"Star Wars: The Clone Wars" Season 2 Starts Off with a Bang
Star Wars: The Clone Wars drives me nuts.
For the most part, I find, the show suffers the same flaws that afflicted the prequel movies, and which left me disenchanted with the franchise. The characters are either stiff, wooden, and boring as hell, or tremendously, tooth-grindingly juvenile and annoying in a deeply misguided effort to make them funny (with R2-D2 continuing to prove his value by navigating these extremes as easily as he navigates the entire Star Wars saga). Exposition is repeatedly mistaken for storytelling, and the plots and schemes of the Emperor-to-be are byzantine, muddled, and pointlessly complex for what he’s really trying to achieve. The franchise has become far, far too reverential to its own mythology, bogging everything down with weight and self-importance where the original trilogy soared. The TV series specifically also seems like an exercise in futility, dedicated to chronicling events in detail that seem to have no long-term significance whatsoever to the outcome detailed in Revenge of the Sith. It also seems to have amped up the juvenile factor even more, making the Battle Droids even more idiotic and non-threatening, and adding the entirely unnecessary character Ahsoka Tano. I also could not bring myself to watch when the first season of the show inflicted not one but two episodes on us with far, far too much Jar-Jar Binks. (How much is too much? Is he on screen or talking? That’s too much.)
And yet, every now and then, the series has a flash of inspiration that reminds me why I fell in love with the movies in the first place. Episodes like “Ambush,” where Yoda teaches valuable battlefield lessons of self-worth to clone troopers, or “Rookies,” where a platoon of green clones have to defend an outpost against a horde of deadly commando droids, felt like old-school Star Wars to me. They possessed the kind of inspiration that captured my imagination as a child. It’s these kinds of episodes that keep me from dismissing the series entirely, drawing me back even if I end up disappointed more often than not.
With my biases explained up front, the season 2 premiere of Star Wars: The Clone Wars feels like a good news/bad news joke. The good news is that these two episodes fall a lot closer to the original trilogy than most of the others in season 1, piquing my curiosity and raising my hopes yet again that maybe this time the show will be able to hold my interest better and more consistently. The previous season finale, “Hostage Crisis,” introduced the vicious bounty hunter Cad Bane, whose ruthlessness, fearlessness, and unnatural skill with a blaster made him a formidable match for the Jedi, even if they slightly overplay his Old West gunslinger motif. Bane is the central figure of these first two episodes, doing the footwork for Darth Sidious in yet another plan to undermine the Jedi order. As you will probably guess from the title, the first episode, “Holocron Heist” (written by Paul Dini and directed by Justin Ridge), is essentially a heist flick set in the Star Wars universe, as Bane and his colleagues execute a complicated plan to infiltrate the Jedi temple and steal a Jedi holocron. The holocron is needed to decode a memory crystal that is stolen at the start of the second episode “Cargo of Doom” (written by George Krstic, directed by Rob Coleman), which then focuses on Bane’s efforts to decode the crystal and make his escape from Anakin Skywalker and Ahsoka.
Like the best heist stories, “Holocron Heist” is fun to watch multiple times: first to discover how the plan will work, and subsequently to watch the plan unfold as Bane either compensates for plot twists or is shown to have orchestrated them right from the start. He also demonstrates through actions that the real danger he presents is rooted in his audacity and his ability to think ahead a few more steps than the opposition. After an early moment when she is her usual annoying self, Ahsoka also becomes a much more muted and humble presence and becomes a far better character for it. Best of all, the show finally manages to create a character who is genuinely funny instead of colossally annoying in the form of Bane’s hapless robotic assistant Todo (rhymes with Dorothy’s dog). Todo is voiced by Seth Green, channeling the neurotic droid schtick as well or better than Anthony Daniels as C-3PO, and dropping some truly funny one-liners that are much more organic to the situation than any of the bad slapstick Jar-Jar or prequel-era C-3PO are saddled with.
The show makes a puzzling leap at the start of “Cargo of Doom,” skipping over what could have been an interesting episode in itself and going straight to Bane’s attempts to escape and decode the Jedi memory crystal he has just acquired. This quickly turns into a more conventional, action-oriented episode, although it certainly shows more creativity in staging its action scenes than the series norm. Highlights include an unusual method of storming a ship and a zero-gravity shootout in a docking bay loaded with volatile munitions. The only real criticism is that Bane’s success in this episode is mostly because both Anakin and Ahsoka repeatedly forget that Jedi Knights can move things with their minds. This was something that occurred repeatedly in “Hostage Crisis” as well, and is just as irritating here because it’s so easy to see where a little Jedi telekinesis would have easily wrecked Bane’s plans. Still, the episode is plenty of fun and comes with a surprisingly downbeat ending that opens up more ground for the remainder of the season.
The CGI animation of The Clone Wars doesn’t seem to have improved or deteriorated from earlier episodes, although perhaps a television schedule doesn’t allow for integration of technological improvements as easily as a feature film would. The human characters still come off looking worse than the more alien ones or the robots, but I still find the aesthetics reasonably appealing. Cad Bane himself gets a lot of attention, getting a lot of expressive and subtle facial animation that matches the marvelously dry vocal performance by Corey Burton. The show also continues to do a reasonably good job of making the action scenes fun, exciting, and comprehensible rather than like someone else playing a video game, but the storylines so far manage to ratchet up the tension of these action scenes to make us feel like something important is really at stake here.
So, all that’s the good news about Star Wars: The Clone Wars. What’s the “bad news” part of that good news/bad news joke I promised?
I just know that there’s another Jar-Jar-focused episode waiting out there somewhere this season.
Season 2 of Star Wars: The Clone Wars premieres on Cartoon Network on October 2, 2009, at 8:00 PM (Eastern/Pacific).