Star Wars: The Clone Wars (UK - BD)
Resident Star Wars geek Chris Gould checks out the latest animated series...
Set during the period between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, the events of Star Wars: The Clone Wars focus on the conflict between the Galactic Republic and the Confederacy of Independent Systems, led by the villainous Sith Lord Count Dooku (Christopher Lee). As the movie opens, Jedi Knights Obi-Wan Kenobi (James Arnold Taylor) and Anakin Skywalker (Matt Lanter) are leading their clone troopers against the droid armies of the Separatists on the battle-scarred world of Christophsis. Outnumbered and outgunned, the Jedi are relieved to receive reinforcements in the shape of a feisty young Jedi-in-training named Ahsoka Tano (Ashley Eckstein), who is assigned to Skywalker as his Padawan learner (despite his objections).
After successfully defending Christophsis the Jedi are tasked with investigating the kidnapping of Jabba the Hutt’s son, Rotta (or Stinky as he is later affectionately nicknamed by Ahsoka), in order to secure the rights to use Hutt controlled hyperspace lanes vital to the war effort. Unfortunately Rota’s disappearance is part of a nefarious pan to frame the Jedi, thereby destroying Jabba’s faith in the Republic and gifting the hyperspace routes to Count Dooku and the Separatists. Dooku is aided in his machinations by Dark Side adept Asajj Ventress (Nika Futterman), a powerful Force user with designs on the Sith name.
Okay, so let me get this portion of the review out of the way with a minimum of fuss so I can concentrate on the technical bits. I've actually been watching the Clone Wars series and enjoying it far more than I should at thirty-three years of age. It's not as adult-friendly as the Gendy Tartatovsky 2D variant from 2003 (jeez, was it really that long ago?), but it offers plenty of action, the voice acting is competent, and I quite like the character design. However, the decision to promote the series by cobbling a few episodes together and release them theatrically was a poor one. Star Wars: The Clone Wars is not a feature film; it's a patchwork of shorter episodes that runs for ninety-eight minutes, and what works fairly well in small doses on TV starts to wear a bit thin when stretched to over an hour and a half.
A lot of that is due to the rather bland storyline, as watching the Jedi struggle to rescue a little slug from the clutches of the Sith was never likely to enthral. The film (and the series for that matter) also carries over many of the prequels’ worst attributes, such as the pompous expositional dialogue and cringe-worthy humour. The battle droids are just as—no make that more—annoying than ever, and the character of Ziro the Hutt does for gay rights what Jar Jar Binks did for race-relations. Ahsoka’s constant need to give the other characters lame nicknames also grates after a while, coming off like a middle-aged man’s idea of how a teenage girl should speak. I appreciate that The Clone Wars is aimed at a younger audience, so I can forgive the bumbling battledroids with their irritating ‘roger, rogers’ and Ahsoka’s sometimes nauseating chatter, but the jury is still out on the effeminate gastropod.
It’s not all negative though. While highly stylised, the characters all look like their live-action counterparts, the battle sequences are well-rendered (some of the Saving Private Ryan style camerawork is very good), and the various Jedi/Sith duels are exciting. I've read complaints about the cheesy serial-style voiceover, but the Star Wars films were always intended to ape Saturday morning serials like Flash Gordon so it didn’t bother me (although it’s employed to better effect in the series). I can understand some of the fan disappointment surrounding the release, but calling it ‘horrible’ (as many have) is perhaps going a step too far. Okay, so I’m a huge Star Wars fan and probably more forgiving than most, but I found The Clone Wars fairly enjoyable for the most part. It serves as a good introduction to the series and to be perfectly honest with you, I was never any more bored than while watching The Phantom Menace...
Probably the single most impressive thing about the release is the 2.40:1 1080p/24 VC-1 transfer. We're not talking WALL-E levels of greatness, but it looks very nice for a comparatively low-budget animated flick. Colour rendition is very good, accurately reproducing everything from the steely blues and purples of the darker scenes, through to the sun-baked, bleached-out deserts and orange skies of Tatooine. The vibrant red, green and blue hues of the lightsabers look particularly impressive as they flash against the dark backgrounds during some of the duels (evoking memories of the Skywalker/Dooku face-off in Attack of the Clones). Speaking of the darker scenes, black levels are excellent and shadow detail is impressive, which is very handy considering the frequency with which the characters find themselves in dimly lit surroundings. To be honest I couldn’t spot any particularly nasty flaws in this digital-to-digital transfer save for some light banding, but even that could possibly be attributed to the source material rather than a technical issue with the transfer. All-in-all this is a great effort and a fantastic visual experience.
Surprisingly for a Star Wars film, the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track is actually a bit of a mixed bag. Dialogue is nice and clear and the familiar Star Wars effects are reproduced with clarity, but the surround channels are severely underutilised. It's not that they're silent for most of the film—far from it actually—but for a film filled with huge battle sequences they’re never really used to their full potential. There are literally dozens of moments that cry out for some discrete effects, but the track squanders virtually every opportunity to immerse the viewer in the action. In fact, the only thing you'll hear in the rears for most of the running time is the score, which is actually pretty good (if a bit 'rocky' in places), but with so many blaster bolts and ships flying around the action really should have been more enveloping. I also expected the bass to pack quite a lot of a punch, but it's actually a little anaemic save for the hum of the lightsabers. Don't get me wrong, this is still a good track, but the mix is nowhere near the quality of the live-action films.
For some reason the English subtitles turn themselves on every time you select any of the extras. This is incredibly annoying when using the 'Play All' option on some of the features, because even if you turn the subtitles off they automatically return when the next featurette starts. I can only assume this is an authoring error, as there's no logical reason for the subtitles to be on all of the time.
