Sunday, October 18, 2009

Star Wars: The Clone Wars - Season 1

I came out of The Clone Wars movie excited for more. It wasn’t as character-rich as I may have wanted, but the action was solid and smart, the pace was fast and fun, and the animation was striking and stylistically impressive. I was hopeful that we’d get to delve deeper into the characters when the weekly series began, and I was looking forward to it.

Episodes are rated on a scale of zero to five stars.

1.01 – Ambush: Yoda teaches his clone troopers the value of mind over machines. Good character work from Yoda, and nice to see the clones portrayed as something other than random grunts. The frame with the Toydarians and Assaj Ventress felt a bit awkward and over-simplified, and the planet wasn’t my favorite setting, but an all-around solid episode, and a step up from all previous prequel era G-Level canon outings in the character department. 3.5 stars

1.02 – Rising Malevolence: Plo Koon and his troops are trapped in a free-floating escape pod as Anakin and Ashoka rush to the rescue. Some chilling imagery, and well-thought-out sequences. I couldn’t help but feel Plo Koon came off as a poor man’s Yoda. 3 stars.

1.03 – Shadow of Malevolence: Anakin and Ashoka lead the charge against the Separatist cruiser Malevolence. Again, well-executed, but a bit heavy-handed and dry in its characterizations. The impact of losing characters such as Matchstick would be more impactful if we’d spent more time with them. At least the pacing problems of the prequels are history! 3 stars.

1.04 – Destroy Malevolence: Anakin, Obi-Wan, and Padme cause mayhem for Grevious and the droids aboard the Malevolence. Now THAT was Star Wars! Still not the deepest of character works, at least we got to enjoy Anakin having to balance his Jedi duties with his love for Padme. And we got to see the first romantic moment between the two that I actually believed! From some great comedic beats (the battle droid complementing Obi-wan, 3PO getting hit by the tram, Grevious hanging up on Dooku…) to one of the best choreographed battles in the series (up there with the movie’s vertical cliff climb), this just FELT like Star Wars. It culminates with great editing that built to a grand final frame of our heroes congregated together and feeling like an actual team of adventuring friends for the first time in prequel era history. 4.5 stars.

1.05 – Rookies: Untested clone troopers must defend their listening station from commando droids. A lesson in carefully executed, economic character building and growth. We grow to care about this team of troopers very quickly, and the surprisingly dark action that follows is all the more gripping and effective because of it. Fun, tense, and, like ‘Ambush,’ proof that clone troopers can be great characters. The series needs more of this. It would be great if some of the individual clones we grow to know in these clone-focused episodes will return in the future. 4.5 stars.

1.06 – Downfall of a Droid: Anakin goes in search of R2-D2 who has been taken prisoner by an unscrupulous merchant. A solid entry with a few great high points. Anakin’s reckless pursuit for R2-D2 was great to see, as it forshadows his future inability to let Padme go. The revelation that he never wipes R2’s memory was also a well-played character beat. The use of the IG-86 droids was thrilling. I’ve always loved the IG-88 design from The Empire Strikes Back, and remember thinking – and I quote – “DAMN!” when we got to see the design in fast, furious fighting action in the “Shadows of the Empire” videogame in a boss fight which felt like a sequence out of a horror film (‘Iggy’ snuck up on you in an abandoned junk yard from various angles with deadly force). The Clone Wars iteration of these assassin droids doesn’t disappoint! On the other side of the droid spectrum, however, I do wish they’d inject Grevious with a bit more nuance and a bit less mustache-twirling. 3.5 stars.

1.07 – Duel of the Droids: Anakin and Ashoka lead the mission to recover R2-D2. Great fun, though my issue with Grevious still stands. He’s going to need to find his genuine menace if he’s going to last as a returning villain. Still, anything that climaxes with two astromech units battling to the death is worthy in my book. Classic Star Wars fun in the style of ‘Destroy Malevolence.’ 4 stars.

1.08 – Bombad Jedi: Jar-Jar is mistaken for a Jedi on Rodia. Despite my initial cry of “Why!?,” Jar-Jar proved a bit more tolerable than I thought he’d be. There was some genuine cleverness and self-parody here with C3PO’s wry counter-play to Jar Jar’s hijinx. Padme was also given a few good character beats as she’s finally given a chance to be a senator and diplomat in more than just name. Writer Kevin Rubio’s name is one I trust when it comes to Star Wars comedy, and even dealing with Jar Jar he doesn’t disappoint, even if he doesn’t overwhelmingly impress. 3 stars.

