Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Filoni and Gilroy are interviewed at TheForce.net

Over at TFN, Dave Filoni and Henry Gilroy answer questions from the fans. Really fantastic interview. Here's a notable highlight, for those interested in how "canonical" the series is.

TFN: How does your writing process work, and what role does George Lucas play in it?

Henry: On the first 13 episodes I wrote premises with Dave that went to George for approval, he made his notes, then we went through outline and script phase and George would see the scripts when Dave and I and Catherine were happy with them, he’d make notes and the scripts would go final.

On most shows, that would be the end of the writing process, but on Clone Wars, that’s about ‘the middle’ of the writing process, because once the episodes get into animatic \ story reel in editorial, Dave and George go through them, rewriting, adding and subtracting, etc...

Halfway through the first season, George was so excited with what we were doing, he came in one day with an outline and handed it to me, “Turn that into a script.” It was a story called ‘Count Dooku Captured.” From then on, George got into the writing \ scripting process in a big way. On season two, ALL of the story ideas came from George, except a couple that were originally written in season one by Dave and I (& Dini). I think season three is the same way.

Dave: Writing process? Oh right, well it’s pretty much what Henry described above.

Thanks to Club Jade for the heads up.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Upcoming Clone Wars Episode Titles

Wookieepdia has a list of the upcoming Clone Wars episode titles. Here they are.

Episode Title Original Airdate Prod. #
00 "The Clone Wars" August 15, 2008
01 "Ambush" October 3, 2008 108
02 "Rising Malevolence" October 3, 2008 107
03 "Shadow of Malevolence" October 10, 2008 109
04 "Destroy Malevolence" October 17, 2008 111
05 "Rookies" October 24, 2008 114
06 "Downfall of a Droid" November 7, 2008 102
07 "Duel of the Droids" November 14, 2008 106
08 "Bombad Jedi" November 21, 2008 105
09 "Cloak of Darkness" December 5, 2008 110
10 "Lair of Grievous" December 12, 2008 112
11 "Dooku Captured" January 2, 2009
12 "The Gungan General" January 9, 2009
13 "Jedi Crash" January 16, 2009
14 "Defenders of Peace" January 23, 2009
15 "Trespass" January 30, 2009
16 "Hidden Enemy" February 6, 2009
17 "Blue Shadow Virus" February 13, 2009
18 "Mystery of a Thousand Moons " February 20, 2009
19 "Hostage Crisis" February 27 2009
20 "Storm Over Ryloth " March 3, 2009
21 "The Innocents of Ryloth" March 10, 2009
22 "Liberty on Ryloth" March 17, 2009
23 "Battle for the Midnight Shadow" March 24, 2009
24 "Cargo of Doom" April 4, 2009
25 "Ambush in the Outer Rim" April 11, 2009

I'm not sure what the sources are here. Some are expressly listed in the entries, some aren't. I had thought that the full season would only run 22 episodes...so if this is accurate, I'm happy to see it.

Looks like a big Ryloth adventure in March. Could this be the war story we've been waiting for? Looking forward to that.

We can also look forward to another Gungan Episode. Bring 'em on.

I might say that, at this point, episode 25 could be the generic title of many an episode of this series. The Outer Rim seems like the Tatooine of the Clone Wars. Everything seems to happen there.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Clone Wars Recap - Episodes 1 - 10

So, we've reached a natural point of reflection in the Clone Wars series. There's a Clone Wars marathon going on, the show won't be back until January, and we're ten episodes into the first season. For now, just before the holiday, I'm going to review my ratings, talk about the episodes in rank 1 - 10, and then talk about what these first episodes bode for the future.

1. Lair of Grievous (Episode 1o) - **** 1/2

The most cinematic and thematically solid episode. It also features a mix of fresh characters and dynamics.

2. Duel of the Droids (Episode 7) - **** 1/2

Delivered with golden hues, excellent pacing, and well-directed action. Felt very much like, well, Star Wars.

3. Destroy Malevolence (Episode 4) **** 1/2

Takes the standard prequel-era characters and mixes them into an original trilogy set-up. The result is a wonderfully satisfying homage to everything you missed about the OT, and everything you wanted in the Prequels.

4. Rookies (Episode 5) ****

Exceptional episode that hopefully will be the beginning of a trend towards more episodes just like this one. The only problem I had was that it's the first one: we don't know the clones well enough to feel it when they die. Otherwise, great stuff.

5. Cloak of Darkness (Episode 9) *** 3/4

Many people's favorite episode, and a real winner. All around awesome except for one big caveat: why is Ahsoka always right? Isn't her role to...learn? Hard to ignore that problem in an episode so full of Tano.

6. Ambush (Episode 1) *** 1/2

The perfect introduction to the series, if offering little new. Good to see Yoda being playful, and the action feeling zippy.

7. Rising Malevolence (Episode 2) ***

Introduction of Plo Koon, and a dark episode to lead into the Malevolence arc. A little static, and Plo Koon is a bit generic. The stakes, though, do feel dire.