The first and most substantial extra on the disc is a video commentary with director Dave Filoni, editor Jason Tucker, producer Catherine Winder and writer Henry Gilroy. The track is novel in that, unlike most video commentaries, the participants aren't stuck in a little box at the bottom corner of the screen. Instead, the film shifts to the top of the screen while the commentators appear at the bottom, and occasionally a third window pops up containing footage relevant to the discussion (this even includes footage from the live-action Star Wars films). Unfortunately the whole thing is presented in SD, rather than as a true BonusView feature. There is a lot of useful information on offer, but I wasn't completely blown away by the content. If the participants had been recorded together it might have made for a more cohesive track, but as it stands there's still enough pertinent information to make it worthwhile.
A series of featurettes come next, beginning with 'The Untold Stories' (HD, 24:53). In this, George Lucas and his team provide an outline of the Clone Wars series, exploring the thematic elements and story arcs. There are plenty of clips from the series, including a few episodes that don’t appear to have aired yet (one of which is a Kit Fisto episode). There is also footage from one or two moments in the live-action films, which look pretty good in HD. All things considered this is a pretty good introduction to the series, one which makes me long for the complete thing on Blu-ray.
'The Voices of Star Wars: The Clone Wars' (HD, 10:00) introduces us to the actors who breathe life into the animated characters. Unlike some animated shows, the entire cast is present for the recordings, which allows them to bring their on-set relationships to their performances (helping the dynamic between Obi-Wan and Anakin, for example). The featurette also further reinforced my belief that Matt Lanter does a better Anakin Skywalker than Hayden Christensen. As a special treat there are numerous scenes from the Clone Wars series peppered throughout the featurette, all of which look rather spiffing.
'A New Score' (HD, 10:45) shows composer Kevin Kiner hard at work as he tries to replicate the magic of John Williams' iconic work on the Star Wars saga. It's lamentable that the original music couldn't be used in the series, but Kiner's cues manage to incorporate enough elements to make them familiar, if different. I found it interesting to watch as Lucas urged Kiner to experiment with different ethnic sounds, using Japanese-inspired music on Tatooine instead of the more obvious Middle-Eastern cues that most composers would opt for.
The final featurette is actually a gallery that contains plenty of stills, from early concept designs and sketches, through to clay maquettes and matte paintings. Some of the sketches have a silly little ‘Plo Kool’ stamp of approval on them, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that you have to be a giant nerd to work on a Star Wars project.
There are four deleted scenes (10:11), entitled 'Through the Tanks', 'Rancor Pit', 'Platform Droid Fight' and 'Cargo Bay'. The scenes are fully animated, but they're only presented in SD, which kind of sucks given the quality of the main feature. Of these, at least two would have been a welcome addition to the main feature. This is especially true of 'Rancor Pit', in which Anakin and Ahsoka duel Asajj Ventress while trying to protect Jabba's son and avoid a huge rancor. The fact that this scene was featured in a lot elsewhere on the disc indicates that it was cut fairly late in the day.
A series of six 'Webisodes' (HD, 20:59) come next. Director Dave Filoni talks us through the various featurettes, which concentrate on elements such as the battles, the clone troopers, the heroes, villains and the newest character to the saga, Ahsoka Tano. The featurettes are fluffy by their very nature and most of the information is covered in greater details elsewhere on the disc, but they make for interesting enough viewing if only for the presence of footage from the live-action films. Just give us the saga on Blu-ray already!
Three trailers (05:29) are also included: the launch trailer, a 'dark' trailer and the trailer for the Clone Wars video game. The movie trailers are presented in HD and accompanied by music from the Star Wars trilogy (something that was sadly missing from the finished movie), and do a pretty decent job of selling the flick. The game trailer is presented in SD and the game actually looks like it could be fun. The graphics are a bit simplistic, but the various characters are very similar to their on-screen counterparts and lightsaber duelling on the Wii appeals.
'The Hologram Memory Challenge' is basically the game 'concentration', where you're shown a series of images for ten seconds and then have to try and match the pairs. I got through the first round fairly easily and was rewarded with a clip from the Clone Wars TV series, but I failed on my first attempt at the second level and couldn't be arsed to try again. I suspect more clips await those with more patience.
Star Wars: The Clone Wars is a fairly tepid introduction to the animated series of the same name, but it’s not as abhorrent as some would have you believe. Although the series itself is actually more entertaining than this feature-length offering there is still some enjoyment to be had from the film, even if it is skewed towards the younger end of the market. With its quality video presentation, solid audio and reasonable selection of bonus material the disc itself is actually pretty good, so the decision whether to rent or buy will probably come down to your level of Star Wars fanaticism. Bring on the complete series Blu-ray release!
* 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
General viewing, but some scenes may be unsuitable for young children
Release Date: 8th December 2008
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 EX English, Dobly TrueHD 5.1 English, Dolby Digital 5.1 EX French, Dolby Digital 5.1 EX Portuguese, Dolby Digital 5.1 EX Spanish
Subtitles: Brazillian Portuguese, English, French, Latin Spanish
Extras: Video Commentary, Featurettes, Deleted Scenes, Webisodes, Trailers, Gallery, Hologram Memory Game
Easter Egg: No
Director: Dave Filoni
Cast: James Arnold Taylo,r Matt Lanter, Ashley Eckstein, Tom Kane, Christopher Lee, Samuel L. Jackson
Genre: Action, Animation and Sci-Fi
Length: 98 minutes