“Anakin, the most difficult trial a Jedi must face is to look inside one’s self. Often, we see things we don’t like, but these aspects are not set in stone. It is our decisions that shape our destinies.”
So, with Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith out on DVD and DVD Verdict already giving it a thorough review, you thought our coverage of that galaxy far, far away would be over, right? Think again. Hot on the heels of Episode III comes Star Wars: Clone Wars, Volume 2.
Clone Wars began as short five-minute cartoons on Cartoon Network. Clone Wars was produced by Genndy Tartakovsky, creator of Dexter’s Laboratory and Samurai Jack. Clone Wars owes much to the latter, borrowing heavily from its visual aesthetic and tendency to allow long sequences to develop with only sound effects to tell the tale. True to its name, it was a series of vignettes from the Clone Wars, that mysterious conflict only hinted at in the Holy Trilogy, and that we saw erupt on-screen in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones like a pixelated first shot at Fort Sumter. The second series altered the format a bit. Rather than 20 five-minute segments, it was comprised of five 15-minute segments presented on consecutive nights about two months before the theatrical release of Revenge of the Sith. (On DVD, the episodes are formed into one continuous “movie,” without any chapter interstitials.)
The first volume of Clone Wars gave us the action at the front lines and followed Jedi like Obi-Wan Kenobi, Mace Windu, Kit Fisto, and the venerable Yoda, as well as the exploits of crack commando squads of Clone Troopers. Anakin Skywalker faced his most dangerous challenge yet, as a Dark Jedi baited him into an epic lightsaber duel. Anakin succumbed to his hate and anger, and after disarming the Jedi killed her in cold blood. The series concluded by introducing a new, powerful foe: General Grievous, a cyborg curiously adept with a lightsaber…or rather, many lightsabers at once.
Volume 2 picks up right where the first series left off. A squad of Clone commandos breaks through waves of droids to come to the aid of the Jedis besieged by General Grievous. Jedi Masters Ki-Adi-Mundi, Aayla Secura, and Shaak Ti are the only survivors, and General Grievous escapes. The war has spread across the Outer Rim planets. The battle rages on many fronts. Obi-Wan and Anakin (now promoted to full knighthood) are the heroes of many victories, but are curiously pulled away from the front by Chancellor Palpatine to track down General Grievous on a remote planet. While there, Anakin must help the indigenous tribe after their men are taken for hideous experiments under orders of General Grievous. It is the trial of spirit that he never had before becoming a full Jedi. He sees a vision — he saves the people, but later his anger causes him to destroy all those close to him. Will it be the harbinger of things to come, or will Anakin choose a different path?
Meanwhile, the Droid armies make a bold attack on Coruscant. Every available Jedi joins the fray, both in space and on the ground. The Jedi soon discover that it is all a very costly diversion, as General Grievous himself makes to kidnap Chancellor Palpatine. The Jedi assigned to protect him fight valiantly, but it is not enough to stop the powerful droid. Palpatine is whisked away, just as Anakin and Obi-Wan hear of the attack and mobilize their troops to join the battle…
While it is certainly not unique among science fiction film or television series, the core Star Wars “canon” has been built upon by its “expanded universe” of tie-in cartoons, comics, novels, and games. If there is a niche that could be filled, a backstory that could be built, fake history that could be constructed, or character who could be made a bigger legend, it’s pretty well been done, yet the Star Wars juggernaut continues. The Tales of the Jedi comic book series took the story back several millennia to fill in gaps in the war between the Jedi and the Sith; similar ground was covered to great effect in the Knights of the Old Republic video games. Timothy Zahn’s “Heir to the Empire” trilogy of novels told of the beginnings of the New Republic, built out of the ashes of the Empire after the events of Return of the Jedi. Role-playing and video games have helped define the powers of a Jedi, not to mention the minutiae of everything else in the universe. On the small screen, the 1980s were rife with adaptations, from the Ewoks and Droids cartoons to a duology of live-action TV films revolving around everyone’s favorite Ewok, Wicket. (And do you think I’d honestly let this part of the review go without mentioning the infamous Holiday Special? I’ve seen it — it’s best left forgotten.)
But what do any of these non-canon works have to do with what you see in the films? Very little. Most of these are glorified fan fiction, legitimatized by official publication and fan acceptance. Little of what’s in them has been blessed by the Flanneled One, George Lucas. Some of it leaked into the official films — the Republic/Empire’s capital planet of Coruscant, Vader’s flagship Super Star Destroyer, Kyle Katarn’s ship from the Dark Forces series of games made an appearance in the “special edition” of A New Hope; heck, even the Holiday Special contributed Kashyyyk, the Wookiee homeworld, but more importantly, introduced the world to badass bounty hunter Boba Fett — but for the most part they’ve been their own entities. Clone Wars, on the other hand, is different. While the animation staff largely developed the stories in the first series, this second series was developed hand in hand with Lucasfilm to help tell the story of Revenge of the Sith, showing what led to the opening crawl. Granted, the ground covered in Clone Wars is filler when compared to the story Lucas ultimately wanted to tell — the rise, fall, and redemption of Anakin Skywalker — but it’s filler that gives you a more complete picture of his life. His duel with Asajj Ventress gives us a greater sense of just how Palpatine engineered his downfall. We see his relationship with Obi-Wan, giving greater insight into the pain Obi-Wan must have felt on Mustafar, watching his pupil — and friend — self-destruct. We see him sneaking off to visit his wife. We see him become a Jedi Knight. But most importantly, we see that hate and anger clouded his every move, making his slide to the Dark Side almost inevitable.