8. Shadow of Malevolence (Episode 3) ***

Totally fun "bombing run" episode that has "Ahsoka knows best" syndrome. Still...Y-Wings! Love the Y-Wings!

9. Downfall of a Droid (Episode 6) ** 1/2

A lead-in to the far better episode Duel of the Droids. It's biggest problem: does anyone really think Artoo dies? Raise your hands. Also, Anakin comes off like a dick.

10. Bombad Jedi (Episode 8) ** 1/2

Better than its reputation, but sort of all-over-the place and weird. Like Jar Jar himself.


The series has had exactly two stand alone episodes - Rookies and Ambush. Everything else was loosely, or directly, a part of a story arc: The Malevolence "trilogy;" the Downfall/Duel of the Droids two-parter; and the Nute Gunry-arc (Bombad Jedi, Cloak of Darkness and Lair of Grievous). I, personally, love these forays into story-arcs, and hope it emboldens the showrunners to take it further as the series rolls on.

It also strikes me that any of the story-arcs in the first ten episodes of the series would have made better feature releases than the actual feature itself did. The Malevolence Trilogy seems made for a DVD release of its own, maybe with a little editing to hang all three episodes together. You've got a just under 70 minute mini-movie right there.

If there's any major flaw in the series, it's Ahsoka. The series is all over the map with her. I have no idea what lesson the writers are intending to teach when she condescends to more experienced Jedi and is proven right. Is this to show young women that they should be pro-active, or to encourage kids to ask a lot of questions or...what? Because it appears to undercut the entire premise of the Master-Padawan relationship in a way that's not only unrealistic, but cloying.

Also, all the victories of the Republic are hollow in the midst of the larger context. The Clone Wars are a sham after all. In order to be more than a series of fun adventures clouded in a sort of distracting irony; we need to see war stories from a psychological (as opposed to story) perspective. The idea of this as "Star Wars meets Band of Brothers" was thrown about liberally when the series was being promoted. I say "heck yes" to that. These can, and should, be war stories.

It's good to see the villains as dangerous, and these last few episodes delivered that. Asajj Ventress, General Grievous, the Commando Droids, traitorous humans... we're getting a better sense of the enemy and what makes them formidable. The more of this we see, the more we'll care about Ahsoka or Captain Rex when their backs are to the wall.

Ten episodes in, we definitely have been watching a steady increase in both quality of the episodes, and of our own expectations. Let's hope the series continues to evolve and takes more chances. Regardless, the Clone Wars series is proving to be some of the best of the non-film product that has come out of Lucasfilm to date. And we're not even half-way through the first season.

The Force is with us!

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Season 1, Episode 10 - Lair of Grievous

Lair of Grievous, directed by Atsushi Takeuchi, is the most mythologically dense episode of the Clone Wars series yet. Grievous is a late addition to the Star Wars story, and his development has been taking place in front of the fan base. His first appearance, in finale of the first series of Clone Wars shorts in 2003, turns out to have been a rough sketch from early concepts. His later iterations have wavered between insect-like, cowardly, bold and cunning. The EU has addressed his origins a bit, but that's about it.

In some ways, that's a very good thing. Star Wars isn't the X-Files or Lost: sometimes the less Star Wars fans know about a character, the more fun that character is (see: Fett, Boba). Lair of Grievous, therefore, strikes the perfect balance. There are hints of his background, tantalizing teases, including the powerfully realized statues in his honor... but they are all part of the moody atmospherics.

As a Star Wars fan, I don't find myself aching for exposition. Star Wars is about story, and in Lair of Grievous, we get plenty. The action of the episode continues that storyline arc that started in Bombad Jedi and carries over my directly from Cloak of Darkness. The Jedi are still chasing Nute Gunray, and a homing beacon leads Jedi Master Kit Fisto to a remote planet in service of that pursuit. There, he reunites with a new character, his "old padawan" Nahdar Vebb, and his clone troopers. Vebb is a young Calamarian, having very recently completed the trials.

Once on the planet, they find themselves in a mysterious structure, and in grave danger. A trap has been set for them - or is it for Grievous?

The unfolding episode plays out as a lesson about the nature of war, and the difficulty the Jedi have maintaining their code and discipline in the face of such dangerous foes. Vebb is hot-headed, eager, and throughout the episode, he uses the Force in ways that seem excessive (to turn a chair around, for example); Kit Fisto's notes this with concern. When, in the end, Vebb turns to face down Grievous and starts kill Battle Droids like he's Starkiller, you know he's running straight for the wrong end of a blaster.

In many ways, I found this episode to be the antidote to the Ahsoka-is-always-right dynamic that pervaded Cloak of Darkness: here, the Jedi Master is treated as such, and his lessons of restraint are proven founded.

