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Star Wars: The Clone Wars   B-

Warner Bros. Pictures / Lucasfilm

Year Released: 2008
MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Dave Filoni
Writers: Henry Gilroy, Steve Melching, Scott Murphy
Cast: Matt Lanter, Ashley Eckstein, James Arnold Taylor, Dee Bradley Baker, Tom Kane, Nika Futterman, Ian Abercombie, Anthony Daniels, Samuel L. Jackson, Christopher Lee.

Review by Rob Vaux

It's a little bit unsettling to see a Star Wars movie without hearing the 20th Century Fox fanfare to kick it off. So closely is the music identified with George Lucas' space saga that it might as well belong to John Williams rather than its composer Alfred Newman. So when The Clone Wars opens with the Warner Bros. logo and their usual rendition of "As Time Goes By," it lends a strange and unfamiliar air to the proceedings.

Star Wars is Star Wars, however, and some things never change. Whether that bodes well for your enjoyment of The Clone Wars depends entirely upon your disposition towards Episodes I-III. The same strengths are on display as well as the same indisputable flaws which drove many away from the series for good. Half full or half empty? I've always approached Star Wars from the optimistic side of the proceedings, and in that sense at least, The Clone Wars feels worthwhile.

To be sure, it's not strictly a big-screen endeavor. It basically acts as a pilot to the upcoming animated series, and though its narrative is self-contained, it holds the whiff of direct-to-DVD to it. That may explain its release as a Dog Days movie, tucked away in August where it can't compete with Lucas's other resurrected franchise. Both it and the series to follow recount the adventures of Anakin Skywalker (voiced by Matt Lanter) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (James Arnold Taylor) in the period between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. It doesn't bother setting anything up and we know full well where its drama will lead. The challenge for director Dave Filoni is to find an interesting story to tell within those confines.

Does he? Well, sort of. With the evil Count Dooku (Christopher Lee) on the offensive, the beleaguered Jedi Knights hope to form an alliance with the Hutts -- allowing Republic troops to travel through their systems safely. The deal threatens to collapse when Dooku kidnaps Jabba the Hutt's infant son, and Skywalker and Kenobi are dispatched to recover the little tyke in one piece. It's boilerplate cliffhanger stuff, spiced up with a bit of duplicitous treachery for good measure. Unfortunately, The Clone Wars concerns itself almost exclusively with dull specifics, which reduces the dialogue to a chamber of exposition horrors. The screenplay is as bad as anything Lucas has ever written in that regard, and the exceedingly wooden delivery of the cast doesn't help matters (though Lee perseveres nicely, as do Anthony Daniels and Samuel L. Jackson in the film's other high-end cameos).

A further disheartening development comes in the form of Ahsoka Tano (voiced by Ashley Eckstein), the supremely annoying Padwan learner assigned to Anakin. In fanboy terms, she's a Mary Sue -- a walking author surrogate who hogs undue screen time while pushing the series' established characters to the periphery. More importantly, she bugs. While her creators undoubtedly thought of her as a sassy embodiment of Jedi Girl Power, her too-cute nicknames for everyone and forced bickering with Anakin drag her dangerously close to Jar Jar Binks territory. (The good news is that she can fight better than Jar Jar. Also, she's not around in Revenge of the Sith, so we'll probably get to see her die eventually.)

Having said all that -- and without making excuses for any of it -- these are hardly new flaws for the Star Wars saga. And like the live-action films, The Clone Wars manages to deliver some compensatory assets as well. Its animation style reflects the exaggerated movements of the 2-D shorts from a few years ago, and though it can't quite match that series' energy, it still provides a distinct and appealing look. Filoni keeps the proceedings moving along briskly, shuttling between a number of fairly imaginative set pieces as Anakin and his friends fight their way to Jabba's kid. Empty spectacle it may be, but it remains enthusiastic and engaging spectacle nonetheless. The settings embody the wonder and grandeur of the Star Wars universe comfortably, and though the plot boils down to nothing more than a series of battles, said battles show enough interesting quirks to keep undemanding viewers amused.

Is it enough to recommend The Clone Wars? Probably. The visuals certainly make a decent case for the big-screen treatment, though audience members less willing to forgive the saga's shortcomings should wait for the DVD (if they don't skip it altogether). For those who know what to expect, it serves as a reasonable diversion: fast-paced and peppy, despite its noted flaws. For those who have given up on the series, there's nothing here that will entice you back. The Clone Wars is what it is -- what Star Wars has become, for better or for worse -- and while it won't blow anyone over, you can't say you weren't warned going in.

Review published 08.20.2008.

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