Saturday, August 16, 2008

Star Wars: The Clone Wars

STAR WARS: THE CLONE WARS (Dave Filoni, 2008)

Arriving in the dog days of the summer movie season and with considerably less hype than usual for a new STAR WARS film, the computer-animated STAR WARS: THE CLONE WARS wears its lowered expectations like armor to protect against the swords of jilted fanboys who feel like each new chapter in George Lucas' saga delivers further indignities to their childhood memories.

No wonder. Fans built up impossible standards during the long wait between RETURN OF THE JEDI and EPISODES I through III, and Lucas was susceptible to his worst impulses for writing stiff dialogue and directing stilted performances. Removed from the hothouse of their original release dates, perhaps the prequels can now be viewed on their own terms as flawed but entertaining movies incapable of ever living up to the versions of the original trilogy that exist moreso in the minds of a generation than on celluloid.

Or maybe not. Diminished expectations notwithstanding, at best STAR WARS: THE CLONE WARS is unlikely to convince the disappointed faithful that the space opera is back on course. THE CLONE WARS elicits some pangs of nostalgia with its grand battles, alien landscapes, and beloved characters but yields little more than fuzzy thoughts of what used to be.

At worst it could reinforce fanbase beliefs that Lucas is motivated by an easy cash grab. The film functions as a feature-length teaser for the upcoming Cartoon Network series, and the introduction of the feisty female character Ahsoka comes off as a way of selling more ancillary products to girls. Lucas also continues to juvenilize the franchise, a move that has singlehandedly dropped him from the graces of his most ardent supporters.

Set between ATTACK OF THE CLONES and REVENGE OF THE SITH, THE CLONE WARS follows Anakin Skywalker and his young protégé Ahsoka as they search for Jabba the Hutt's kidnapped son. Why bother looking for a baby slug during the middle of a war? Jabba controls key trade routes through which armies can be moved. Winning his favor could be a determining factor in the fight's outcome, but doing so is far trickier than the Jedi realize. The duplicitous Count Dooku has orchestrated blame for the abduction and rescue to fall on the Jedi, thus paving the way for his separatist forces and Jabba to sign a treaty regarding those important shipping lanes.

Dave Filoni handles directorial duties, and three screenwriters are listed for THE CLONE WARS. Still, who else but Lucas, who gets producer and story credits, could be responsible for the familiar problems that mar this latest STAR WARS film? The ins and outs of intergalactic politics are as uninteresting and confusing as ever. Why Lucas insists on devoting so much time to these matters is especially baffling for a film even more kid-centric than the others.

The unwieldy dialogue becomes like the cacophonous honks associated with Charlie Brown's teacher. Most of the prequel performers have been replaced for the voiceover work, likely a budget-conscious move that neither adds nor detracts, but what in the world is going on with the voice of Jabba's uncle Ziro the Hutt? He sounds like The Lady Chablis.

Since the CGI-heavy prequels were practically cartoons anyway, the switch to full computer-animation for THE CLONE WARS should seem like a natural evolution for STAR WARS. The big miscalculation, though, is the plasticky design of flesh and blood characters. With faces like inexpressive rubber masks and immovable hair like that found on action figures, the characters have an unappealing look that puts them a few steps backwards technology-wise.

The plentiful battle scenes impress with their visual and aural assault and couldn't be pulled off better than being rendered in zeroes and ones. The gunships capable of vertical climbs up cliffs make cool additions to the Republic's armada. Although repetitive, the emphasis on action compensates for the film's deficiencies to a point.

THE CLONE WARS reveals that all the copying in the universe can reproduce a semblance of past greatness. It's the original inspiration that can't be duplicated. THE CLONE WARS isn't a bad movie but a faded version of what preceded.

Grade: C