If you are a fan of animation, chances are you’ve heard of Genndy Tartakovsky; the creator of Dexter’s Laboratory and Samurai Jack. Back in the early 2000s it was hard to ignore Russian-American animator, director and producer. The sublime, anime-inspired Samurai Jack had won many awards and had established Tartakovsky as the hot-shot of western animation. In the aftermath of Attack of the Clones, the Expanded Universe was ready to tackle the conflict which had, up until that point, been mentioned only in passing. George Lucas was eager to commission a series of one-minute shorts set during the Clone Wars that would double as promotional material for Revenge of the Sith. Impressed by his work on Samurai Jack, Lucas approached Tartakovsky about the project. Tartakovsky was only interested in doing the show if they could be expanded to 3-5 minutes as any less would amount to little more than a glorified commercial. Lucas agreed and production began on Star Wars: Clone Wars.
Debuting simultaneous online and as the lead into Cartoon Network’s Friday afternoon programming, Clone Wars was a vastly different take on the universe that Lucas built. Taking heavy cues from his work on Samurai Jack, the series featured very little dialogue. It was a visual piece which relied on the strength of its writing, art and music cues to tell its story. Emotions were expressed through the characters themselves and subtle changes in lighting and shading. In a single scene in the opening episode, Tartakovsky managed to capture the love between Padmé and Anakin better than Lucas himself had done in an entire motion picture. As Anakin leaves for war, both are unsure about when or if they’ll see each other again. No dialogue is exchanged, no clumsy lines about sand, the animation tells us everything we need to know. Clone Wars trusted its audience, it didn’t talk down to it and that is why is succeeded.
Clone Wars was an unashamedly an action-show, but one with a deep-story at is core. Many of the early episodes act as a whistle-stop tour of the galaxy, giving insights into the many campaigns of the war. Whether it be Kit Fisto’s underwater liberation of Calmari, Mace Windu’s Kung-Fu inspired defense of Dantooine or Yoda’s siege of an ancient Jedi temple each gave a unique peak into the action on all fronts . Some episodes featured nothing but Clone Troopers, demonstrating the combat efficiency of the sons of Jango Fett. The elite ARC-Troopers operate akin to army rangers and their military tactics are as impressive as the animation that accompanies them. The audience is convinced that these are the ultimate fighting force and it makes it more believable that they would be able to eradicate the Jedi when Order 66 is given. excelled at world-building and marked the first time that the audience was able to see a lightsaber being constructed on-screen.
Later episodes in the first season would focus on establishing the Dark-Side acolyte; Asajj Ventress. Tasked by Count Dooku to kill Anakin Skywalker, Ventress’ dogfight and duel serve not only as the young Jedi’s ascension to knighthood, but as one of the In a stunning scene set on Yavin IV, rains falls as they duel, with drops evaporating on their blades. It’s a scene straight out of a Kurasawa film with all the emotion and force of Luke’s duels with Vader in the Original Trilogy. It isn’t overly choreographed, but rather a blunt life or death battle. Words simply do not do it justice. Ventress, herself, isn’t given much in terms of a origin, but the audience is immediately drawn to her. She is already well-versed in the ways of the Force by the time she is introduced and her desire to viewed as a Sith hints an interesting back-story. The would-be Sith clearly as a gripe with the Jedi, describing them as corrupt and arrogant (which admitably they are) which only further intrigues us. She would go on to be fleshed out properly in other works, but if this was her only appearance it would be a memorable one.
The Ventress arc begins what would go on to become the focus of the show; Anakin’s fall to the Dark-Side. Attack of the Clones laid the foundation with his slaughter of the Tusken Raiders, but the brutality and impact of that action pervades throughout the micro-series. The ferocity with which he duels Ventress is later bolstered by an intriguing arc where Anakin helps free a people enslaved and experimented on by the Separatists. On the frozen tundra of Nelvaan, Anakin undergoes his trial of the spirit, the same trial his son; Luke, would face on Dagobah. Anakin is shown the abyss, shown glimpses of what he will become and in that moment, he blinks. Anakin’s turn is a more natural progression of his character, the logical conclusion to his arc, when placed in the context of this show. A spin-off shouldn’t just be something which shows us more adventures outside of the movies. Its something that should add to our viewing experience and provide sometime new.
