Like many, I blithely dismissed Star Wars: The Clone Wars soon after it aired its first episode on Cartoon Network ten years ago. I was not without grounds: the film heralding the show’s release is a dismal affair, a few television episodes too obviously strung together into a feature-length movie, and the early seasons only display flashes of the promise the show would make good on over the years. Taken as a whole, however, I am increasingly convinced that The Clone Wars is the single best addition to Lucas’ six films we have ever gotten, and are ever likely to get.
When it comes to Star Wars, I cannot claim to be anything other than a George Lucas snob and purist. I have written about the films many times for FilmFisher, but let us be clear on the subject anyway: I consider Lucas one of the most important artists of the last century and believe that most of the greatness of the Star Wars films – along with their significance as cultural artifacts –stems, above all, from his vision as an anthropologist and innovator, as concerned with ancient storytelling traditions as the pulp serials of his childhood. As such, I tend to measure any new Star Wars – something with which we’re increasingly inundated, as the last year has seen the release of not one but two new Star Wars movies – by faithfulness to his vision. By the same token, perhaps it should come as little surprise that I am so taken with Star Wars: The Clone Wars, which was made at Lucasfilm before it was sold to Disney and was overseen by Dave Filoni, Lucas’ protégé and the closest thing he has to a successor. It is my suspicion that Filoni understands Lucas’ artistic and spiritual vision better than J.J. Abrams, Rian Johnson, or, indeed, any Star Wars filmmaker since.
One of Star Wars’ defining features is that it is a work of pastiche. Lucas drew liberally from an astonishingly wide and deep range of sources to create his galaxy far, far away; his genius lay in his willingness to channel ancient stories through modern textures, to translate classical thought into popular language. This is why – to take one example – Revenge of the Sith can be indebted, during its two and a half hour runtime, to both Sophocles and Sergio Leone. In The Clone Wars, Filoni demonstrates a knack for the same kind of cultural alchemy, casting his net far and wide to filter everything from Kurosawa to Kubrick through the distinctive lens of Star Wars. Even when the show struggles to find its footing, it displays a breadth of imagination nearly unparalleled among its peers. (One comparably wide-reaching work: Genndy Tartakovsky’s Samurai Jack.) The Clone Wars emerges as a wholly unique project because, across over one hundred episodes, it feels free to tell any story it wants to. Though major characters like Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi recur more frequently than others, Filoni often follows them into new stories about new characters, taking place in new corners of the world Lucas created – and as a result, The Clone Wars encompasses such a wide range of tones and textures that there’s something in it for nearly everyone. I can hardly imagine what it was like to watch this as it aired. It might have been frustrating to have little idea what you were going to get from week to week, but there’s also something thrilling about that sense of freedom, largely untethered from any sense of constraints or formula – freedom that could only be possible under the umbrella of Star Wars.
A cursory glance into the series’ catalog yields delightful variety. There are droid antics riffing on everything from Pinocchio to The Wizard of Oz to Gulliver’s Travels. An homage to Lucas’ own Indiana Jones films features that unlikeliest of comedic pairings, Mace Windu and Jar-Jar Binks. (And it works!) A Saving Private Ryan-style war story takes a surprising left turn into Aliens territory, the three-hour plot of Avatar is rehearsed to great effect in thirty minutes, Jedi and Clone Troopers find themselves stalked through a gothic haunted house by General Grievous, and so on: there’s something rather miraculous about a children’s cartoon that draws influence from Akira Kurosawa and Godzilla, Alfred Hitchcock and The Most Dangerous Game. (And when it comes to Kurosawa, it’s not just Seven Samurai, but Stray Dog and Kagemusha, too!)
Despite the dips in quality that might be expected from a show this long running, by and large, the whole endeavor is carried off with technical aplomb. Kevin Kiner’s score recomposes many of Williams’ iconic themes to great effect, while also contributing some striking cues of its own. The quality of the animation is spottier in the early seasons, but becomes increasingly gorgeous as the series goes on – and even when the graphics are dated, the design work on display brims with imagination, like the prequel films it expands on.
