Dir. Dave Filoni. US. 2008. 98 mins Action-packed and visually impressive it may be, but CG-animated feature Star Wars: The Clone Wars still feels like what it essentially is - a supercharged TV pilot designed to help George Lucas' venerable Star Wars franchise make the transition from the big to the small screen.
This debut feature from Lucasfilm Animation certainly won't reach the box office heights achieved by the franchise's live action blockbusters, the last of which, 2005's Episode III -Revenge Of The Sith, grossed $848m worldwide. More likely is a mid-level theatrical performance driven by younger franchise fans, followed by a lucrative DVD release around the time of the launch of the associated TV series.
Worldwide distributor Warner Bros - Fox, which handled all the live-action Star Wars movies, isn't in on this incarnation - opens the film wide in North America, with a PG rating, on August 15. By avoiding competition with the early summer animated releases, this late season launch will maximise the film's theatrical potential and start building buzz for the autumn debut of the CG-animated Clone Wars cable-TV series on (in the US) Warner's Cartoon Network.
The film rolls out into most major international territories by the end of August, in time to pitch for school holiday audiences. Results are likely to be strongest in animation-loving regions such as Asia and in territories that can co-ordinate openings with local launches of the TV series.
The animation is Clone Wars' biggest asset. With TV animation supervisor Dave Filoni (Nickelodeon's Avatar: The Last Airbender) directing, the Lucasfilm team delivers a series of imaginative photorealistic backdrops rendered with a convincing three-dimensional effect. The characters are less naturalistic, with anime-style appearances and video game-style movements.
Scripted by live-action and animation TV writers Henry Gilroy, Steven Melching and Scott Murphy, the story takes place between the events of Episode II and Episode III of the live-action movie series, as the clone wars glimpsed in those films sweep through the galaxy.
Though there is a bit of the convoluted Star Wars mythology that bogged down the most recent live features, the primary plot is a self-contained and fairly streamlined story about Jedi Knights Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi going on a mission to rescue the kidnapped infant son of Jabba the Hutt, the giant slug-like crime lord introduced in the original movies.
Most of the first hour is solid action, with animated versions of the battle sequences and light sabre duels that franchise fans know and love. The pace varies a little more during the last half hour, with some dramatic and comedic elements blended into the action.
In a bid to broaden its audience, the film includes characters from all stages of the Star Wars saga. Adults get glimpses of favourites from the original movies - Jabba, Yoda and comic robots C-3PO and R2D2 - and younger moviegoers will recognize Anakin, the young Obi-Wan, Padme Amidala, Mace Windu and Count Dooku from the more recent trilogy.
Hardcore fans will get a thrill from the fact that Samuel L Jackson (as Mace Windu), Anthony Daniels (C-3PO) and Christopher Lee (Count Dooku) voice the characters they played in the live-action films. Other characters are voiced by less-well-known TV and voice actors, among them Matt Lanter (from Heroes) as Anakin and James Arnold Taylor, who does a decent Ewan McGregor impression as Obi-Wan.
Strong new characters are disappointingly thin on the ground. Count Dooku's assassin Asajj Ventress (Nika Futterman) is a scary darksider who crosses light sabers with Anakin and Obi-Wan, and Ziro the Hutt (Corey Burton) is a comically louche relative of Jabba's.
The most visible new character is Ahsoka Tano (Ashley Eckstein), a feisty 14-year-old girl with a neo-ancient Egyptian look who is assigned to serve as apprentice to the reluctant Anakin. The character seems like an obvious play for the teen audience; and while the relationship with Anakin may be developed further in the Clone Wars TV series, here it doesn't get much beyond lame sitcom banter.
Jason W A Tucker
Main cast (voices)
James Arnold Taylor
Dee Bradley Baker
Samuel L Jackson