Obi-Wan is more of a supporting character than one might expect. While he plays an important role in the first half of the series, his story-line is secondary to Anakin’s and is more focused on how he adapts to war. His development is two-fold. Firstly, its about him adjusting to his role as a general, something which the Jedi Order never prepared him for. This involves him learning to ingratiate himself in the army, even dawning Clone Trooper armour at one point, and serving as a shining example for his troop to follow. This leads him to a grueling battle with the regenerating bounty hunter; Durge which tests his skills as a warrior and as a leader. Secondly, Obi-Wan’s character arc focuses on the evolution of his relationship with his apprentice. The series progresses we really do feel that Anakin and Obi-Wan have moved past the awkward phase we found them in during Attack of the Clones. There is some animosity early on, but both soon learn that they need to trust each other. It culminates in Anakin being declared a full Jedi Knight and the two seeing each other as equals. It makes Obi-Wan’s heartbroken speech at the end of Revenge of the Sith all the more pointent. We truly do feel that the too saw themselves as brothers. Its also worth nothing that this marked the first time James Arnold Taylor would play Kenobi, a role he has played off and on again for over 13 years. Needless to say he does an exceptional job, with his interpretation of the character lying somewhere between Ewan McGregor and Sir Alec Guinness.
The most memorable part of the entire cartoon was, undoubtedly, the reveal of General Grievous. Nearly a full year before the release of Revenge of the Sith, fans were given a sneak peak into what sort of threat the villainous cyborg was likely to impose. As a fan who watch this when it originally aired, his introduction is harrowing. An entire battalion of the Grand Army of Republic decimated, only five Jedi remain, hidden in the remains of a gunship, as Battle Droids surround them on all sides. From outside a vile, mechanical voice tells them that though they are defeated they will at least be granted a warrior’s death. Grievous immediately invokes a sense of dread and fear, while at the same time a modicum of respect. His overconfidence is coupled with a sense of honour, which is inline with his tribal warrior back-story. The General Grievous present here is a far more fearsome foe than was portrayed in Revenge of the Sith. At first, its not clear if this is a droid or some kind of hybrid, but his power is unquestionable. Lucas’ choice to make him a coward was a misstep. In a way Lucas may be a genius, building up a character to be an unstoppable killing machine, but revealing that he is constantly running away from battles. The notion that Grievous’ power was in the legend and rumours that spread about him more so than his actual fighting prowess is interesting, but the version of Grievous presented in Clone Wars offers a lot in the way of development opportunities. Prima facie, the Separatists have a noble cause; independence from the Republic. It is natural that they would have honourable soldiers who believed in this cause. Exploring the plurality of war in such a context would have been vastly more interesting than simply labeling him a coward and killing him unceremoniously. Grievous had a lot of potential that was squandered in Revenge of the Sith. Clone Wars gives the character the respect that Lucas did not afford him.
Sadly, very few seem to remember Clone Wars. It’s legacy has been eclipsed by the six season juggernaut that succeeded it, the confusingly titled Star Wars: The Clone Wars. It is also seems to be have fallen victim to the great purge of the Disney reboot, cast aside as a mere legend. This is in spite of the fact that it was officially commissioned to act as the not only the lead into Revenge of the Sith, but to act as an animated version of that film’s opening crawl. It is astounding that it could just be thrown by the wayside, to the extent that it rarely talked about.The canon has lost something truly remarkably, something which contributed to the franchise is ways that few other projects dared to try. If you are a Star Wars fans in any capacity, you owe it yourself to watch this series. Clone Wars will always hold a special place in my heart, not only as one of the finest pieces of Star Wars story-telling, but as one of the greatest animated series ever created.~
Join us tomorrow as we take a look at NPR’s Star Wars Radio Play. In the meantime, why not have a look at yesterday’s article on Empire Jazz? May the Force be with you.