Why Genndy Tartakovsky’s “Clone Wars” Is Pure Cinema… and Great TV
Genndy Tartakovsky produced the hand-drawn “Clone Wars” microseries between 2003-2005 and it’s been mired in obscurity ever since. Now it’s available on Disney+ as part of The Star Wars Vintage Collection,” which includes the two “Ewok” TV movies of the ’80s, the “Ewoks” animated series, and “The Story of the Faithful Wookiee,” otherwise known as the animated segment from “The Star Wars Holiday Special” that introduced Boba Fett. Yes, some of the much-maligned “Holiday Special” is now at your streaming fingertips!
Full disclosure: This “Star Wars” superfan is shamefully negligent when it comes to the “Ewoks” titles, but “Clone Wars” are another matter. Dave Filoni’s 3-D computer animated series “Star Wars: The Clone Wars,” which introduced Ahsoka Tano and wrapped up with its final episodes on Disney+ last year, is as good as any “Star Wars” ever produced. With big-screen-ready visuals and immersive, long-form, serialized TV storytelling, it went deeper into its characters than many of the “Star Wars” films. As a series of over 100 episodes, “The Clone Wars” also has its share of stinkers: There’s the episode where R2-D2 has a day of beauty, and the one that exposes a corrupt school superintendent on Mandalore. And then there’s the whole matter of Mama the Hutt. (That episode, “Hunt for Ziro,” is actually amazing, but only for diehards.)
Filoni’s “Clone Wars” is excellent, but the saga has rarely felt more “cinematic” than Tartakovsky’s vision. Its two hours of undiluted goodness is what happens when a singular artist is allowed free rein in the “Star Wars” sandbox. In some ways, it feels more like “The Mandalorian” than any previous “Star Wars” property: It’s light on dialogue, heavy on action, and represents a distinctly original point of view. (Read Bill Desowitz’s tribute to Tartakovsky, complete with praise from Jon Favreau, as part of the TV edition of IndieWire Influencers last summer.)
The first volume of 20 three-minute “Clone Wars” episodes aired in 2003 and 2004. They show animation is a valid a way to explore “Star Wars” — something that Lucasfilm should keep in mind as their live-action streaming series seems to multiply like porgs. These shorts take place shortly after the events of “Attack of the Clones,” but where that film was leaden, “Clone Wars” is lively.
All those Jedis on strike, who had barely anything to do? They get the spotlight here, with Kit Fisto submerging himself to fight briny battles on the water world of Mon Cala. (What happens to a lightsaber underwater? Tartakovsky was the first to show us!) Tartakovsky is the kind of creator who’s less interested in how everything fits together but in showing you things you never even thought to imagine. Like how the Republic’s Star Destroyers are actually able to land on an ocean surface. Or how raindrops falling on a lightsaber blade will cause the sizzling eruption of steam.
This is as stylized as “Star Wars” has ever been, which probably raised canon issues right off the bat. Some frames are packed with detail, but most are spare and focus on one idea at a time. That image of Anakin in the rain fighting Asajj Ventress (a character who first appeared in Dark Horse’s “Star Wars: Republic” comics but made her animation debut here) gives way to a duel atop the temple (the same temple on Yavin IV, seen in “A New Hope”).
There’s a moment when Anakin grabs both her wrists, stopping her attack before it could start, a shade of red casts over his face: he’s defeated this Dark Sider by tapping into the Dark Side himself. That’s the kind of heightened touch you can’t really quantify on a Wiki. It’s not literally how a fight like this would go — so much as anything is literal or realistic when dealing with space wizards — but it’s a personal interpretation. Same for the nightmarish introduction of General Grievous, so much more intimidating here than in “Revenge of the Sith.” In the second volume of episodes, which lead directly into that movie, a brilliant fight sequence is executed with only out-of-this-world sound effects underscoring the action — just as Lucas himself did several times throughout his saga. (One bit of franchise interconnectedness: Why does Grievous cough in the movie? Because Mace Windu crushed Grievous’s torso with the Force in one of these micro-episodes!)
Some of Tartakovsky’s perspectives don’t work. Here, Anakin is still a bore. (Filoni cracked the Anakin code by reimagining the character as a kind of Han Solo with Jedi powers, using the superb Matt Lanter as his voice.) In Tartakovsky’s version, the Dark Side positively radiates from him, and it’s hard to imagine why Obi-Wan ever thought of him as “a good friend.” Filoni complicated the character by showing that Anakin could be charming and a hero, but the same qualities ultimately made him a villain.
Nuance like that was never the point of Tartakovsky’s “Clone Wars.” Film and TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz once praised “Revenge of the Sith” as cinematic “cave painting.” I wonder if he’d ever seen the final run of “Clone Wars” micro-episodes, which serve as a kind of lead-in to that movie; Anakin and Obi-Wan go on one last fateful mission together before Anakin becomes Darth Vader. During that mission, the doomed Jedi sees his fate represented in actual cave paintings. This is a vision of an Anakin who always was Darth Vader. He just didn’t know it yet.
Tartakovsky’s and Filoni’s “Clone Wars” series mesh together surprisingly well. A friend pointed out that Filoni’s series, with its bombastic Tom Kane voiceover before every episode, sounds like a 1940s radio serial; it suggests that the show is produced within the Star Wars universe as a kind of propaganda celebrating the Republic and the Jedi. It’s a fun reading that demonstrates the series had a real point of view. Tartakovsky’s is simpler and more primal. It’s in the realm of the comic strip, the fable, the bedtime story, and, yes, the cave painting. As a result, “Clone Wars” was pure cinema. And great TV.