Perhaps the best thing you can say about Star Wars: The Clone Wars (reviewed here) is that its not as bad as 1980s Star Wars Holiday Special. Its certainly the worst theatrical film with the name Star Wars attached to it and represents a hyper-leap backwards for the Star Wars prequels of the past decade.
The prequel trilogy, namely The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, qualify as one of the most reviled pop culture franchises in modern memory. Aggrieved fans on-line describe Phantom Menace, in particular, as a national trauma and loss of innocence in terms better suited for the Kennedy Assassination. Theyre unquestionably deeply (if decreasingly) flawed films encumbered with misguided comedy, tin-eared dialogue and robotic performances. If you only knew Natalie Portmans work from these films, youd think she was one of the worst actresses of her generation.
Yet despite the flame wars against creator George Lucas' prequel trilogies, they actually contain underappreciated virtues. I actually prefer Revenge of the Sith to Return of the Jedi, the final chapter of the beloved original trilogy. (Incidentally, here are 50 Reasons Why Return of the Jedi Sucks.) In addition to the generally gorgeous CGI designs of alien planets, space ships and creatures, prequel trilogy deserves a little more credit that it gets -- and certainly doesn't deserve The Clone Wars as a send-off:
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Its particularly hard to defend The Phantom Menace for its general sluggishness, but it has an unquestionable highlight: the three-way duel between Qui-Gon Jinn, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Maul is the best light-saber battle of any Star Wars films, with unequaled fight choreography and possibly the prequels most memorable soundtrack music, Duel of the Fates:
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Part of what makes me forgive the prequels is the long-term, interlocking complexity of their plots, particularly the way Chancellor Palpatine, a.k.a. Darth Sidious, seizes power with such subtlety. When The Phantom Menace opened in 1999, a friend of mine (not a sci-fi geek but an acclaimed pop-culture critic) didnt realize that seemingly-helpful Senator Palpatine was the same person as the nefarious Emperor from Return of the Jedi (and he probably wasn't the only one). Its ironic that a trilogy marked by an embarrassing romantic subplot and grating slapstick should be too subtle in its plotting of intergalactic skullduggery. Revenge of the Sith, at least, serves as a sharp metaphor, rife with contemporary overtones, for the abuse of political powers and the manipulation of opinion at a time of war.
Screenwriter/blogger Todd Alcott has persuasively argued that Palpatine is the de facto protagonist of Phantom Menace. The Machiavellian schemer is behind nearly every major event in the trilogy, which either increases his political power or tips Anakin Skywalker closer to the dark side that is, Palpatines team. All that business with the Trade Federation taking over Naboo in Phantom Menace is just a pretext for Palpatine to be elected chancellor of the Galactic Republic. The kidnapping and murder of Anakins mother Shmi in Attack of the Clones was almost certainly executed at Palpatines instigation to unleash his dark, destructive emotions. Given that Shmi claims to have had Anakin via a virgin birth in Phantom, and Palpatine alludes to the Siths power to create life in Sith, its entirely possible that Palpatine is Anakins biological father. (One can only imagine that he leaves little bastard Siths at every port, with plans to cultivate the promising ones as potential apprentices, sort of the like the little Hitler clones in The Boys from Brazil.)
Most viewers of the prequels already know all that, but Im surprised that Lucas connects so few of the dots in the films. The best parts of Attack of the Clones function as a kind of James Bond film in space, with Obi-Wan trying to figure out the mystery (but, alas, failing to put the final pieces together). On the Clones DVD, you can watch the good parts and just skip the Anakin/Padme romance scenes with the push of a button. Given how Palpatines plans succeed as well as any Shakespearean schemer, one could forgive him a little How I did it monologuing, assisted by pertinent flashbacks. Such a device could potentially alleviate some audiences bad memories of Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, but I couldnt even find a fan-made montage on Youtube. Here's the "opera scene" with Palpatine and Anakin, supposedly written, without screen credit, by playwright Tom Stoppard:
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Granted, the new Clone Wars is intended as the lead-in to an animated Cartoon Network series for kids, so some of the Oedipal content will be a little dark for young ones. Disappointment in Clone Wars theatrical release is magnified because Genndy Tartakovskys 2-D animated Clone Wars series was rather good, and also took place between Clones and Sith. From the creator of Samurai Jack, the original series originally took place in three-minute chapters, which essentially offer nothing but action scenes and military skirmishes. Given the prequels problems with character and dialogue, thats called playing to ones strengths. The animation has a sharp, carved-looking drawing style that proves far more dynamic that the plasticky computer animation of the new film. The previous "Clone Wars" features some Star Wars moments that are classics in their own right. This sequence with Mace Windu (voiced by Samuel L. Jackson) establishes the character as the Jedis biggest badass:
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Apart from the Jedi's vertical attack on a mountaintop monastery and some occasionally neat-o moments with big robots and explosions, the new Clone Wars never matches the previous animated show's invention with action scenes. Worse, it emphasizes the juvenile banter and achingly bad phrases (like "Roger-roger" and "Youngling") that provided the prequels with some of their most painful moments. Lucas seemed motivated in at least some of his missteps from Phantom Menace in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, but Clone Wars goes back to square one in the worst way. I predict that "Ziro the Hutt" will soon be a pop-culture punchline like "Jar-Jar Binks" is today.
Finally, the new Clone Wars fails to include my favorite original character from the prequels, the caped, coughing evil droid General Grievous. First appearing in the 2-D "Clone Wars," Grievous comes across like a combination of a 1930s "Flash Gordon" serial villain and Ray Harryhausen-era stop-motion animated monster. Those were some of the same inspirations of the original Star Wars trilogy, which made audiences welcome flashing back to "a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away:"
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