A long time ago, in what feels like a galaxy far, far away, Star Wars was awesome. But it's generally accepted by fans that during the last decade, George Lucas has wrecked something that was an incredibly important pop-culture touchstone. And yet, for many of us, Star Wars is our Brokeback Mountain—we wish we knew how to quit it. But we don't. Or we can't. So, every few years, we torture ourselves with a new movie, filling Lucas' coffers along the way.
Star Wars: The Clone Wars, the franchise's new animated feature, doesn't come within light years of the original entry's glory, but it's a welcome relief from the last three.
Why? Well, it's actually fun. And even though the dialogue remains terribly cheesy, that's easier to get away with in a cartoon. The animation isn't particularly lifelike, but it has a unique look and feel that sets it apart from Pixar or DreamWorks, likely because it was produced with a television budget in mind—this is really the coming-out party for an ongoing Cartoon Network series that kicks off this fall. The action sequences are exciting, and the light-saber battles look terrific.
But really, what makes Star Wars: The Clone Wars so much better than the last trilogy of films is that Lucas didn't direct it. Dave Filoni, who helms the movie, is clearly a Star Wars fan, and if one thing's clear, the fans have been more in touch with the Star Wars universe than Lucas has for quite a while.
The film is set between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, the second and third films of the recent trilogy, and it follows the intricate labyrinth of Star Wars mythology—even though it's made for the small screen, it isn't actually a good introduction to the Star Wars milieu. Obi-Wan and Anakin are called away from the Clone Wars to rescue Jabba the Hutt's son, in order to secure a treaty that will allow the Federation to use some trade routes. Or something like that. There are some familiar old faces—Yoda, Palpatine, Mace Windu, Padme, Count Dooku—and Samuel L. Jackson, Christopher Lee and Ian Abercrombie all turned in a voiceover session or two, lending some credibility. Much like Hayden Christensen's portrayal of the saga's central figure, this animated Anakin Skywalker is somewhat stiff, but voiced by Matt Lanter, the character has more life than Christensen ever brought to the part. In keeping with the recent Star Wars cheesiness, however, Anakin is given a padewan of his own—Ahsoka Tano (Ashley Eckstein), who ups the cuteness factor and could easily be considered the latest in a long line of Jar Jars.
But even though it's better than one might expect, what's missing from The Clone Wars is The Force. Really. It's not as though The Force is weak in this one; it's almost not present at all, except in some of the fighting sequences (which goes against the whole nature of The Force, right?). Obi Wan and Anakin are less spiritual knights of a divine mystical order than they are ass-kicking superheroes. Now, this might make for easier-to-digest TV, but it's the sort of omission that reminds us that all the Star Wars content that came after 1983 is truly ancillary, and fans need to be stoic about this if they want to continue being fans.
The Star Wars franchise isn't going anywhere. Sure, many fans have excommunicated themselves from the Church of Star Wars, but there's no shortage of younglings to buy merchandise. For those of us who just can't quit, it's good to know Lucas has vacated the director's chair, allowing a fan to direct the action. In Star Wars parlance, the servant has finally become the master.