But beyond the storytelling, what makes the Lair of Grievous one of the best of the series thus far, is the blend of inventive design and a sense of adventure. There's comedy here, but it seems well placed (Grievous's attendant seems suitably preoccupied with housekeeping, so to speak); more than anything, there's a sense of foreboding that permeates to every characters and scene. It also helps that we see the Jedi Council for the first time in the series, and the scene is, though short, appropriately disconcerting.

More than any other episode in the series so far, Lair of Grievous reveals the character of its cast through its action and themes. By the end of it, we know much more about who (and what) Grievous is; and the same can be said for the Jedi. Hard to beat that.

Rating (out of five): **** 1/2

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Is the Clone Wars part of the EU?

Do you think that The Clone Wars is a part of the Expanded Universe?

Could you safely call the 2003 miniseries canon until this series is complete?

My attitude is that any incomplete story can't really be Canon.

Or can you see a way in which the 2003 series and this new one can exist side by side?

Monday, December 8, 2008

Lair of Grievous Preview from July

Atsushi Takeuchi, director of the upcoming episode Lair of Grievous, did an in-depth preview of what looks to be a top-notch episode in July on the Official Star Wars blog. Take a look!

Friday, December 5, 2008

Season 1, Episode 9 - Cloak of Darkness

Cloak of Darkness is so elegantly plotted and so fantastically directed, that it pains me to admit I found its one major flaw so frustrating. Somehow, the writers of The Clone Wars have the relationship between Ahsoka Tano and, well, everything utterly upside down. They did, though, finally start to get Asajj Ventress right.

Before I go there, let me get the important part out of the way: Cloak of Darkness is an episode that could be proudly shown to almost any skeptical Star Wars fan as proof that The Clone Wars series rocks. The twists and turns of the plot all add up perfectly, the characterizations are spot on, and the choices made are, generally, good ones. Also, the action is phenomenal here: the best fight choreography that the series has seen yet.

One major plus for this episode is the deepening of Asajj Ventress, making her seem legitimately threatening. So far in The Clone Wars series (not counting her original 2003 introduction), Ventress has sneered and run around, but generally been bested by the A-List Jedi like Yoda and Obi-Wan. Putting her up against Luminara Unduli gives her room to kick ass, and Cloak of Darkness takes advantage of the opportunity.

Luminara is also well-realized here, and well-voiced by Olivia D'Abo (of Wonder Years fame). Since her first appearance in Attack of the Clones (for seconds) she's captured fan imagination, mostly because of the uniqueness and beauty of her design.

We also see the introduction of the Senate Commandos, a cross between the Imperial Guard and a Clone Trooper in design, who are decidedly NOT Clones. Where they take that storyline is rather telling: the Clones are shown the be dedicated to following orders. We see the upside of that in Cloak of Darkness. (There is, of course, a rather serious downside...)

The only problem I have with Cloak of Darkness isn't actually a small one: what the hell are they doing with Ahsoka? Are we intended to believe that Luminara Unduli, Jedi Master, is not only more naive about Asajj Ventress than Ahsoka is, but also would declare herself a fool and thank Ahsoka for saving her life by the end of the episode? Suffice to say, I feel a bit like the Master-Padawan relationship between the cloying Ahsoka Tano and just about every other Jedi is entirely backwards. She tells Anakin what to do, defies Yoda and Obi-Wan, has a personal relationship with Plo Koon, and now, all but shames Luminara. Whe does this padawan start learning from Jedi Masters, as opposed to teaching them?

Rating (out of five): *** 3/4

Cloak of Darkness, Episode 9, Tonight

Cloak of Darkness tonight. Read the episode guide and preview here at StarWars.com. Come back after the episode to read the review.

The synposis: Ahsoka and Jedi Master Luminara escort captured Viceroy Nute Gunray to trial, unaware that Count Dooku has dispatched his deadly apprentice assassin Asajj Ventress to free the prisoner and eliminate the Jedi.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Season 1, Episode 8 - Bombad Jedi

Poor Jar Jar Binks. Universally acknowledged as the jump-the-shark character for many fans, and he appears in the first twenty minutes of The Phantom Menace. The backlash against him was so fierce, that his dismissal in Attack of the Clones drew cheers from live audiences, and his appearance in Revenge of the Sith was little more than a cameo.

I won't deny that I found his character a bit cloying, but he also had one moment in The Phantom Menace that showed his character as he could have been. Just before the final reel, on Coruscant, Amidala is staring out at the horizon, feeling trapped by her circumstances, helpless to save her citizens. By her side is Jar Jar Binks. In that moment, he stops yelping and falling over, and speaks about his people.

It's in this moment the now infamous "yousa thinkin' yousa people gonna dieee?" line appears. But if you watch that scene, Jar Jar never seems more photo-realistic, more honorable, and more soulful. It doesn't seem (excuse me) jarring; it seems like a natural extension of the character. There was always, it seemed, intended to be a noble soul beneath the clown. Something redeemable and even wise.