1.09 – Cloak of Darkness: Assaj Ventress leads a ninja-style prison break as Nute Gunray is freed from escorts Ashoka and Luminara Unduli. The legendary Paul Dini manages to inject the classic Star Wars fun with a bit more character depth than usual for the series, along with a tinge of grit. The ‘intrigue’ of this episode was heavily appreciated in place of the usual slam blang action. Characters made mistakes, grey areas were explored, and Assaj gave her best turn since series one of the Gendy Tartakovsky Clone Wars shorts. Though I have to admit this series’ Assaj feels like rather a different character. I sure would love some more info/depth/origins for her though… or for anyone, for that matter! 4 stars.

1.10 – Lair of Grevious: Kit Fisto and padawan Nadar Vebb hunt General Grevious in his lair. I’ve loved the Kit Fisto design since Attack of the Clones, and I appreciated his voice/characterization here, but his and Nadar’s overall story arch was a bit too predictable, and his reactions a bit too stoic/detached for me to really take a stake in the goings on of this episode. I found the Grevious side of things much more interesting, but came away wanting more. The notion that Dooku felt the need to test Grevious is a great one, but further exploration of this theme is require before it becomes of appreciable value. Hints at Grevious’ origins were tantalizing, but again… we need more! Legless Grevious, I must admit, was wicked cool. 3 stars.

1.11 – Dooku Captured: Dooku… is captured… by pirates. This started off rather solidly with some good chasing and some of the best buddy-buddy Anakin/Obi-wan moments we’ve seen yet. This series really – REALLY – needs more of that kind of interaction. I want to believe Obi-Wan when he tells Luke that he and Anakin were good friends! Once Dooku gets captured, however, things take a dip for the mundane… and silly. I found Dooku’s whole situation implausible. I like THE IDEA of it, but the idea requires nuance and cleverness on the part of the pirates… here Dooku just walks into it. Oh well – at least there was a Kowakian Money Lizard. There’s something we can all get behind, right? 2 stars.

1.12 – The Gungan General: When Anakin and Obi-wan end up captured alongside Dooku, Jar-Jar of all people must for some reason save the day. Other than a smattering of good comedic bickering between Anakin, Dooku, and Obi-wan this episode was rubbish. The Jedi apparently forgot they were Jedi for most the episode, and Dooku’s sudden bad ass awesomeness toward the end just sheds further light on the implausibility of the triple capture to begin with. And if a wasted opportunity for solid character interaction/development among the captured trio weren’t enough of a price to pay for such slipshod story-telling, we also get Jar Jar back without Keven Rubio’s carefully wry writing, and without even actor Ahmed Best who has been replaced by what I can only assume is some sort of talking turd. Yes, I imagine that the new voice of Jar Jar is precisely what a turd would sound like if a turd could talk. And, no, there is no better more eloquent way to describe it. 1 star.

1.13 – Jedi Crash: Missed this one. Looking forward to the DVDs. Silly unreliable DVR…

1.14 – Defenders of Peace: Anakin, Ahsoka and Aayla Secura protect a bunch of peace-loving Scottish Lemurs. A lot to enjoy in this one. The Lurmen were an interesting race; the ethical dilemma was a well-debated one; the action was strong; Aayla was a nice departure from the usual old-sounding holier than thou Jedi (Yoda, Plo, Luminara); and General Lok Durd was a fun villain. Add some clever action and a truly great battle droid moment (cheering the effects of the Separatist’s new weapon) and this stands as one of the better episodes this season. The moral decisions involving the Lurmens’ pacifist attitudes left both the characters and viewers some juicy grey area thinking that reminded me of the more high-minded concepts that usually penetrate Star Trek episodes. This is a good direction for the series, and I’d love to see more of it. 4 stars.

1.15 – Trespass: Anakin and Ob-wan mediate between warring races on an awesome-looking ice planet. There was another chance for interesting heady material here involving the nuances and potential devastation of racism, but the one-dimensionality and obviousness of most of the side characters (particularly Chairman Cho) undercut a lot of the potential for real drama. It’s truly great to see the series dealing with serious issues, but if the issues aren’t affecting and/or challenging the principles of our heroes -- but rather only playing out through single-minded side characters – then they lose their teeth. On the other side of the spectrum, the design of this episode was exceptional. The throwbacks to Hoth were appreciated, and the creature and vehicle use was great. 3 stars.