But, the material dealing with Anakin in Volume 2 is, well, boring. It doesn’t start out that way. We see him a montage of him fighting in numerous battles, both on land and in a starcraft. Obi-Wan and Anakin infiltrate a planet’s defensives, cutting short a months-long offensive in spectacular fashion. He was a great warrior, yet his great trial is listening to a shaman and rescuing a bunch of mutated aliens on some jerkwater planet? It feels pointless, an excuse to see him unleash his fury (by force-choking the captors) one more time, then feel guilty about it. It lacks the visceral excitement of the duel with Asajj Ventress, easily the highlight of Volume 1. It feels like a small event in the career of a Jedi who had risen so high and would descend into evil the likes of which the galaxy had never known. All that pivots on cave paintings? Please.
The real highlight of Volume 2 is the battle on Coruscant, in particular the attempt to protect Palpatine. Three Jedi, led by Shaak Ti (she’s the pink, white, and green Jedi you see in Attack of the Clones), frantically make for an underground bunker pursued by “MagnaGuards” (General Grievous’s bodyguard droids) and by General Grievous himself. Far from the simpering coward they made him in Revenge of the Sith, Grievous of the Clone Wars cartoons is a very effective killing machine. Shaak Ti barely survived her previous encounter with Grievous (seen in Volume 1 and the opening of Volume 2), and she’s downright afraid of a second showdown. A duel between the Jedi and MagnaGuards in a subway station is one of the most thrilling segments in all of Star Warsdom, capped off by a surprise appearance by the General. It’s worth picking up the DVD just for this sequence. I can finally delete the episode from my Tivo!
Speaking of the DVD, Fox did an impressive job with Volume 1, and Volume 2 follows the tradition. Video is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen. The picture is quite impressive, exhibiting none of the problems that animation can have on DVD. Colors are vivid and lines are crisp and sharp, with no signs of edge enhancement or pixelation. Audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1, as well as 2.0 surround in English, French, and Spanish. The 5.1 track is immersive, with surround effects aplenty and rich use of the LFE channel.
For extra content, you get a commentary track, featurette, game demos, still galleries, a Revenge of the Sith trailer, and “Revenge of the Brick.” The commentary features Genndy Tartakovsky, writer/storyboard artist Bryan Andrews, art director/writer Paul Rudish, and production manager Darrick Bachman. There’s a wealth of information here, both about the travails of producing an animation project and about the genesis of the ideas onscreen. The featurette, titled “Connecting the Dots,” is a ten-minute look at the ideas behind the series, featuring most of the same participants as the commentary. Its emphasis is on the ties between the live-action films and the cartoon, given greater weight by intercutting scenes from both to show the similarities. The video game section gives you trailers for Star Wars Battlefront II (along with a playable XBox demo, for those of you with the console) and Star Wars Empire at War. The still galleries give you storyboards and promotional artwork; these features are generally pointless, and this is not the exception to the rule. The Revenge of the Sith trailer is the full-length trailer that shows off quite a bit of the film. “Revenge of the Brick” is a CG-rendered short film with the highly enjoyable Star Wars-themed Legos. I have the GameCube game with a similar concept, and it’s more fun than you can possibly imagine. However, the Legos here are highly stylized, unlike the video game, which more closely resembles physical Legos; I prefer the game’s look. The closing credits are the best part of the short — Darth Vader conducting a Clone Trooper orchestra with his lightsaber.
While I didn’t think this at first, the more I watch both volumes of Clone Wars, the more it irks me just how exaggerated it makes the Jedi. Here, they’re veritable superheroes, performing ridiculous feats that go well beyond anything you see them do in the films. This is particularly true of Mace Windu, a favorite of the animation staff. He leaps stories into the air to board a gunship in flight. He rides a flying droid, maneuvering it with its control wires. He hurdles straight up into the air in a vain attempt to rescue Palpatine, deflecting blaster bolts all the way. It’s crazy cool, but also just plain crazy. It reminds you that you’re watching a cartoon — nothing more, nothing less. I like cartoons, far more than a man of 30 should, but if I wanted exaggerated antics, I’d watch Spongebob Squarepants. Okay, that’s a low blow. How about Samurai Jack? That’s a mythical world, and having a hero who leap and flip and slice and dice works in context. Here, our context is what Lucas demonstrated in the live-action films, and the lack of “reality” is a little off-putting.
This probably goes without saying, but any Star Wars fan should have Star Wars: Clone Wars, Volume 2 in their collection. While not vital to the story of the six-episode epic, it is very nearly an Episode 2.5, and should be treated as such (and I do — it sits on my DVD shelf between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith). Besides, it lists for only $20 and retails for much less, so it’s a no-brainer for purchase.