It's a shame that the films were never able to adequately mine this part of the character. Instead, he was written off-stage left. He's given an important trivia note in Star Wars lore, certainly (He's to blame for giving Palpatine emergency powers) but chalk that up to just further humiliation for the character. The powers-that-be heard the outcry, and threw Binks under the bus.

I say all this because... I enjoyed Bombad Jedi. I thought it was really rather funny, and made use of three characters in Star Wars that certainly (at least in the prequels) had some rough spots in terms of audiences embracing them. (Heck, C3-PO is one of my favorite characters, and even I groaned when I heard "This is such a drag!") I was glad to see some great character work, Jar Jar's heroic efforts, Padme's ever likable characterization in the series, and the always wonderful Anthony Daniels collecting another well-earned paycheck. It was also brought to life by Kevin Rubio, of Troops fame, and you can see him taking pains to use the slapstick for good effect. The sight gag of Padme's Naboo Cruiser being thoroughly leveled is a good one for the Clone Wars highlight reel, as well.

And while this is the "Jar Jar Episode" the story is really Padme's. Set on Rodia (homeworld of those who shot second), it's a reenactment of Ambush's dilemma - will the planet side with the Separatists or the Republic. All of this was perfectly servicable, and watchable, if not all that interesting.

All in all, though, Jar Jar remains his least interesting self. More than even in the films, this Jar Jar is an idiotic boob, relentlessly failing, with a childlike intellect. His victories come almost entirely by accident, and we are meant to view him, at best, as well-meaning. I'd love to see a hint of the noble Jar Jar beneath the surface, that was given short shrift in the films when the character fell instantly out of favor.

Rating (out of five) **1/2

Season 1, Episode 7 - Duel of the Droids

Duel of the Droids is the second of a two-parter, and a thoroughly entertaining one at that. It's also directed, notably, by Rob Coleman himself: the animation director for the prequel trilogy.

His experience shows in every frame of this episode. Lightsaber duels are performed with moody panache; the dive onto Skytop Station is bathed in autumn hues; the final "duel" of the episode's namesake is staged with racous tension, and wouldn't have looked out of place in one of the films.

Essentially, the story is of the rescue of Artoo from the clutches of the Separatists. Much like Destroy Malevolence, it involved infiltrating on Separatist ground, racing against the clock, and outthinking superior numbers. It's got all the best elements of a good Star Wars adventure, and it delivers.

While the action soars, Duel of the Droids doesn't overlook the details. Grievous's dispatching of Gha Nachkt comes as a violent shock (and a shoutout to a deleted scene in Revenge of the Sith), for example. We also see, for the first time, Artoo completely disassembled, in an amusing sequence.

It's also inventive. The quoting of other adventures is at a minimum here; as well. We see the first duel between Ahsoka and Grievous, and the battle is uniquely suited to these two relatively new characters. R2-D2s battle with his unlucky replacement shows Star Wars fans something they've never had the pleasure to see, as well. Even if (as stated in the previous episode's review) there is never any real question about Artoo's safety, it's a vibrant episode, one of the series best so far.

Rating (out of five) **** 1/2

Monday, November 24, 2008

Season 1, Episode 6 - Downfall of a Droid

Downfall of a Droid is the setup episode for a superior payoff, Duel of the Droids. On its own, it's perfectly acceptable television, with some great character moments and battle sequences, but it's ultimately incomplete. It also reveals an essential weakness the series has: putting well-trod characters in jeopardy.

Artoo is lost in a space battle in this episode, and is replaced by the seemingly incompetent R3-S6. While everyone around Anakin views Artoo as lost and replaceable; Anakin can't let go of his friend. To add fuel to his argument that Artoo must be found, Anakin notes that Artoo contains a full array of Republic Military schematics in his databanks. With that, the Republic agrees to let him seek out Artoo.

Will Artoo be rescued? Of course. As hard as the episode works to establish moodiness and menace, the outcome is rarely in doubt. It makes for a less than compelling storyline overall. The fact that the action and character work rise to the level they do is a testament to the expert work done here. Let's face it: we all know Artoo makes it out alive.

Only 6 episodes into the series, the idea that Anakin can't "let go" is already a bit soggy. In fact, it's almost counter-intuitive. Anakin's loyalty here plays out like a heroic quality; but in the ultimate saga of the prequels, its his fatal flaw. Or, perhaps, its simply Jedi orthodoxy that creates Darth Vader. It's certainly complex, but its thoroughly ambiguous. In episodes like this one, where Anakin's loyalty makes him try to save a beloved character, it's hard to remember the sense of forboding that his rebelliousness is intended to illicit.

Also, Anakin's mistrust of R3-S6 (later vindicated) comes off as baseless and intolerant, initially. It's hardly Anakin's judgment that R3 is a traitor; he simply feels that the droid is incompotent. The distinction here makes for a less sympathetic Anakin (fine with me) but when the second part of the series reveals R3's intentions, it comes off as all-too-easy in terms of justifying Anakin's behavior.