1.16 – The Hidden Enemy: In events that took place just previous to The Clone Wars movie, Anakin and Obi-wan have to root out a clone traitor in their midst. While there wasn’t much actual suspense to the mystery here, the concepts at play were great. What could cause a clone to change sides? Are the clones really treated fairly? What if one wanted to quit the army? They’re bred for military use – bred to die for a cause – now that they’re being portrayed as actual people, with character depth… can we abide by their seeming enslavement? Is this right? Is it just? Great issues for debate in the show. Unfortunately we don’t get too much actual debate in this episode, rather we get some interesting questions, a good deal of Clone action, and another fun Assaj Ventress cameo. Here’s hoping these issues come back someday. 3.5 stars.

1.17 – Blue Shadow Virus: A crazy mad scientist threatens to infect Naboo with his latest contaminant. Some fun tense moments, but a lot of missteps here. Doctor Vindi never quite worked for me. He seemed to have stumbled onto the scene from some other show… perhaps Scooby Doo. And his over-the-top stereotype mad scientist caricature only served to distract from what worthy tension there was. And speaking of undercutting tension… Jar-Jar. Beyond his cringe-inducing turd of a voice, I keep trying to think why Jar-Jar has never worked as well as he did in his first Clone Wars appearance. And I think it comes down to his use in the story. In Bombad Jedi, Jar-Jar drove a comedy-filled story and his spirit and hyjinx were at the forefront of the episode. Now, in Blue Shadow Virus (and The Gungan General before it) he’s here to distract. He really has no actual place in this story and seems to be forced in to cause havoc and undercut the otherwise controlled flow of the action. When a sudden bumbling ‘Jar-Jar Moment’ can occur at any time and cause a large amount of good or ill no matter how carefully our actually-competent characters (on both sides) set their plans, suddenly these other characters lose their power. And when the action seems unmotivated, it’s hard to get sucked in. 2 stars.

1.18 – Mystery of a Thousand Moons: While Padme, Ahsoka, and Jar-Jar have to deal with infection, Anakin and Obi-wan have to escape a trap on the planet Iego in order to bring them the cure. This really has one plot too many. The ‘mystery’ on Iego is infinitely more interesting than Padme and co. fending off the affects of infection. I liked the concept of Iego as a trapped planet. I also liked the concept of a the kid with his own reprogrammed battle droid army. I would have loved to have spent more time getting to know Jaebo and the other trapped citizens of Iego rather than go back and forth between the events on Iego and Naboo. In the end we never get quite enough of a good thing from either plot. 2.5 stars.

1.19 – Storm Over Ryloth: Ahsoka gets a chance to play tactician as she leads the troops against a blockade over Ryloth and gets a lesson in taking responsibility. Ahsoka's best episode yet. She was forced to step up and be a leader, and rose to the challenge. The depiction of her relationship with Anakin was more believable than ever, the starship tactics were cool (and borrowed from Heir to the Empire!!), and even the Nemoidian guest-villain was fun to watch as he studied Anakin's strategies. I hope we see that guy again! I also appreciated the moment where Admiral Yularen pretended not to be asleep during Ahsoka's apology. It's touches like this that really build the characters, and the series needs more of this. Frame such moments in a great action-filled, character-centered story, and you have one of the most well-rounded episodes of the season. 4 stars.

1.20 – Innocents of Ryloth: Part II of III, Obi-wan leads his troops against villains using ‘human shields.’ A strong episode, though not a home-run. Good character stuff for the Clones and Numa, the little Twi’lek girl. Also some great, innovative action. Also nice to see Obi-wan so heavily featured. I’ve felt his character has been a bit under-used this season – even when present. And while his voice artist does an uncanny impersonation of Ewan McGregor, I’d liked to see not EVERY other line of his come off sounding like a sarcastic one-liner. On a side note, not yet certain if I like the tactical droids yet. They seem a bit bland… though I have to admit watching one get torn apart by the Twi’leks was rather enjoyable. Had the character stuff probed just a bit further, this could have been a classic. 3.5 stars.

1.21 – Liberty on Ryloth: Mace finally takes center stage in the climax of the ‘Ryloth Trilogy.’ Great action; tepid character work. The agreement between Syndulla and Senator Orn Free Taa was all just a little too easy and a little too pat. No surprises here, particularly not with a title like that! Also Wat Tambor is a weak character, as dull and lifeless of his droning voice. Hearing him and his tactical droid chew scenery was monotonous to say the least. Still… that action. Mace lived up to the anticipation, and the battle on the drawbridge was one of the coolest sequences of the season. Also, I loved the battle droid’s opposite reactions to finding Mace in the treasure ship. Hilarious! This series just needs a smidgeon more character depth each week, and they’d be knocking episodes out of the park more consistently. 3.5 stars.

