the original cast couldn’t have saved “The Clone Wars” from being anything more than a very minor, instantly forgettable footnote to one of the most popular cinematic series of all time.