That being said, I enjoyed the smarmy introduction of Gha Nachkt (voiced by Ron Perlman); a sort of less than charming Watto with bad intentions. The IG assasin droid scene, as well, is certainly energetic and fun.

The next episode builds off of this one nicely, though, and winds up as one of the series best episodes to date. So maybe the slow burn here, flaws and all, are worth a few odd notes.

Rating (out of five) ** 1/2

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Season 1, Episode 5 - Rookies

Rookies isn't the first episode of the series that treats the clones like distinctive characters; but it is the first episode to put them front and center. Voiced by Dee Bradley Baker (who should be receiving five times the paycheck of the other voice talent), the Clones in "Rookies" include characters named Hevy, Echo and Cutup, Commander Cody, Captain Rex. They are joined by the rookies in question: Fives, Nub and the unfortunately named Droidbait.

Stationed at a dull outpost, the Shiny's (the term for Rookie in clone culture) settle into a life of boredom. Of course, this being a 22 minute episode of Star Wars, things don't stay dull for long. The Clones are soon outnumbered and overrun by Battle Droids.

"Rookies" is smartly produced and encouraging. Not only does it show that the showrunners know how to quickly make the stock clones unique visually, but their personalities miraculously come through as well. No small feat with a single voice actor and less than 30 minutes to play with.

What's deceptive here is that the uniqueness of each clone comes from a singleness of purpose. Each clones has a single characteristic that they play to the hilt. One is a regulations maven, another a joker. What's more interesting is the interplay between Commander Cody and Captain Rex, who are mirrors of their respective Jedi partners, Obi-Wan and Anakin. Rex, being Anakin's right-hand man, is impulsive and daring; Cody is a thoughtful leader.

Cody's story is more fully told, and we know it ends with a twinge of pain. It's Cody who orders his own troops to fire on Obi-Wan in Revenge of the Sith. Rex, though, is an unknown. Does he die? Is he simply off-stage during the main action of Sith? Is he among Anakin's clone guard when Anakin massacre's the Jedi Temple?

We don't know, of course. It's wonderful to see that those characters are being played as not only extensions of their Jedi counterparts, but characters in their own right. It makes their journey far more fascinating, as we fill in their gaps and come to see them as heroes in their own right.

The other wonderful innovation in "Rookies" is the Commando Droid. Praise Lucas, we certainly needed droids that were a threat to the clones. The Commandos, with tough armor, better instincts, and clearly heightened combat abilities, are a welcome addition. We'll see how the series explains their disappearance by Episode III.

All in all, a solid episode, and an original one. I look forward to later episodes of the series, when we know the clones better, to make their lives, and deaths, more impactful. When Rex dies (or doesn't) I hope to feel more than I did when Cutup was eaten by an eel.

Rating (out of five) *** 1 /2

Update: You know what? I just watched this episode again. To heck with it. ****

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Season 1, Episode 4 - Destroy Malevolence

As excited as I will be to see the Clone Wars series cover uncharted territory with the freedom of a weekly series, Destroy Malevolence mines nostalgia with such joyful precision, I couldn't help but love it.

This third part of the Malevolence "trilogy" does something that the prequels failed to do in any serious way: it brings all the main characters together for a single adventure. The episode plays out like a prequel-toned "rescue of Princess Leia and escape from the Death Star" in A New Hope: Padme winds up trapped on-board the fleeing Malevolence, and it's up to Anakin and Obi-Wan to get her off the ship before they can allow the Republic fleet to destroy it. In the midst of this clear nod to the original trilogy, it weaves a quilt of prequel issues and tropes together with real style.

The prequels and original trilogy do different things well. The prequels are deeply ambiguous stories, with an epic sweep and over-the-top visuals. If they lacked anything substantial, it was the friendships and gee-whiz spirit that made the originals fun. The originals, for their part, do an amazing job of creating a huge scale of the technology of the time, but their popularity persists because of the closely held mythology of the stories, and the sense of real adventure that finds its core characters.

With Destroy Malevolence, we see the partnership of Anakin and Obi-Wan in full bloom (Ashoka is thankfully watching this story from a distance); we get a sense of C-3PO and R2-D2 as a comedic duo; we see Padme at her most engaging (Padme the animated characters is far livelier than Natalie Portman, sadly); and we get to see them working together to defeat a common enemy. There are loads of great character moments, not the least of which Anakin and Padme's stolen, playful kiss when they are momentarily out of Obi-Wan's sight.

The episode doesn't skimp on action, though. The centerpiece is a classic chase sequence that plays like the Droid Factory-sequence in Attack of the Clones on overdrive. Obi-Wan faces Grievous and his henchmen in a clever duel that foreshadows their eventual meeting in Revenge of the Sith.