1.22 – Hostage Crisis: Bounty Hunters storm the senate and take a group of senators hostage for the nefarious purpose of demanding Ziro the Hutt be brought back into the show! I’ll admit it: I enjoy Ziro. He makes me laugh. A lot. So sue me. But I’ll also admit that I enjoyed Cad Bane and his bounty hunters even more – nice to have a group of villains with more character and grit than any of the Separatists. And the character bits with Anakin and Padme, while not exactly golden, were very appreciated and stronger than most anything in the Prequel Trilogy. A dark, fast-paced episode that ended all too soon. 4 stars.

Season 1 Visuals: Easily the most impressive, consistently high-quality animation I’ve seen on television. I’m a big fan of 2D animation, and sometimes think I’d prefer the show to have taken a 2D route, but I’ve never seen a 2D show stay so on-model as the Clone Wars can. The impressive detail in the backgrounds and ships, along with the always-creative and well-framed camera angles make the show a beauty to behold and justify its 3D existence handily. Now if we can just get those faces to emote a bit more… Most impressive. 4 stars.

Season 1 Action: Innovative, sometimes surprisingly dark, and always fun. If I have any complaint it’s that the editing is sometimes just a bit too fast. But any show that can keep lightsaber duels constantly fresh is doing something right. Well done. 4 stars.

Season 1 Storylines: A bit too much planet-invasion-of-the-week going on here, but when the show narrows its focus onto moral issues (“Defenders of the Peace,” “Innocents of Ryloth”) or particularly exciting capers (“Cloak of Darkness,” “Hostage Crisis”), it shines. And then there are those slam-bang fun-fests that just ooze that Star Wars feel (“Destroy Malevolence,” “Duel of the Droids”). I’d love the show to get more daring and varied in its plotlines and particularly give us more character-driven stories. A good start. 3 stars.

Season 1 Characters: So many great characters, so few chances to shine. The series weakest aspect is easily its character work – what I consider the most important facet of longevity and value for a show. The Prequel Trilogy almost infamously created a vast array of great cool characters and then did criminally little with them. The Clone Wars has improved upon this considerably… but that’s not saying much. I want to feel Anakin and Obi-wan’s friendship the way I’d imagined it since A New Hope. I want to know how Anakin’s mentorship of Ashoka influences his loose canon nature and susceptibility to the dark side. I want to Anakin and Padme to have an INTERESTING relationship. I want the other Jedi to have great character archs. I wan the downfall and stagnation of the Jedi Order to take centerstage – what went wrong here? And I want villains who are something other than requisitely “evil.” What are Dooku’s political motivations? Does he believe he’s working for the good of the Republic here, or just for the Sith? How does Assaj Ventress feel about not being a full Sith? Who the hell is Grievous anyway? The only front on which the characterwork has been surprisngly impressive has been the Clones themselves with their varied personalities, histories, and storylines ("Rookies," "The Hidden Enemy," "Innocents of Ryloth") - but now let's see some of those well-developed Clones in more than just one episode! There is SO MUCH potential for great -- nay INCREDIBLE -- characterwork on this show. And they’ve barely nicked the surface in Season 1. Needs work. 2 stars.

Season 1 Overall: Very entertaining, and very promising. There are still many weak aspects, but they are ultimately overshadowed not only by what does work, but by the vast potential of the series and by the show’s already-clear willingness to try new things and improve itself. The Clone Wars team has their work cut out for them in making Star Wars a must-watch galaxy again, but if Season 1 is any indication, they are up to the task and well on their way. 3.5 stars.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Star Wars – Franchise Retrospective

Since I hope to give weekly reviews of new Season 2 episodes of Star Wars: The Clone Wars, I’ll be providing a capsule review of my thoughts on Season 1, but first some perspective…

The Original Trilogy
I was two months old when Return of the Jedi arrived in theaters, but I still managed to grow up on Star Wars. I remember the subtle shift in my childhood mentality when the Death Star trench sequence of A New Hope went from being “that boring extra part of the movie” to being the relieving coda that, meant even after all the excitement of rescuing the princess had finished, there was still more movie to enjoy. I remember the awe of The Empire Strikes Back (“There’s more!?”) and running to the kitchen to hide from the television when Vader cut off Luke’s hand. I remember the pure bliss of being in Jabba’s Palace and the Forest of Endor – simply being in these places made Return of the Jedi my favorite for many years. Older and a bit more opinionated, I’ve come to appreciate ‘Empire’ the most, but ‘Jedi’ will always hold a close second.

