Remembering Tartakovsky’s Clone Wars

titleWith the release of The Force Awakens imminent, Star Wars saturation has reached critical levels, with BB-8 appearing on bunches of oranges at the grocery store and Princess Leia having her own line of cosmetics or something. I don’t know. I haven’t had broadcast television or cable in over 15 years so I’m not quite as inundated as my friends on Facebook seem to be.

But it’s inevitable that my own thoughts turn to a Galaxy far far away.

Like a lot of people I’ve had my heart lifted to soaring heights and dropped to shatter like an Adegan crystal by George Lucas’ much imitated and revered saga. I’ve even enjoyed adding to the EU juggernaut in the days before the House of Mouse took over. Actually, I think the check for my last effort, the short story Hammer, which briefly introduced the franchise’s first racially Black Dark Jedi (would’ve been a Sith had the story developed later) in the pages of Star Wars Insider might’ve come via Disney. I’m not sure.  I managed to work portmanteaus of my wife and all my children into my beloved Star Wars before all of it was officially regulated to Legendary status.

I don’t know if the new Star Wars will be good or not. I’ve got to wait till Christmas Day to form that opinion.

But I’ll always love the original Star Wars, whether it is or it isn’t.  And in 2003, something came about that brought that warm, exciting feeling back for a while, something that seems to have gotten a bad rap over the years in certain corners of fandom, which isn’t deserved at all.

tumblr_noay9njdSW1te20ggo1_1280.pngFrom 2003-2005 the very talented Genndy Tartakovsky of Dexter’s Laboratory and Samurai Jack fame was given carte blanche by George Lucas and Lucasfilm Ltd. to fill in the mysteriously absent events of the much anticipated Clone Wars between Episodes II and III via a series of 20 three minute, (mostly) traditionally animated mini-episodes on Cartoon Network.

I didn’t expect a whole lot from these vignettes. I barely remember Nelvana’s 2D animated forays into the Star Wars universe. How much story and feeling could you possibly pack into a bunch of three minute, action-oriented cartoons?

It turns out, a whole lot. More than has been in Star Wars for a long time.

I had forgotten the Nelvana cartoons. Tartakovsky had not. He incorporated some of those old designs into the look of the droid characters in his series. He hadn’t forgotten much of anything. Certainly not the most important thing about Star Wars.

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Star Wars is itself an homage to 30’s space pulp and adventure movies. Star Wars is a new coat of paint on old ideas. Star Wars does not work when Star Wars homages itself.  That’s like a third generation dub, or a movie based on a video game which was itself a barely disguised homage to another movie. The quality of the story begins to degrade as the generations copy themselves.

For Star Wars to be interesting, it has to be familiar, and yet, show you something you haven’t quite seen before.

suitingupIt’s also not for kids. It’s a family series, yeah. But that means adults can find it entertaining as well.

Tartakovsky’s Clone Wars got that.

Clone Wars isn’t just a continuation of the prequels, it isn’t just a nostalgia trip in a Galaxy Far Far Away. It’s the old magic Lucas infused in ’77 with the adventure serials of his own youth. It’s Top Gun, Lawrence of Arabia, classic pirate movies, Bruce Lee kung fu flicks, anime, wuxia, and probably a thousand other things I’m sure I recognize but can’t call to mind, all filtered through the rose-colored macrobinoculars of Star Wars.

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Tartakovksy, like Lucas, is steeped in film lore. He tells his story cinematically, with little dialogue. Action informs character, not plot.  Clone Wars is full of wild action, imaginative sequences, and it’s easy to dismiss it as superficial. It’s not. Not at all. There are amazing character moments peppered throughout the series which say more in milliseconds of screen time about the characters than has been said previously with minutes of film and pages of dialogue in Attack of The Clones and The Phantom Menace.

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As a kid I watched not only Star Wars, but the old making of documentary, From Star Wars To Jedi, and one bit from Mark Hamill’s narration I have always retained. Spoken against the backdrop of the gathered Rebel Alliance fleet in Return of the Jedi as the Millenium Falcon banks gracefully back and forth, it goes;

“The Star Wars style is based on two things. The editing pace of sequences…and the speed of movement through the frame. Of course we sometimes slow down to catch our breath, and to reflect on the often astonishing beauty of our imaginary world. But not for long.”

I think in the prequels, there was a lot of lingering on the masterful work of the FX crew, the beautiful alien backdrops, the smooth lines of the ships, even the graceful physicality in the lightsaber fights. In the opening of Revenge of The Sith, Obi Wan and Anakin’s fighters take us on a drifting tour of an immense ship to ship battle in high orbit, weaving dreamily in and out of exploding hulls and swarms of automated fighters, spinning through hails of green and red laser bolts.

