Time to Jedi Up.
“Star Trek” may have hogged the spotlight during its recent return from pop culture purgatory, but "Star Wars" is cooking up its own comeback. And a plucky Padawan and a couple of Clone Troopers are leading the way.
The revival of George Lucas’ space opera has been positively Sith-like in its stealth and cunning. It hasn’t even become a trending topic on Twitter yet.
But make no mistake, the hit animated TV series “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” has made the Force matter again. The show has also served as a sort of olive branch to the many Star Wars loyalists who abandoned the franchise after the prequel trilogy.
The show, in the midst of its second season on Cartoon Network (Friday nights at 8), has quickly become the channel’s biggest hit. Falling in step between Episodes II (“Attack of the Clones”) and III (“Revenge of the Sith”), “Clone Wars” is centered on the inter-galactic brouhaha between the Republic and the Separatists.
With its newsreel voice-over opening and fast-paced mix of melodrama, action and lighthearted (though rarely goofy) humor, “Clone Wars” bears more resemblance to the old movie serials of the 40s that inspired Lucas to create “Star Wars” than to the recent films.
“There’s a great desire on our show to make it feel like the Star Wars that we grew up with,” says supervising director Dave Filoni. “George said to me that he wanted this show to feel like the classic Star Wars films.”
Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi are prominently featured, as are familiar faces like R2-D2, C-Threepio and Yoda. But it’s the new characters that have made the strongest impression. Chief among them is Ahsoka Tano, Anakin’s sassy Padawan.
“She’s a very popular and very positive character and one whose ultimate destiny is on the minds of fans around the world.” Says Chris Wyman from the fan site TheForce.Net. “Everyone wants to know if she survives Order 66 [the order Palpatine gives in “Revenge of the Sith” which turns the Clones against the Jedi].”
Bane of the Jedi
Season Two of “Clone Wars” also turns the spotlight on the newest thorn in the Jedi’s side, bounty hunter Cad Bane.
Bane follows in the grand tradition of legendary Star Wars bad boy Boba Fett. He was created by request from Lucas, who wanted a mercenary based on Lee Van Cleef, an actor who often wore the black hat in westerns like "The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly" (Cleef is "the Ugly").
The TV series format has helped with one of the primary complaints of the prequels - character development. Besides newbies like Ahsoka and Clone Capt. Rex, more than one “Clone Wars” fan has observed that animated Anakin is more believable than Hayden Christensen was in the movies.
Who knew clones could be cool? Perhaps the crowning achievement of the show is its deft handling of some of the most under-appreciated characters in the Star Wars mythos. Previously known mainly for their clunky white uniforms and lousy aim, the troopers have been reborn as brave soldiers in the TV series.
They even got their moment in the spotlight during “Rookies,” a standout episode from Season One that focused almost entirely on a group of clones.
‘I think it was a really smart decision by the creative folks to bring a sense of humanity and individuality to the clone troopers,” says voice actor Dee Bradley Baker, who voices most of the clones. “It was a creative risk that paid off quite nicely because you care much more about these stories when you realize its human soldiers against robots, and not just faceless soldiers.”
After “Revenge,” Star Wars fandom reached its lowest point since the late 1980s. All the animosity over the prequels went a bit overboard, according to Entertainment Weekly’s Dalton Ross.
“It [the prequel trilogy] wasn’t as dismal as some people would like to remember,” says Ross, the magazine’s Assistant Managing Editor and a longtime Star Wars fan. “I’m not saying ‘Episode 3’ was a perfect movie, but it had some great elements. If you compare ‘Episode 3’ to ‘Episode 1,’ it’s like night and day. And look, 'Return of the Jedi' had the Ewoks, so it’s not like that film was a perfect movie by any means.”
A fan corrects Lucas
The success of “Clone Wars” comes at a crucial time for the franchise. A live-action Star Wars TV series is set to debut in 2011, and don’t forget about the whole galaxy of comics, video games and toys.
Lucas hit the jackpot when he hired Filoni, who previously worked on Nickelodeon’s hit series “Avatar: The Last Airbender.”
“It wasn't long ago that Dave was lining up at to see Episodes I, II, and III at his local megaplex and traveling to conventions simply as a fan,” says TheForceCast co-host Jason Swank. “So, in essence, you get (for the first time) George Lucas collaborating with a real fan of the property on telling great Star Wars stories.”
Filoni’s knowledge of all things Jedi runs so deep, he’s even found himself correcting the Grand Poobah himself – that would be Lucas – on occasion. He’s also bridged the past with the present, using concept designs that artist Ralph McQuarrie did for the original films to help develop the look of the Clone troopers in the animated series.
He’s far from the only "Star Wars" fan on the show. In 1978, Baker, the voice of the Clones, was once paid by a local movie theater to greet customers coming to see “Star Wars”…in a Jawa costume.
Filoni jokes that Fanboyish arguments often sidetrack his animators, over such matters as what color certain X-Wing pilots wore during the attack on the Death Star in “A New Hope.”
[A field trip to the archives at Skywalker Ranch to look at the actual helmets used in the movie settled that debate.]
Raising the bar
Like the films, which broke new ground in terms of visual effects, “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” is raising the bar for television animation.
Filoni says his team is constantly pushing the envelope with the computer-generated animation, making the characters more expressive, the space ships faster, the battles larger.
“The scale of the battles, we needed to up that and we’ve definitely done that in season 2. Where you only saw a few clones battle droids before, you’re going to see many, many more [now].”
“It looks big and massive, in a way that the previous 'Clone Wars' series from a few years ago didn’t,” says Ross. “You see the scale and scope of these Star Destroyers in space and explosions, and it looks really cool. It looks cinematic.”
The majority of the two-million+ viewers watching each week are newcomers to the ways of the Force. Most are so young, the first name they think of when they hear Skywalker isn’t Luke. It’s Anakin.
“’Clone Wars’ is a show for kids. It’s about gaining a whole new generation of fans,” says Ross. “It isn’t about pleasing the old fans.”
Many of those younger fans have no idea what’s coming up for Anakin or Chancellor Palpatine, which makes life difficult for the show’s writers.
“I’ll give you a big difference between the older fans and the new fans watching ‘Clone Wars.’ The older fans are well aware of everything going on, what they think the politics are, and how the war’s going to turn out,” Filoni says. “When you talk to little kids, and some people on the crew have kids, and you ask them, they don’t even get that Palpatine’s a bad guy. They still think he’s a good guy!”
As for his relationship with Lucas, Filoni says his boss is no dictator, but is very hands-on.
“We have fun little spats. We’ve worked together now for 4 years so he really knows when I like something and when I don’t. ‘Cause he’ll edit with me, the rough cuts, and he knows when he’s taking stuff out that I like. Sometimes I’ll try to fight for it to get it back. There’s a great push-pull between us. Ultimately, he’s right a very good, high percentage, 90% of the time. But those few times I’m correct, those are great,” Filoni laughs.
(“Star Wars: The Clone Wars” airs Friday nights at 8pm on Cartoon Network)