Moreover, Anakin's history gets a careful nod in one of the series's best moment. Padme notes, after watching Anakin dismantle some more disposable Battle Droids, that he's been playing with droids since they met. With an almost regretful tone, he notes that he "used to put them together, and now [he] only takes them apart." It's the perfect line for him: its vaguely funny, but it shows just how his life has changed...and not for the better.

Finally, the final image (shown at the top of this post) is, you may be surprised to know, the first tableau that features the main characters of the prequel trilogy in a heroic frame like this. In the original trilogy, the entire cast poses together at both the end of Star Wars and Return of the Jedi. The closest the prequels come to this moment was at the end of The Phantom Menace, although that tableau is missing C-3PO. Now, the TV series offers us something we don't know we missed.

If there's anything that keeps this episode from perfection, its that much of the material stands firmly on the shoulders of pre-existing plot points and devices. We'll see if the series can claim its own ground in the Star Wars canon. In the meantime, episodes like these will more than suffice.

Rating (out of five): ****1/2

Season 1, Episode 3 - Shadow of Malevolence

The second part of the Malevolence trilogy and third episode of the series, Shadow of Malevolence "introduces" the Y-Wing bomber to the Star Wars chronology. It's essentially a theme-episode about ambition and responsibility. Anakin is leading a strike team against the Malevolence and comes up with a complex, longshot of a plan to eliminate Grievous for good. It entails navigating a nebula and attacking the bridge of the heavily-guarded flagship. His clone troopers are game; but the Jedi are typically skeptical.

Certainly the episode has set-pieces and visuals galore. It also has some lovely character work by the animators. I enjoyed, for example, the subtle way in which Anakin plays in this episode. His 'moment of realization' is about a subtle as a 'moment of realization' in a bomber can be.

The clones, here, are also smartly played. Their never-say-die attitude towards Anakin's plan shows just how responsible he is for their safety; it's a dynamic that I hope we see played out in future episodes. Adding, as well, the jeapordy of the medical station, with its Kaminoan staff and Attack of the Clones flavored interiors, makes for a wonderful deepening of that exact theme. The Jedi aren't just generals, they are the clones protectors as well.

The episode offers up plenty of action, some massive flying creatures, and the climactic bombing run adds another tribute to the classic Death Star battle. If I have any complaint about that, it's that this particular quote of the original trilogy (blowing up the Death Star!) has been quoted twice already in the films. (Return of the Jedi is basically a replay of the original Death Star attack; and The Phantom Menace quotes the battle of Yavin with its "Anakin accidentally blows up the Droid Control Ship" bit.) One thing we don't have too little of in the Star Wars canon are victorious explosions in outer space.

I hope that slavish quoting of the films doesn't become so prevalent that it serves as a crutch for the creative team. They're sure to feel like they're satisfying fans by giving them a piece of cheerful nostalgia, but wherever there's a 'quote,' I wonder if an opportunity for something new and fresh was passed on.

My only other reservation is that Anakin's 'lesson' in this episode comes in the form of nagging reminders from Ashoka. I still am not entirely sure what the logic is behind Ashoka teaching lessons of responsiblity Anakin; it strikes as a false note in otherwise well-constructed episode. There are tons of experienced warriors around to play the role of mentor for Anakin. Having his teenaged Padawan play mentor seems notably backwards.

Those quibbles aside, Shadow of Malevolence offers shout-outs to A New Hope and Attack of the Clones, life-and-death stakes, great character moments, and Y-Wings. A full meal for a hungry Star Wars fan.

Rating (out of five): ***

Monday, November 17, 2008

Season 1, Episode 2 - Rising Malevolence

Also airing on October 3rd was Rising Malevolence, the second episode of the series, and the first of a three-part story arc. This episode's focus is Jedi Master Plo Koon; the member of the Jedi Council who looks like a cross between Predator and a Samurai. Plo Koon is reportedly the "favorite character" of showrunner Dave Filoni, who also directed this episode.

Rising Malevolence was an immediate tonal departure from Ambush. It features a variety of characters (including Anakin, Obi-Wan, General Grievous and Ashoka); its far more dire; and it furthers the Star Wars mythology by establishing a character Plo Koon, and a bit more backstory for Ahsoka.

The Malevolence is Grievous's flagship, a massive Separatist cruiser, equipped with an ion cannon that dismantles ships without destroying them. Once the Republic ships are dismantled, of course, they're easily wiped out, and Grievous has been ruthlessly leaving no survivors. The Republic doesn't know what it's up against, but it's certainly deadly.

Upon facing the Malevolence in battle, Plo Koon and a small squad of Troopers find themselves adrift in an escape pod, with little chance of being rescued. What's worse, the Separatists send out hunters to crack open all remaining pods and kill all the survivors.

We learn here, too, that Ahsoka and Plo Koon share a bond: he was the Jedi that discovered her and brought her to the Jedi Temple. It goes without saying that despite there being little hope of finding survivors, and against the direct orders of the Jedi Council, Anakin and Ahsoka go after Plo Koon anyway.