This is quite lovely, but it’s not the Star Wars style. Neither is the thick blocks of dialogue.

spacebattleTartakovsky’s Clone Wars takes its cast and setting from the prequels, but its style is informed by the original trilogy. Spaceship battles are cluttered affairs, so blindingly fast you have to freeze frame to take it in at times, like the climactic fight at the end of Return of the Jedi, still, for my money, the best filmed space fight of the series. Tartakovsky’s version of the battle over Coruscant seen in the beginning of Revenge of The Sith, like his establishing shots of the awesome Mace Windu sequence on the plains of Dantooine is like the depiction of the Battle of The Five Armies in Rankin and Bass’ Hobbit cartoon. It’s a swarm of angry termites, just raging fleas circling frenetically each other until the camera zooms in to the crowded space, focusing on a bit of the combat, capital ships zipping in out of hyperspace to collide and explode against others already there. It’s a logistical nightmare and it’s awesome.

lancingWitness the speeder bike/swoop gang battle between the IG-86 droids (a nice throwback design to the IG-88 bounty hunter from Empire) and Obi Wan and his mounted clones.  The mounted fighters clash into each other like the knights in Brannagh’s Henry V or Gibson’s Braveheart, or the horse charge in Kurosawa’s Ran or Gunga Din, or a John Ford cavalry scene. Just blurs of motion and one bit of nastiness in the foreground (in this case, a droid pierced by a broken lance head, shattering to fragments and bouncing along the ground as the combatants whiz by unconcerned in the background).

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And has the imagined balance between medieval knight or samurai and quasi-mystical David Carradine Taoist monk ever been depicted so spot on as here? Putting Obi Wan in partial trooper armor and having him lead a mounted charge of lancers against the hulking Durge and his droids is just perfection.  Tartakovsky looks not only to his own influences, but those Lucas has cited in interviews. The foot battle between Kenobi and Durge is out of a Kurosawa samurai movie.

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During his clash with Kenobi, Obi Wan slides his speeder bike sideways, mimicking the classic Kaneda bike shot featured on so many posters and t-shirts in the early 90’s. This isn’t just a pointless shout out, it’s a clever visual hint to the true nature of Durge, who, when revealed as an amorphous, regenerating flesh monster out of his armor later, is right out of the end of the groundbreaking anime Akira by Katsuhiro Otomo, clearly an inspiration to Tartakovsky’s unique animation style.

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Clone Wars opens with a squad of ARC troopers attacking the droid army’s artillery installation high on a building in an advanced cityscape. Stormtroopers have never appeared more fearsome onscreen anywhere before or since. They execute their attack in precision commando fashion, knocking out tanks and droids. We’re in the middle of an old school military movie. Tartakovsky masters the small scale action sequence without having to resort to lightsabers. Again, as was the philosophy of the old West End Games RPG, Star Wars works best when familiar things from the real world are translated into Star Wars-ese. Instead of calling for a UAV to give them a birds eye view of the terrain, one of the clones throws up a little beacon sphere like the one Luke trained with in on the Falcon in the first movie. Then he produces a handheld device which projects a neat little 360 degree hologram of the city. In these few seconds, Tartakovsky has masterfully married the old (beacon) to the new (little holo-projector as established in the prequel movies) and the real world (military UAV/drone).  This is part of the brilliance of Clone Wars. It does a lot in very little time.

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Most surprisingly, the episodes accomplish some brilliant character moments in the span of seconds. A look, like the one Amidala gives to Anakin through the window of her apartment as he departs with the army. She puts her hand to the glass and says more than a two dozen stilted platitudes.  Thirty seconds or so are devoted to Obi Wan just trying to find a dry space to sleep in his command tent on a rain soaked world. Yoda mind controls one of Amidala’s subordinates to divert their ship to aide a pair of besieged Jedi, and the guy repeats his command Obi Wan fashion (These aren’t the droids you’re looking for) but in Yoda’s reversed syntax.  How great is the knighting ceremony of Anakin, when he comes into the council chamber expecting another dressing down and finds himself surrounded by lit lightsabers? His pride is palpable, even on a deceptively simple 2D face, when Yoda, King Arthur fashion, strikes off his padawan braid with his lightsaber and declares him a full-fledged Jedi.

