Star Wars: The Clone Wars - The Complete Season One (UK - BD)
Chris checks out the Blu-ray release of the first season of the animated show...
I’ve already reviewed the Star Wars: The Clone Wars theatrical movie and the first two DVD volumes for the site, and I don’t have a whole lot to say beyond reiterating my earlier thoughts. I freely admit that the show has its faults, most of them humour based, but they are forgiveable when you look them in the context of an animated television show aimed at a younger audience. The interplay between Anakin Skywalker and Ahsoka Tano—which was initially quite grating—has progressed throughout the course of the season to the point where the young Togruta has lost much of her snippy ‘Sky-Guy’ attitude and become a strong character in her own right. I’ve even grown accustomed to the zany antics of the battle droids, which I have to confess to laughing at on more than one occasion.
As a hardcore Star Wars fan I guess I am predisposed toward enjoying this series, but on the other hand I have been fairly vocal in my criticism of some aspects of the prequel trilogy. With this being a show based entirely in the time period presented in those movies you might wonder why I enjoy it, and that’s a fairly reasonable question. Is it hypocritical to slate the annoying battle droids and ‘mannequin’ Skyalker in the live-action films, but to forgive all of that in an animated show? The way I look at it is that the cartoon series generally has a much lighter tone than the film series, and the humorous elements don’t stick out like a sore thumb (as they did at times in the prequels).
However, the main reason I’ve become so fond of the show is because it allows us to spend a lot more time with the secondary characters, some of which are just as interesting as the principals. I think it’s great that the series’ creators have given us entire episodes devoted to ‘supporting artists’ like Plo Koon, Aayla Secura, Luminara Unduli and the clone troopers themselves, and built upon the movie characterisations of villains like General Grievous (I could have lived without the Jar Jar Binks episodes though). There are also plenty of audio and visual nods to the live action movies, from the ‘Death Star’ like firing sequence of the Malevolence to characters frequently aping classic dialogue, which always brings a smile to my face.
Of course another huge benefit of having the whole season available for the first time is that the bulk of my favourite episodes occurred in the middle of the run. Episodes like ‘Duel of the Droids’, ‘Cloak of Darkness’, ‘Lair of Grievous’ and ‘Trespass’ all stick in the mind, and it was great watching them again in the sort of quality the broadcast versions could only dream of. As I write this we’re about five episodes into the second season of the show and it’s going from strength to strength. The addition of a new group of bounty hunters opens up all sorts of possibilities, and I can’t wait to see where the show goes next (and who will pop up in a cameo).
Hooray! The first season of Star Wars: The Clone Wars arrives with its correct aspect ratio of 2.35:1 (1080/24p VC-1)! I was most annoyed when I found out that I was missing a lot of the picture on the cropped 16:9 TV broadcasts, so this as a big plus for me. Having compared a few scenes to the individual DVD volumes that I have previously reviewed the benefit of the OAR transfers is readily apparent—the frame is much less cramped and even more of the glorious image is available for your viewing pleasure. Now I know there are some people who don’t like the whole animation style of the Clone Wars show, but I happen to think it looks great. I love the exaggerated, stylised character designs, with the funky organic looking Jedi contrasting nicely with the cold hard steel of their metallic CIS adversaries.
Compared to the heavily compressed cable versions I’ve experienced the Blu-ray transfers are a revelation. Even the DVD transfers—which actually looked very good for standard-definition material—can’t hold a candle to the high-definition versions. Gone is the slightly fuzzy appearance of the upscaled versions, to be replaced by incredibly detailed images with beautiful colour rendition, excellent contrast, and superb black levels. Of course the direct digital-to-digital transfer ensures a virtually flawless presentation, completely free from film artefacts and largely free of digital nastiness. If you look closely you will spot the odd bit of posterisation, but it looks like it's inherent to the source and it’s nothing that will seriously hamper your enjoyment. Honestly, there really isn't much to criticise with what is essentially a flawless reproduction of the source material, so I'm not going to nitpick for the sake of it. Trust me, if you are a fan of the show and visually impressive Blu-rays in general you will not be disappointed.
Here's an open question to Warner Brothers: what the hell have you got against lossless audio? I could scarcely believe my eyes when my amp reported Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks for this BD release. I initially thought that the disc might be defaulting to the lossy tracks, as is often the case with Warner titles, but that proved to be an incorrect assumption. There is no TrueHD option on this release and it beggars belief. It’s not even because Warner had opted to squeeze everything onto BD25s either, as a quick check of one of the discs revealed a 28.3GB file size. The movie had TrueHD audio, and pretty much every other major TV series has lossless audio of some description, so why not this one? Why is it that just about every other studio has embraced lossless audio and Warner hasn’t? I’m sure the company wouldn’t dream of putting out BDs with the main features presented in standard-definition video, so why is it acceptable to do so for the audio?
