Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Star Wars: The Clone Wars - 2.17 - Bounty Hunters

Anakin, Obi-Wan, and Ahsoka join a group of bounty hunters in defending a group of farmers against a group of pirates.

Before delving into the episode itself, I'd like to register a quick gripe against whomever is coming up with these titles. "Bounty Hunters"-!? Really? At least with "Senate Murders," as dull as the title was, it was specifically applicable to the episode that followed it. Aside from not being the introduction of bounty hunters to The Clone Wars, nor being the definitive bounty hunters episode, "Bounty Hunters," could have just as aptly been titled "Farmers," or "Pirates" or, "Anakin, Obi-Wan, and Ahsoka" and had relatively the same impact. Get a bit more creative, titler(s)!

Title-gripes aside, this was almost a near-perfect Clone Wars episode. If it weren't for a single bungled story element, I might just be hailing "Bounty Hunters" as the most well-rounded, best-executed Clone Wars episode yet. So what worked? Foremost, the Characters! All three of the featured Jedi were given moments to let their personalities shine both heroically and comediacally, and (even better) worked well together as non-dysfunctional team. This was a breath of fresh air from a group who usually can't seem to stop bickering amongst themselves despite being purported friends - and it went a long way toward rendering the on screen viewing experience as something cheer-worthy. The combination of both "cool" and "likable" is a potent one, and while the former has been an effortless hurdle for Anakin and Obi-Wan over the course of the series, the second has been more of stumbling block. The trick to avoiding it is clearly letting their camaraderie overshadow their frustrations with each other. I'm not saying the writers should ignore the mentor/pupil angst, but letting it punctuate a routinely functional and effective partner/friendship is plenty more dramatic then letting Anakin and Obi-wan devolve into one-note sourpusses, the way they remained for much of Season 1, not to mention the prequel films themselves.

The trio's functionality alone would have been a boon to the episode's character score, but we're given two other reasons to cheer: the titular bounty hunters themselves and the return of Jim Cummings' Hondo Ohnaka. The squad of hired-to-do-the-right-thing bounty hunters was a well-oiled machine of interesting character concepts and execution. Their leader, Sugi (clearly from that distant planet "Russia"), embodied well the concept that not all bounty hunters in the Star Wars universe need to be corrupt and dishonorable. She wouldn't allow her team to renege on their deal with the Farmers when offered more money by the Pirates, and she developed enough regard for our Jedi heroes to offer them a ride off Felucia. Seripas (reminiscent of the alien prince from Men In Black) had a nice little story-within-the-story about gaining confidence to be strong despite your size. While short and to-the-point, it was nice to see such economic character story-telling work successfully within the greater scope of the episode's primary conflict. And Embo, the total bad-ass with the deadly hat, was so impressive to look at and so expertly animated in combat, that his moves instantly stood out as some of the coolest this series has seen. On the other side of the conflict, bringing back a previously-established pirate enemy was a great move from the writers. Obi-Wan and Anakin having history with Hondo gave the pirate threat (as well as the episode's stand-offs and conflicts) a welcome higher degree of gravity than the usual villain-of-the-week encounters. While Hondo's previous episodes (1.11 [Dooku Captured) and 1.12 [The Gungan General]) were some of the lowest points of Season 1, his character's concept and execution were sound, and Hondo instantly seemed like he could have been very engaging given better material. This proved to be correct in "Bounty Hunters," and I'm glad that it looks like we'll be seeing him again in the future.

The only sour note on the topic of characters this week were the Felucian Farmers themselves. Their design was functional at best, their character development minimal considering how central they were to the conflict, and the one frequently-voiced Felucian character was whiney and obnoxious every time he piped up. Considering how effortlessly the Clone Wars team managed to make Seripas likable and cheer-worthy in only two story beats, you would think these Farmers could have been a bit more memorable/worthwhile even without any more material and/or space to breathe in the already jam-packed episode. Curiously, however, this is almost a non-existent complaint in an episode featuring an otherwise off-the-charts character score.

So what else worked? The action. The battle for the farming village, which rounded out the episode's third act, was by far one of the most well-executed land battles this series has seen. Apart from great moments involving the speeder bikes, and Hondo and Anakin's duel, the entire sequence was made up of one cool "bit" after another, yet flowed extremely well from one segment to the next. The trap the farmers set for some of the bike's was reminiscent of the Battle for Endor in Return of the Jedi, but what this battle really emulated from 'Jedi' was the perfect mix of having many things happening at once, but all parts being both easy to follow and equally gripping. We follow Obi-wan and Suji, Ahsoka and Seripas, Anakin duelling Hondo on his own, Embo kicking butt on his own, Hondo's Kowakian Monkey Lizard mannig a tank, and multiple groups of unnamed farmers and pirates, and it all seagues perfectly with one "hell yeah!" moment following the next. This was exquisite action planning, and even better execution. It was expertly cinematic, a ton of fun, and quite possibly the best extended fight sequence I've ever seen in an animated television show. Add in the usually goofy-looking Felucian environment looking beautiful for (in my opinion) the first time, and "Bounty Hunters" was a corker to watch.

So, about that bungled story element that keeps this from getting highest marks: The story itself was tight enough, consisting of a fairly good spin on the classic "teaching the helpless natives how to fight" narrative, but there was just a bit too much time waisted on Obi-wan going on about how he and his fellow Jedi didn't have time to stick around and help the farmers. This COULD have been an interesting dilemma, and it was presented as such, but it went nowhere and actually disappeared from the story without so much as a farewell nod. The Jedi were stuck on the planet, and if it was so important that they get off ASAP, you would think there'd be a scene of Obi-wan attempting to lead his compatriots away on foot. Or a scene of Anakin and Ahsoka convincing Obi-wan that staying to fight is their best course of action. Or some sort of point to this line of thinking other than providing an uneccessary dose of the usual stick-in-the-mud Jedi order attitude. The Jedi order's policies causing conflict is a potentially interesting plot device and source for drama and character development, and has been in the past, and hopefully will be again in the future, but here it is just thrown out to make Obi-wan seem stodgy, and to provide a false lead for internal conflict that disappears as quickly as it appears. It doesn't harm any of the other awesomness this episode routinely doled out, but it does serve to add a bit of a head-scratch moment to an otherwise smile-inducing experience. 4.5 stars.

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