Star Wars is, essentially, camp. To love it, you have to start there. Needless to say, the last fifteen years have been traumatizing for the Star Wars legacy—the prequels failed to hit that fleeting but lovely balance of camp, action, morality, and humor that makes the Star Wars galaxy so hilariously addictive. But where the movies disappointed, somehow, Star Wars: The Clone Wars succeeds. It’s light fare—after all, it’s a Saturday morning cartoon—but it effortlessly takes you into the world of Star Wars, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. As a result it’s highly enjoyable: fascinating and immersive and fun.
To put the series context for new viewers: Star Wars: The Clone Wars takes place in the three-year gap between Attack Of The Clones and Revenge Of The Sith. “Revival,” which aired this morning, is Clone Wars’ fifth season premiere. But if you haven't seen the first few seasons, the major players are all easily recognizable, and context is quickly established. Darth Maul survived being sliced in half and tossed down a reactor pit exhaust shaft after that fairly epic lightsaber duel at the end of The Phantom Menace. He is now, improbably but also awesomely, half machine. Maul recently reunited with his brother, Savage Opress (Maul and Savage Opress. What the hell were Mr. and Mrs. Opress thinking?), and the two of them are pillaging and murdering across the galaxy, a sideshow during the ongoing drama of the clone wars. According to the voiceover in “Revival’s” introduction, the brothers are also “searching for meaning,” motivated by “rage and vengeance.”
This plan has some flaws.
In time-honored Star Wars fashion, the episode starts with a quick and dirty action scene. The brothers (who call themselves the Crime Lords) raid a generic facility and seize the gold in the safe. Savage is happy about the spoils, but Maul is looking for more—revenge against the Jedi. Less than three minutes into the episode is our first totally sweet lightsaber fight (albeit a short one) between the brothers as Maul asserts his dominance over Savage. He wins because he has long robot legs, and names himself master to Savage's apprentice.
Obi-Wan and another Jedi, Adi Gallia, have been tracking the Sith brothers, and follow the distress signal to the remnants of the raid. They learn the brothers, following Maul’s leadership, have gone to Florum. Adi asks what’s in Florum. Obi-Wan responds grimly, “Pirates.”
And that is at 4:56. Five minutes in, and the episode has reached epic awesomeness already. A facility raid, two Sith lords, a double-bladed lightsaber, and SPACE PIRATES. “Revival” raises the stakes quickly and throws the audience right into the action, complete with a quick rundown of terminology for the uninitiated (They’re not Jedi, n00b! They’re Sith Lords. Haven’t you even seen the movies?) and basic establishment of the major players (good, bad, neutral). It’s rather well done.
The production, too, is high-quality. The CGI animation makes the entire landscape feel like a highly responsive video game, which is not a bad strategy for the attention-deficit generation. The backdrops and lightsaber effects are kind of astoundingly reminiscent of the best parts of the films. I think the lightsaber fights are actually better. Even the score is well-done—during the lightsaber fights there is some choral work going on, which is an obvious reference to John Williams’ score from Phantom Menace, “Duel of the Fates.” Atmospherically, it lacks the desolation of Imperial Tatooine, but again, given that it’s a Saturday morning cartoon, that’s not surprising. The facial animation could use some work, though. The dialogue seems either out of sync or completely unrelated to what the characters’ faces are doing.
Which is too bad, because the dialogue and voice acting are also impressive. Both Darth Maul and Obi-Wan Kenobi come off better in the animated series than their film counterparts. Obi-Wan is a little less goody-two-shoes, a little more emotionally available. And Maul is a far more complex character, with motivation and range, and a rather nice jawline, for what it’s worth. The head of the space pirates is Hondo Ohnaka, and he has some of the funniest lines in “Revival.” Sure, he’s a treacherous pirate, but he’s also gutsy and good-hearted, obviously.
Fans of the series will find several hallmarks to the original trilogy—not the least of which is someone’s arm getting cut off by a lightsaber. Considering that’s one of the Star Wars motifs that gets a lot of play in fan communities, it’s a great nod to the originals.
And, rest assured, there are a lot of lightsaber fights. There are three in the 22-minute episode: the short duel between the brothers, a skirmish between the two Jedi and the two Sith, and a longer one between Obi-Wan and the brothers. They are fantastic. Lightsaber choreography is one of the highlights of any Star Wars production, and animation makes it easy to create fluid scenes and impossible, Force-fueled stunts. In the last skirmish, Obi-Wan wields not just one lightsaber, but two, against Savage’s double-blade and Maul’s single. That’s five blades in a tight space, and it makes for some very pretty special effects.
The joy of Star Wars will always rely, at least a little bit, on spectacle. But what’s nice about Clone Wars is that even though it’s a CGI show on Cartoon Network, the characters’ motivations still matter, as do choices between right and wrong. The lightsaber fights are there because they’re awesome, but they’re also there because they have a point. Clone Wars is a lot of fun and totally worth DVRing to watch hungover with your Saturday brunch. In fact, it’s probably better that way.