The Merchandise
Star Wars fans like to breathe the universe. For me this took the form of music and toys. My love affair with film music is a story unto itself, but suffice to say John Williams and Star Wars had a noteworthy role in the tale. And, already being a fan of acting out stories with action figures, I was instantly hooked when Kenner released its rebooted line of 1995 Star Wars figures. And that’s one collection of mine that just doesn’t seem to stop growing.

The Expanded Universe
The merits of the ‘EU’ are as hit-or-miss as any so diverse and vast an array of novels, comics, short stories, and video games could be expected to be. To many Star Wars fans who prefer their canon to be ‘G-Level’ (or George Lucas level, i.e. the films and ‘The Clone Wars’), the ‘EU’ is thought to be a tangled mess of curious but ultimately unimportant explorations of that Galaxy Far, Far Away. I’ll readily admit there’s some flimsy and bizarre stuff out there in the EU, and while I’m well-read in it, I’m certainly not an expert, but I’d also go so far as to say that the single best Star Wars stories I’ve ever experienced were select EU novels and comics. I have Timothy Zahn to almost single-handedly thank for carrying my childhood love of Star Wars on through to adulthood. Michael Stackpole and Aaron Allston are also authors worthy of note. There’s some bad, BAD stuff out there… but the best of the ‘EU’ is damn, DAMN good. I’m not of the mind that everything ever written in the Star Wars galaxy need be taken carefully into consideration for new G-Level canon entries, but I am of the mind that G-Level canon ought to mine the best of the ‘EU’ for material more often than it does. There’s a reason so many movies are based on books…

The Prequel Trilogy
Like many, I awaited The Phantom Menace with childlike glee. When it arrived, I enjoyed what I got – I really did – but the knowledge of what I didn’t get, or what I COULD have gotten ultimately soured the experience. There were things done right; there were things done terribly wrong. What was once sleek and inspiring was now clunky and over-stuffed. Character took a backseat to pageantry. Things that should have been deep were shallow. Attack of the Clones followed suit, featuring much that was cool, and much that was pathetic. I wanted SO badly to feel the love between Padme and Anakin. I wanted SO badly to feel the thrill of adventure when Yoda arrived with those Clones. But genuine emotion was subbed for by wooden, characterless dialogue. And that ending battle was such a mishmash of images that there was no chain of invention to follow. What ought to have been an incredible set piece, came off as random, unorchestrated chaos. And Revenge of the Sith brought more of the same – a bit more refined perhaps, but the lack of real characterization and motivation throughout the trilogy undercut a series of what would have been powerhouse sequences (Anakin’s fall, turn, murders, and duel) had they been played out by people the audience could inhabit and understand. There’s much I love about the Prequel Trilogy, but there’s far more that frustrates me to the core.

The Clone Wars
Despite the opinion of general geekdom turning against modern Star Wars, with ludicrous cries of “Lucas raped my childhood” and blind accusations of it all being soulless money-grubbing exploitation of the original trilogy’s fans, I – like most open-minded fans -- am ALWAYS up for more Star Wars. Are those that have turned against Lucas really so narrow-minded that they don’t think ANYTHING good could come out of further Star Wars outings? Are they so self-centered that they don’t realize there’s a legion of fans out there clamoring for more? Oh well… I for one was thrilled at the announcement of The Clone Wars series, and even more thrilled when it was announced the first three episodes would be released in theatres as a single story. Unlike most critics and belligerent fans, I went into my screening fully expecting to see three episodes of a TV show projected at movie theater size for my pleasure – I appreciated the gesture to us theater-going fans. So where those aforementioned belligerents saw what they dubbed to be an insignificant entry in the Star Wars canon with sub-par animation for a feature film, what I saw was a pretty good, very fun, series pilot with a lot of potential for things to come, with easily the best television animation I’d ever seen. And with the promise of a new adventure every week, my mind went right back to that ‘Empire’-inspired childhood grin: “There’s more!?” While some fans were blustering and posturing their disdain, it seemed like a pretty good deal to me…