When the son of Jabba the Hutt is kidnapped, the Jedi Council despatch Anakin Skywalker and his feisty new apprentice to rescue the child and gain the favour of the Hutts in the early days of the Clone Wars.
Star Wars: The Clone Wars is part of the current Star Wars canon. You can check out the entire timeline by clicking these words.
For the most part, Star Wars: The Clone Wars feels like exactly what it is – five or so episodes of Saturday-morning animation, writ large. It’s a continuation of a well-regarded 2003 animated series by Genndy Tartakovsky, and the 98-minute pilot for another series that would air on Cartoon Network for six seasons and 121 episodes between 2008 and 2013.
This is a bad film, but an important one if you’re a dork like me who is concerned about the broader continuity of Star Wars. Its stylized action would, in a continuing animation series that started out just as wonky but eventually became rather excellent, come to define the galaxy-spanning Clone Wars which the films skimmed over between installments.
Set between the events of Episode II: Attack of the Clones and Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, this film finds the Republic still at war with the Separatists. Both sides would like the favor of the Hutts, the odious space-slugs whose influence slimes its way around the galaxy’s rough edges. But Jabba the Hutt’s son, Rotta (David Acord), has been kidnapped – and by a Jedi, he’s told. Sent to investigate are Anakin Skywalker (Matt Lanter) and his new Padawan, Ahsoka Tano (Ashley Eckstein). The film’s – and, later, the show’s – greatest contribution to continuity is Ahsoka; a wide-eyed and impulsive apprentice whose relationship with Anakin gives his eventual fall to the Dark Side far more tragedy and heft.
Still, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. When I say “wide-eyed”, I mean that in more ways than one. The hyperreal visuals would eventually be smoothed out over the seasons, but here they’re ropey. Waxwork wigs sit on stiff, exaggerated models, half-frozen faces like paper plates with stick-on features. You get used to it eventually, but it’s jarring at first.
Once you’re settled, though, there’s some charm in this cast of caricatures. Familiar characters like Anakin and Obi-Wan Kenobi (James Arnold Taylor) are recognizable but off-kilter, like hand-painted models, but their faces are big and expressive and there’s a lot about them that feels familiar. Which is just as well, because there’s little reference to the larger saga here. This film focuses mostly on the action, which is slick and often inventive but doesn’t do much for emotional investment.
There’s only so much you can expect, though. This is, after all, the beginning of a series, just stapled together such that it resembles a feature film. Characters that are introduced here won’t have storylines or interactions that pay off until several episodes – or seasons – from now. Ahsoka, the precocious and surprisingly affable youngling, is so integral to Anakin’s character arc that she’s given lots to do in this film and in the series right from the word go. But supporting players like the Sith apprentice Asajj Ventress and the drawling Ziro the Hutt are just one-note antagonists here, useful for a saber-duel or some easy humor.
You probably wouldn’t associate the Hutt clan with lightness, but here we are. That leavening of the tone occurs across the board, but mostly with Ziro, a cross-dressing pimp slug, and the Separatist battle droids, who seem to have found their natural habitat here but quickly become rather insufferable. (This is a problem that the first proper season of the show also has.)
The Clone Wars might not feel entirely like Star Wars, because in a lot of ways it isn’t. But the problems with it aren’t attributable to it not being like Star Wars or being an animation, but to it not being very good. The shortcuts taken in the animation, the skimping on storytelling, and the overreliance on easy humor, all conspire to make The Clone Wars flawed enough that it’s a tragic turn-off from a series that would eventually become pretty great. So if I don’t necessarily recommend this film, I absolutely recommend everything that came after it, and I’m glad that it exists.