Without The Clone Wars, I may not have reevaluated the Star Wars prequel trilogy, elements of which are clarified and deepened in the show’s strongest passages. In particular, what may be abstract or conceptual in the films is often rendered visceral and immediate here. The friendship between Anakin and Obi-Wan, largely implied in the movies, is dramatized with warmth and shades of growing darkness. The marriage of Anakin and Padmé, too, is fleshed out over time. Perhaps the most surprisingly effective element of The Clone Wars, however, is the way it wrings pathos from the plight of the Clone Troopers, who are little more than a plot device in the films. Faceless troops become individuals leading a tragic existence, manufactured en masse to fight a pointless war. One Manchurian Candidate-inspired psychological thriller centers on a clone who discovers the truth about Order 66, learning that he and his thousands of brethren have been engineered from birth to turn on their Jedi commanders. Another set of episodes adapts Kubrick’s Paths of Glory – of all things! – to devastating effect, as the interchangeable troops are callously dehumanized by an arrogant Jedi general, who even orders them to fire on one another. (Dee Bradley Baker, the voice actor who portrays all the clones, does excellent work differentiating dozens of characters who are genetically identical.) The Clone Wars also brings the prequels’ critique of the Jedi into sharp focus, culminating in a beloved character’s climactic decision to walk away from the Order.
In the last fifty years, Star Wars is one of the few properly pagan major works of Western art. Lucas is the greatest disciple of Gnostic sage Joseph Campbell, whose attempts to find the common root of all religions resulted in the idea of the universal, archetypal “monomyth” – a heresy so popular it was subsequently taught to me in a Christian college’s film program. While innumerable Hollywood productions tried to ape Lucas’ success with half-baked pop-Jungian overtones, only Star Wars has captured the ineffable sense of the numinous necessary to feel like an authentically pre-Christian myth. At its very best, The Clone Wars taps into this same quality. One of Star Wars’ most memorable scenes comes from The Empire Strikes Back, when Luke descends into a cave and, in a vision, strikes off his father’s helmet to find his own face beneath. The Clone Wars has a three-episode-long version of this sequence, a dazzling but belabored set of episodes in which nothing makes literal sense, but everything is crammed with so many variations of Star Wars symbols that one’s head spins trying to follow along. For the most part, this storyline is more admirable in theory than in execution, but by the end it finds a nugget of emotional truth that’s quintessential Star Wars: the eternal struggle between fathers and sons, family drama as a reflection of cosmic drama.
The series’ finest hour, in my estimation, is also its last – a profoundly strange spiritual journey that Yoda goes on, seeking the path to life after death. As the series nears its end, drawing closer and closer to the inevitable tragedy of Revenge of the Sith, it grows bleaker and bleaker accordingly, until the only recourse is to look beyond the hopeless mire of the material world for some transcendent hope. Yoda’s odyssey is as esoteric as any myth worth its salt ought to be, lapsing repeatedly between the corporeal and the noetic until one loses track of the line between the two. Yoda fights his shadow, which is par for the course in Star Wars, but he also repeatedly falls asleep and regains consciousness, dies and is reborn, which is not. Neither Jedi nor Sith definitely acknowledge the existence of anything beyond the material realm; both Jedi and Sith insist that there is no life after death. Yoda’s path to immortality is Stoic and Gnostic in nature, consisting of challenges that divest him of earthly attachments and illusions he must dispel, but Star Wars is sufficiently informed by Christianity that it always returns to love and sacrifice. Lucas and Filoni seek to synthesize not only different aesthetics, but different schools of thought, and it is in the ensuing contradictions that Star Wars: The Clone Wars finds its soul. It may not consistently reach the heights of greatness over the course of its six seasons, but The Clone Wars isn’t a mixed bag so much as a full bag. It has something for just about everyone.