Not every "Star Wars" episode is an event. Remember those mid-'80s Ewoks TV spin-offs? The colorful, computer-animated "Clone Wars" aims higher, but in the end, it's a Cartoon Network pilot that's been dropped into a decidedly un-eventful late-summer release slot. (The ongoing TV series hits cable this fall.) It's also the latest example of how the franchise keeps frustratingly spurning the magical simplicity of the original trilogy.
Set in the narrative gap between the live-action "Attack of the Clones" and "Revenge of the Sith," the story spotlights a pre-Vader Anakin Skywalker ("
There's a lot of exposition, particularly in the movie's first half, about the Jedi needing to make nice with Jabba to ensure that he's on the Republic's side in the escalating clash with the Separatists. But we're also reminded that the Separatists and nefarious Count Dooku (Christopher Lee) are actually in cahoots with the future emperor. And so we're right back to the needlessly convoluted conflict that was just as problematic for the prequel trilogy as stiff performances or Jar Jar Binks (not present here). Once again, even reasonably committed fans will need a scorecard to keep track of who's fighting whom. What's the real target audience - i.e. kids - supposed to make of it all?
That said, the PG crowd should get a charge out of the hyperactive battle imagery, which feels less like overload here than it did when it was meshed with the prequels' live action. Sure, the characters are curiously rendered in the style of "Thunderbirds" marionettes. (What was wrong with the 2-D design work by creator Genndy Tartakovsky on Cartoon Network's previous "Clone Wars" series?) But a vertical firefight sequence with beetle tanks crawling up a sheer rock face is inspired. And a desert duel between Anakin and Dooku by the light of multiple silvery moons lends new energy to the requisite lightsaber-swinging.
But oh, the larger opportunity missed. There's a reason that children of the '70s recall "Star Wars" so vividly: The concept was pure. It was the Rebel Alliance versus the Empire, and if the rebels blew up the Death Star, they won. With "Clone Wars," we're hit with big-picture conflict that's about as rousingly black-and-white as a breakdown of the US's Iraq exit strategy. And when the movie finally relents with its labyrinthine politics, the dramatic goal that comes into focus is . . . Jedi Knights with a Huttlet nicknamed "Stinky" squished into a BabyBjörn, on a quest to get the little bugger home safe. Fun, but not exactly an event.