Quick Take: Better than the prequel films? Absolutely.
As the Star Wars prequel trilogy unfolded it became painfully clear that the Clone Wars emotionally alluded to by Ben Kenobi in A New Hope would not be the focus. The narrative chosen by George Lucas was a major blow to scores of adults who waited decades to see insinuated epic battles unfold only to be given glimpses of a galaxy-wide war through a short montage of Jedi being purged and a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it skirmish pitting Wookies and Clones against droids.
The exclusion of the Clone Wars in the Star Wars prequels opened the door for spin-off alternative forms of entertainment to delve deeper into the world of Clones, Jedi, politics and the Separatist forces. After a short test of anime-influenced Clone Wars shorts on the Cartoon Network, LucasFilm embarked on a new CGI animated show that will cover the Clone Wars slipped over between episodes II and III of the live-action films.
Season One of The Clone Wars animated show begins where the animated feature film originally designed to be the first four episodes leaves off. Anakin Skywalker has reluctantly taken on a Padawan apprentice in talented but young and obnoxious Ahsoka Tano while Darth Sidious continues to pull strings from afar in an effort to slowly eradicate the Jedi threat against a secretive impending Sith uprising.
One of the major criticisms stemming from The Clone Wars film is the portrayal of Ahsoka. Her actions and voice have been designed to resonate with tween girls and as such will annoy anyone else not in that demographic. Beginning the television show featuring her might have turned off many viewers who stuck through the film so LucasFilm wisely began with an episode starring Jedi Master Yoda training a trio of clones in a live combat environment against nearly impossible odds. It harkens back to the cranky yet wise Yoda seen in The Empire Strikes Back to draw in old fans while offering plenty of action for the young ones.
As the season progresses the quality of The Clone Wars improves with the animators and creative minds beginning to hit their stride and settle into a comfort zone. The “Rookies” episode explores clone individuality, loss, leadership and focus with nary the involvement of Jedi or other core characters and is better for it. “Bombad Jedi” brings back Jar Jar Binks in a starring role that is actually bearable. And “Trespass” ventures to an icy planet with a familiar indigenous population and coolest clones and rides across all prequel-era entertainment.
The Clone Wars has a unique visual style but is not entirely original. Many of the “new” designs unseen in the film such as the snow clones in “Trespass” are directly influenced by unused Ralph McQuarrie art, the artist behind the majority of Star Wars designs from the original trilogy. By adhering to McQuarrie’s unofficial “blueprint” for inspiration, The Clone Wars is as authentic in old school Star Wars look and feel – and perhaps even more so – than the prequel films.
One of the McQuarrie inspired designs is that of bounty hunter Cad Bane who debuts in the season finale after previous episodes have seen Ahsoka’s behavior tamed down considerably. Again looking to appease the core Star Wars fan base, the show’s creative team devised an episode that puts all the traits of a ruthless bounty hunter that Boba Fett never exhibited on-screen into a new foe as deadly to the good guys as Darth Vader himself. Cad’s actions without conscious, and improbable victory, are a wonderful payoff and launching pad to the second season rife with bounty hunter filled possibilities.
The Cartoon Network aired The Clone Wars in high definition (where available) which looks even better in its distinctive VC-1 encoded 2.4:1 framed 1080p resolution video on Blu-ray Disc. All the nuances of the highly stylized animated featuring faux brushstrokes, signature old school Lucas “weathering” and the bright explosiveness of war outperform the original broadcast presentation. Blacks turn muddy in a few inconsequential instances that hardly mar an otherwise stunning looking high definition presentation.
The audio presentation is also outstanding but could have been better. LucasFilm originally touted a 5.1 DTS audio mix for The Clone Wars: Season One. Not lossless, but the best lossy has to offer. The final product has been mixed down to 5.1 Dolby Digital which is a bit of a letdown for any Blu-ray Disc, especially one with Star Wars in the title.
To LucasFilm’s credit the audio pushes what Dolby Digital has to offer to its conceivable max with an open, aggressive and impacting mix of music and action one would expect from Star Wars entertainment. Surrounds are especially active during battle with lasers and rockets swishing all around the room. Dialogue is always strong though bass, poor bass, suffers on reaching the truest low end from the constraints of lossy audio.
The Clone Wars: Season One is labeled a collector’s edition and comes packaged in a thick Digibook-type case that includes a neat art book revealing, for the first ever, concept artwork from the series. The last page holds artwork from a new season two addition that will put a smile on the faces of hardcore fans.
The good news for fans who watched The Clone Wars on air is seven episodes include new director’s cuts. They are accessible and denoted as new from the episode selection menu. The bad news is unless you have the time to do an A-B comparison between the on air and Blu-ray or DVD director’s cut versions, good luck spotting any difference.
Every episode is attached to a short 4 to 7 minute featurette previously available online and now available via the main menu or within episodes via Advanced Viewing Mode. Each explores the narrative and design concepts for that episode as well as Easter Eggs like pin-up art on a clone outpost wall. What’s great about these short featurettes is they are full of clips from all three original trilogy films in high definition.
Exclusive to Blu-ray is the Jedi Temple Archives which takes you into the Holocron Vault via footage snippets from “Holocron Heist” of Season Two to view 2D and 3D artwork designs. Those inclined to seek out static pre-production art can access the Archive from the episode featurettes via a spinning Holocron symbol on the screen. Also included is a Trailer for Season Two which you have probably already viewed online.
The Clone Wars got off to a rocky start in the two-hour film with storytelling that favored a younger crowd and somewhat alienated older audiences. As the season progresses the narrative matures with downright heinous acts committed by General Grevious, Cad Bane, Count Dooku and other nefarious characters. If the feature films or Clone Wars film with Ahsoka Tano turned you off, The Clone Wars: Season One on Blu-ray offers some redemption.
– Dan Bradley
Buy Star Wars The Clone Wars: Season One on Blu-ray for a discounted price at Amazon.com.