The episode works on a variety of levels. First is how quickly the series moves into a rather dire circumstance. Watching the clones picked off and killed in deep space by a glorified can opener, while the Battle Droids gleefully make cracks, is surprisingly dark without being graphic. It also provides a peek into what makes the Separatists so dangerous. It's the first time that the Battle Droids have a little menance, if only because they seem to take pleasure in killing the clones.

The episode also takes advantage of the blank slates that are Plo Koon and Ahsoka. Because these characters have almost no background prior to this episode, it's easy enough to give them an emotional bond. It adds to Ahsoka's character a great deal and makes her a bit easier to bear.

Plo Koon, on his own, is fine. I could wonder (and I do) why they decided to have yet another Prequel-era character speak basic, or why his voice is so uninteresting and generic. But... it's action that defines character, and the rest is window dressing. Plo Koon, in this episode, proves to be a heroic and capable figure, and there's clearly more to see. It's a decent introduction, at the very least, of the sort of character he is. If there's a major flaw, it's the lack of flaws. Mace Windu, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Ki-Adi Mundi, and Plo Koon have remarkably similar personalities. I'd love to see this series do more to show what it is that makes them different from one another, and ultimately, unique.

Rising Malevolence also continues a sort of odd theme that plays throughout the prequels and appears here as well: the Jedi are pretty heartless. I'm not sure if this is a conscious decision, or part of the necessity of the plot, but you rarely see Obi-Wan blink an eye when he suggests that Anakin and Ashoka suck it up and accept the death of a comrade. It's an interesting choice: it makes Obi-Wan (who is a beloved character and heroic) into a sort of authoritarian scold. I wonder if it would have been better to be told to leave Plo Koon behind by a pre-Imperial officer than, say, Obi-Wan Kenobi.

One might call this splitting hairs... but at the end of the day, if there is a value to these prequel adventures, beyond a few more excuses for Star Wars adventures, its to illuminate and deepen our understanding of the characters.

At the end of the day, the episode's survival story is effective, dark, and well-played. It does have a complete story within it (the rescue of Plo Koon), but also sets up a larger story. All in all, interesting stuff, even if the characters are a bit stiff.

Rating: (out of five) ***

Season 1, Episode 1 - Ambush

A little less than two months after the release of Star Wars: The Clone Wars as a feature, the first season of Star Wars: The Clone Wars began on Cartoon Network. It aired two episodes on October 3rd, 2008 back-to-back, the first of which was a stand-alone episode entitled "Ambush."

This episode was, at the very least, extremely encouraging. Yoda is en route to the coral moon of Rugosa, to meet with King Katunnko of Toydaria (Watto's race). Upon arrival, the Republic cruisers are immediately ambushed (hence the title) and Yoda and three Clone Troopers find themselves alone and outgunned.

Asajj Ventress argues that the inability of the Jedi to defend even themselves should lead King Katuunko to conclude that he should accept Separatist protection. Yoda, unwilling to concede defeat, swears to avoid capture and reach the Katunnko before the Separatists can stop him.

In short: Yoda and three Clone Troopers against a bunch of battle droids. The outcome is never in doubt, but the execution of the episode had much to prove after the lackluster feature. Happily, Ambush announces the series more auspiciously than did the film release.

Any Star Wars fan could have predicted some of what Ambush offers effectively: Yoda being generally terrific at tearing up metal. The central battle scene, where Yoda dismantles boatloads of battledroids and tanks, is a whole lot of fun. The Clone Troopers are well-realized as well. This episode is about 70% Yoda fighting; and on that criteria alone, it's all you could ask for.

What is more satisfying is that there was clearly an effort made to show the side of Yoda that appears in The Empire Strikes Back. He smiles, he laughs, he makes cryptic statements; he's generally less dour and officious than he is in most of the scenes in the Prequel Trilogy. His interactions with the Clone Troopers show actual concern for them as individuals, and an instinct to mentor.

There are elements of this episode I think, though, could be easily overpraised. Yoda's "wisdom" in this Episode isn't Shakespeare...it's far more of the Saturday morning cartoon variety. There's nothing particularly wrong with that, but it does show how difficult it is to capture the tone and feeling of Empire. Yoda in Ambush has the quality of a mentor and some basically good advice; Yoda in the Empire Strikes Back speaks about the essential nature of the Force and the path of belief. There's really only a surface level comparision.

Also prevalent is the lack of tension. The outcome of the Episode is pretty clear from the get-go, and the idea that even a thousand Battle Droids could defeat Yoda alone is almost laughable.

Plus, Katuunko seems relatively generic. If Watto's race of Toydarians are resistant to mind-tricks, for example (remember Episode I?) then there seems to be something distinctive about them. Katunnko is noble and well-meaning. He's pre-sold on Yoda, and rooting for him. Not much of a negotiation.

