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'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): **