Okay, so now that my rant is out of the way, what is audio quality actually like? Well, on the plus side the Dolby Digital tracks are of the 640Kbps variety, which is a decent step up from the 384Kbps tracks on the individual DVD volumes. (Depending on what you read and who it is written by, Dolby Digital at 640Kbps is of similar quality to DTS at 1.5Mbps.) Another major benefit of having the episodes in 24p is that the soundtracks don’t suffer from the PAL speed-up that marred the DVDs. Of course the soundtracks also have a massive advantage by virtue of the fact that Star Wars has some of the best and most instantly recognisable effects in cinematic history, and the tracks do a good job of showcasing everything from the howl of starfighters to the hum of lightsabers (by way of a few million blaster bolts).
While not up there with the best, directionality is much improved over the stand-alone film, with the sound effects and dialogue frequently redirected around the soundstage. Bass is also amped up, and although it's still not quite as fierce as I would have liked there were numerous impressive explosions and that familiar lightsaber hum always sends a shiver down my spine. Of course dialogue is one of the most important elements of an animated series, and thankfully it is never anything other than crystal clear. The soundtrack has a prominent place in the mix, and while the main Star Wars theme is absent there are frequent fan-pleasing nods to iconic cues like 'Yoda's Theme' to be found throughout (and I particularly enjoyed the snippet of Wojciech Kilar's 'Vampire Hunters' that accompanies the appearance of the Malevolence). While not as impressive as the video the Clone Wars soundtracks are still very good, even if the lack of lossless audio is lamentable.
On paper the list of bonus material for the first Clone Wars set looks quite impressive, but the reality is a bit different. The truth is that much of the content is repeated on the discs in a slightly different way, usually by incorporating branching features.
The highlight of the set has to be the production featurettes, of which there are twenty two (one for each episode). These can be selected via an icon that appears next to the episodes in the menus, with each running for an average of five or six minutes and focussing on the specific elements of the particular episode. The main participants are supervising director Dave Filoni, writer Henry Gilroy, sound designer Dave Acord, supervising sound editor (and voice of General Grievous) Matt Wood, and desig and concept artist Kilian Plunkett, who discuss story, design, animation, sound, and much more. Although not particularly long individually there’s a good two hours worth of material in total, most of which is pretty interesting (and the short running times help to keep things fresh). All of the featurettes are presented in 1080p and have the added bonus of featuring a few clips from the live action Star Wars films.
When we head over to the extras section of each disc you’ll start to understand where I’m coming from when I say that much of the content is repeated. Each of the twenty two featurettes are duplicated here, but with the added ‘bonus’ of interactive branching elements. At various points throughout the featurettes a Jedi Holocron icon will appear, and by pressing enter on your remote you can access 2D and 3D storyboards, designs, and animatics. This is all well and good, but I found that having to watch with my thumb continually poised over the remote detached me from the viewing experience.
If you don’t want to sit through the featurettes again just to view the branching sections you can simply access the ‘Jedi Temple Archives’, which is a repository of all of the branching content presented in an easy to navigate manner. Again, this is just a clever way of hiding yet more content duplication (and it gets annoying having to watch the same non-skippable intro every time you want to access the archives). However, the archives are a goldmine for anyone interested in the Clone Wars creative process and animation as a whole.
The first disc also includes a sneak peek at season two (including clips from some episodes yet to be screened, in which Obi-Wan appears to have a ‘love interest’), along with a trailer for the ‘Clone Wars: Republic Heroes’ videogame, which was a crushing disappointment.
There are also a number of Easter eggs hidden across the set (I’ve found three so far). They’re not the most difficult to find and the content isn’t earth-shattering, but they’re worth checking out nonetheless. Details of how to access them can be found in our Easter egg section (accessible by clicking the link in the specs panel). Unfortunately I missed out on the book-style packaging with its sixty-four pages of content, so I can comment on that aspect of the release. Sometime check discs are a double-edged sword…
Visually the series is stunning, and the Blu-ray transfers are equally impressive. Without making too many excuses for the lack of lossless audio I was still impressed by the lossy Dolby tracks, which seemed more dynamic and engaging than those of the movie or DVD releases. I have to admit to being somewhat disappointed with the extras—perhaps because I was expecting commentary tracks and more input from George Lucas—but there’s enough here to satisfy most people. It might be a TV show aimed at younger viewers, and I might be far too old for such things, but I really enjoyed revisiting the first season of Star Wars: The Clone Wars and I can wholeheartedly recommend this release to all fans of the series.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Chris Gould
Suitable for all
Release Date: 16th November 2009
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 English, Dolby Digital 5.1 French, Dolby Digital 5.1 Dutch, Dolby Digital 5.1 Danish, Dolby Digital 5.1 Norwegian, Dolby Digital 5.1 Swedish
Subtitles: English HoH, French, Dutch, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, Swedish
Extras: Production Featurettes, Jedi Archives, Trailers
Easter Egg: Yes
Cast: Matt Lanter, Ashley Eckstein, James Arnold Taylor, Corey Burton, Catherine Taber, Ian Abercrombie, Terrence 'T.C.' Carson, Anthony Daniels, Dee Bradley Baker, Matthew Wood, Tom Kane
Genre: Action, Adventure, Animation, Sci-Fi and War
Length: 475 minutes
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