Star Wars: Clone Wars (2003)

3 out of 5

Directed by: Genndy Tartakovsky

covers seasons 1 – 3

Here’s the thing: I’ve never been much of a Star Wars fan. An appreciator, yes, and the original flicks were very much a part of my VHS-viewing youth, but they were always “just” movies to me, and okey dokey ones; nothing that fascinated me beyond the 2 hours or so they entailed, or encouraged any kind of continued fandom. Sci-fi, maybe, just wasn’t my bag. That extended into adulthood, when sci-fi maybe was my bag, but the release of the I-III trilogy made it hard to re-set my feelings towards the flicks, beyond moreso appreciating the craft, where it existed, in those first films.

I have been a Genndy Tartakovsky fan for a long time, though, fandom included. But it didn’t allow me to bridge the gap to ever watch (or buy the DVDs of) his Clone Wars series. There was some sort of mental block there: if I liked the show, was I going to have to reevaluate how I felt about Star Wars? Oppositely, if I didn’t like it, would I dislike Tartakovsky? The crazy amount of respect the show garnered made this fluctuation of thoughts worse, and I let the whole thing pass me by.

Now that I have a lot more Tartakovsky-helmed stuff to appreciate, and my tastes are not so all-or-nothing anymore, and with the ease of being able to stream the series on Disney+… it was time.

It’s good.

It’s one long battle scene; two hours of it.

It’s good, and it has some fantastic elements, but I think to a non-Star Wars dedicant, it’s maybe not great.

Taking place between the second and third (sequentially) films, Clone Wars surely makes good on its titular premise of showing, at length, the Galactic Republic’s war with the Separatists – across many planets, in space, in sea, and with many varying creatures and droids. Initially divvied up into 5-ish minute episodes, the pace is pretty fast and furious, allowing only for the slimmest of setup and narrative beyond the various scuffles to emerge – i.e. set the stage for some Jedi to go somewhere and fight some fight, then we watch the fight. And that, for better or worse, is the main limitation with the show: while I imagine viewing this on TV in its original bite sizes was fun, it’s hard to see it as achieving much more than that. I’m glad I can view it all stitched together, but even then, the head-first throttle of the storytelling zaps it of any real highs or lows – it’s entertaining, and it has momentum.

At least initially. You can sort of sense the m.o. here, to “prove” to Star Wars fans that the show means business exactly by going in for a blitz, and then for any casual kid viewers or passerby, you’re Wowing them with that same energy. And Genndy undeniably excels, as a director, at animated action – finding dramatic and unique ways of staging sequences – and that absolutely holds up here. But after about a season of this (totaling about 30 minutes of viewing time), I began to wonder if that’s all there was to Clone Wars. And then the mid-section of the show – season 2, and the first part of the 15-minute episodes of season 3 – bring in Genndy’s other skill of minimalistic storytelling. While there’s still a high quantity of action (and badass Jedi coolness), the animation smooths out a bit and the pace allows for some more contemplative moments, and actual setup – the battles suddenly have more meaning and weight. As we build back up to the concluding battles in season 3’s last half – taking on General Grevious and the Separatists’ last push – that weight is maintained even when the pace goes back to its former rate, although then the cross-cutting between so many characters starts to get in the way, as we drop out mid-battle with some folk to check in on others, somewhat preventing the series from feeling like it has any ultimate conclusion, so much as extended epilogues.

There are some things that Clone Wars does manage better than any Star Wars entry to date: the power of the Jedis finally comes across, and the bad guys – General Grevious especially – similarly actually seem like threats. The world, as populated by tons of different races, also comes across as exactly that varied: in the movies, different creatures just sort of seem like cameos, not suggesting they come from unique lands. Here though, perhaps due to the strong character design and the ability for animation to (relatively) easily scale UP to create entire worlds, each creature gives the impression of actual existing as part of a culture.

And yeah, for two hours, it goes by pretty quickly, and has tons of memorably “cool” Genndy sections. Unfortunately, beyond the visuals and that coolness, the surface level storytelling makes it a very ephemeral two hours, certainly lacking in the gravity of any given Samurai Jack episode, and without some kind of narrative hook that makes it a must watch.