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One of my favorite depictions of the master manipulator Palpatine is in Clone Wars, in the scene where General Grievous attacks his office guards, intent on kidnapping him. Palpatine backs away, his face a mask of fear as Grievous slaughters his clones. As soon as he enters the shadows of the corner, his mock fear falls away to an expression of aloof disinterest, as he’s planned all of this, of course.

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The climactic lightsaber battle at the end of the first season between fallen Jedi Asaaj Ventriss (wonderfully voiced by Grey Deslisle) and Anakin atop the familiar Mesoamerican style pyramids of Yavin IV is a great example of characterization through action. Anakin’s ever-increasing anger begins to overcome him, the emotional volatility of the sequence starting with the sizzling of rain on the lightsabers and reaching a crescendo as the light of the red and blue weapons contrast in the utter darkness of the temple, casting the characters in aligned shades (and remember, this is the location of the celebration at the end of A New Hope).

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Anakin loses his blue saber, takes up one of Asaaj’s red ones, and ultimately drives her to her apparent death under the light of the looming red moon. Anakin is bathed entirely in red, the traditional color of the Dark Side in Star Wars, having given himself over to the Dark Side to defeat her.  This on the surface simple duel does more to explain Anakin’s fall than the entire prequel trilogy, but not content with that, on a primitive world in a later episode, Anakin undergoes his Jedi trial and hallucinates his own eventual destiny in the flickering cave paintings on a wall as he inhales hallucinogenic volcanic gases.

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I’ve read a good deal of negativity leveled against the power levels of the Jedi in this series. The Mace Windu episode is always held up as evidence of the unbelievability of Clone Wars. It’s really one of the most memorable action scenes in any animated work of the last ten years. I don’t understand how anybody can watch it and not thrill to the artistry at work. Mace Windu and his clones face an army of super battle droids on a grassy field when an immense seismic tank arrives and proceeds to stomp on the troops, flinging the survivors in every direction on tides of disturbed earth. This is a great bizarre superweapon, well in the Star Wars wheelhouse. Mace loses his lightsaber and has to take on the droids with his bare hands, pummeling metal and shredding steel, using the Force to disassemble automatons and then ripping their fellows to pieces with the makeshift shrapnel. There’s a great overhead shot of Mace turning and dispatching oncoming droids one at a time that’s right out of Fists of Fury.

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Lucas has in the past cited, I think, the wuxia knights of Hong Kong cinema as inspiration for the Jedi. Chang Cheh’s Venom Mob and the warrior monks of the Shaw Brothers classics come immediately to mind when watching the thrilling Jedi battles in this series. In those old movies, long haired mystic warriors leapt from rooftop to rooftop, up and down stalks of bamboo, and took on dozens of enemies, driving them back in awe with their martial prowess. If you like that kinda stuff, you’ll love it here. It’s an obvious inspiration. The battle between Shaak Ti and the Magnaguards reminded me of Michelle Yeoh staving off hordes of bandits in Wing Chun.

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That’s not to say that Clone Wars is nothing but a slew of familiar homages. It’s thrillingly fresh and imaginative. There’s a great underwater battle sequence early on, the aforementioned speeder bike lancers, and my favorite, a spaceborne boarding action between a failing capital ship and a droid vessel. Jedi Saessi Tiin dons a somewhat familiar looking exposure suit and leads his deep space clones in leaping across space to the other ship. As half the troopers charge along the hull destroying turret emplacements, the Jedi cuts his way in and leads his boarders to the bridge, cutting down droids till he grabs the ships’ wheel controls Errol Flynn style and jerks it starboard.

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The character of General Grievous was introduced to great effect here, so great, in fact, that his comparatively lackluster depiction in Revenge of The Sith disappointed both my son and I at the time.

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There was an explanation I sort of liked that Tartakovsky’s Clone Wars existed in the Star Wars universe as a kind of underground animated media presentation made by the young boy who witnessed Mace Windu’s battle on Dantooine and gave him the jug of water at the end (that being a reference to an old commercial where a boy passes a refreshment to football star Mean Joe Green after a game), sort of an underground cartoon made as protest against the oppression of the Empire. I suppose this was meant to pacify the fans who didn’t care for the series and to explain its existence once the new, more realistically grounded 3D Clone Wars series began.

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Tartakovsky’s Clone Wars was an exciting show that perfectly captured the look and feel of classic Star Wars more than anything since the original trilogy, and still managed to update it for a modern family audience. Although it’s been mostly forgotten and I suppose shelved with the rest of the Legends brand for good or ill, in my mind, it’s still the iteration to top. If The Force Awakens can at the very least match its heart, imagination, and cinematic savvy, it’ll be worth a watch.

Here’s hoping.

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