Laughable, in fact, is what the Battle Droids are in this episode. As it was in the Clone Wars movie (and to an extent in the prequels) the Battle Droids have gone completely backwards. They're not a threat: they're a gag reel. Which works, frankly, intermittently. I won't deny that I guffawed at a couple of Battle Droid one-liners, but its a choice that needs to be balanced in the long run.

The other reservation I have with this episode is its treatment of Asajj Ventress. Ventress was originally introduced, even given a backstory, in the Genndy Tartakovsky 2003 series. If the new series is intended to replace the Tartakovsky series, then why is Ventress treated as if she's always existed? The time-line, here, is a bit muddled. It's not the best storytelling device to just say "Oh, you remember Ventress from the other series? She's in this one too."

All that said, Ambush hits a lot of the right notes. It's contained, effective, light and fun and Yoda seems like the Yoda we know and love. Plus, the action is wonderfully directed. A good, if not terribly ambitious, beginning.

Rating (out of five) *** 1/2

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Star Wars: The Clone Wars - The "Movie"

Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008) came out in the middle of August and barely took in $40 million at the box office. It was ignored by all but the most die-hard Star Wars fans, and rejected by the press. It suffered from the lack of goodwill that the prequels engendered in the mainstream audiences, and from its own lack of ambition.

Let's be honest: the Clone Wars movie is a trumped up pilot episode. Or, really, a few pilot episodes, edited together to make a "feature." It could be argued (and I'm certain it has been argued) that the feature might have been more happily received if it were originally released for the small screen.

Maybe. Maybe not.

Since the movie was less a story of its own, and more of a "release party" for the show, maybe it's best to judge it on its goals.

First of all, the movie establishes and introduces the Thunderbirds-influenced animation style of the Cartoon Network show. The look was always going to be a bit controversial, but it certainly works. The problem, perhaps, is that on the big screen, there's Pixar and Dreamworks pumping out things like Wall-E and Finding Nemo and Kung Fu Panda. Animation that simply looks breath-taking. The Clone Wars is amazing for a weekly TV show; but its simply low-rent compared to Pixar.

Second, the feature introduces the Ashoka Tano, the Togruta teenaged Padawan of Anakin Skywalker. "Snips," as Anakin bracingly calls her, offers a little bit of Star Wars for the Hannah Montana-set. One might fairly ask if Hannah Montana fans were looking for a little more Star Wars in their diet. God knows. But they've got it, and now, so do the rest of us.

Ashoka, in the feature, is a heartlessly market tested contraption, sort of the opposite of Qui-Gon Jinn. Whereas Qui-Gon seemed to be a good idea that was unrealized, Ashoka seems like a terrible idea, to which the entire film is dedicated. She treats our heroes like imbeciles, makes already bloodless scenes of war into play-time contrivances, and generally lowers the IQ of the entire feature.

Why, a reasonable Star Wars fan asks, does she exists beyond an appeal to teenage girls? The stated reason, essentially posed by Yoda, is that Anakin has too many "attachment" issues and this Padawan is a way for him to learn how to let go. Fair enough. (A lot of good it does everyone, according to Revenge of the Sith and the entire Star Wars mythos.) The dark side is in the details, though. It's hard to look the other way as Anakin's entirely unheard of Padawan shows up in this cartoon series, never to be spoken of again, and never heard of before. It's harder still to accept the idea that the only solution that the Jedi can come up with for solving the Anakin-problem is to team him up with a quippy, chirpy teenybopper in the middle of a civil war.

Her presence makes Jar Jar Binks seem positively unintrusive.

Not helping, though, is the plot. This sort of Scooby-Doo level plot revolves around a baby Hutt that's missing. It's, suffice to say, an insufficiently thought through story. There's never been much clamor for a sentimental Jabba the Hutt story (his menace here is butterknife dull) and the "hutt-let" called Stinky (I'm told he has a real name, but who really cares?) is a visual gag that attains only Michael Jackson childishness. Plus, within the confines of this plot lies a mistake so massive, it doesn't even get subtitles Huttese: Zirro the Hutt.

How many ways does Zirro the Hutt fail? He is designed with glowing tattoos and feathers. He speaks like Truman Capote. He is a gay Hutt from New York City. He is a terror. Let us speak no more of him. Ever. Again.

So... not a smashing debut for the series, so to speak.

So what went...right?

First of all, Anakin Skywalker, in the movie (and in the series) comes off as particularly likeable and heroic. In the confines of the two films in which we see an Anakin that's older than 10; there's little time for much beyond brooding. Hayden Christensen had the weight of Darth Vader on his shoulders; cartoon Anakin has no such pretense. He has no idea that he's about to become the world's biggest villain, and in the feature, he comes off as charming, fun, and resourceful.

Second, some of the action sequences were inventive. The vertical battle (despite the "race ya' to the top" boneheadedness) is staged with real style; the Obi-Wan vs. Asajj Ventress duel has some nice moments; and space battles have a nice Star Wars feel to them.

Third, it was Star Wars on the big screen. So heck, who doesn't like that?

Rating (out of five): **