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Wednesday, 31 July 2013

CLASSIC REVIEW: 'THE CLONE WARS - SEASON ONE' DVD SET



STAR WARS: THE CLONE WARS

SEASON ONE - DVD BOX SET


From LUCASFILM ANIMATION

Released in the UK by WARNER HOME VIDEO

(Note: this review is for the DVD box set only, and not for the separate Blu-ray release)


Reviewed by Scott Weller


So… the previous two 4 episode taster discs (or three, if you count the additional Australian WHV release) were only just the appetizers. Now, the full main course of STAR WARS: THE CLONE WARS SEASON ONE is released to the world, uncut in a blaze of colour and action, backed up with some very good special bonus behind the scenes features. And, as a main course, it’s a pretty delicious one at that!

A fertile breeding ground for new story ideas within the legendary STAR WARS framework, Season One contains the building blocks that will be expanded and improved upon over the planned five years, and 100 episodes (the syndication gold number) ahead.

Yoda launches the series in the quirky adventure Ambush.

All of our favourite, and not so favourite (i.e. if you don’t like Jar Jar Binks you really will be unhappy) friends and enemies return in their new animated guises. The series gets off to a cracking, audience friendly adventure start with Ambush, which showcases Yoda highly effectively at his most playful, and most formidable, when he goes up against deadly Sith assassin Asajj Ventress and an army of Battle Droids to win the support of the Toydarian race. Sadly, with such an auspicious and inspiring beginning, from then on in, sadly, our little green hero does very little during the rest of the season, though the episodes themselves beyond Ambush soon prove even better, more exciting and even more ambitious, with many intriguing character combinations for stories (in fact, the main cast (Anakin, Padme, Obi-Wan and the droids) really only appear and work together in one episode-Destroy Malevolence-at other times, we see episodes with Anakin and his new Padawan, Ahsoka, Threepio with Padme and Jar Jar, and Mace Windu finally gets to share some centre stage purple wielding lightsaber action towards the end of the season. There’s also the chance to see episodes featuring blink and you miss them supporting characters from the Prequel movies that fans and THE CLONE WARS production personnel have always wanted to see play a bigger part in the series, Jedi like the ever smiling Nautolan Kit Fisto (in Lair of Grievous) Plo Koon (in the epic three part Malevolence saga) and that blue French babe Aayla Secura (in Jedi Crash). So, all in all, there’s something for everyone in this season.

Ahsoka fights the "Hairless Harpie" Asajj Ventress in Cloak of Darkness.

The biggest difference to the STAR WARS animated saga character wise, however, must be the Padawan learner to Anakin-Ahsoka Tano. Designed to cater to the younger viewers as well as appeal and hopefully expand the female side of the STAR WARS fan base, Ahsoka’s introduction in the prior CLONE WARS theatrical pilot had proved controversial to STAR WARS purists, who didn’t like the idea of established continuity being mucked about with by its creator George Lucas or Supervising Director Dave Filoni. Now, a season on, that controversy linked to the character seems to have died down a little, and popular voice actress Ashley Eckstein brings infectious and adventurous enthusiasm, and a cheeky innocence, to the part. How you feel her part in the saga plays out officially, and also the equally important question of just how officially cannon the animated series should be considered, is up to each fan/viewers individual taste. Though her future fate as a Jedi in the series is clouded, we hope that the Production Team don’t bottle out with her character in the way that DOCTOR WHO used to regularly do with its series companions (i.e. normally acting completely out of character-settling on some alien world somewhere, or getting hitched to someone they’d only met five minutes earlier). I think even the youngest of viewers don’t want the Production Team to play it safe after the events of EPISODE III (easily the most popular of the modern Prequel films). Don’t let us down, Messer’s Lucas/Filoni!


Our Clone Wars heroes assemble.

All of the voice actors do a fine, totally credible job adapting to the characters previously played on the live action screen-special kudos to Tom Kane, Catherine Taber and James Arnold Taylor for bringing Yoda, Padme and Obi-Wan to life so well. Matt Lanter is equally good as Anakin Skywalker, though The Chosen One is a far different character here than the one portrayed by the popular, brooding Hayden Christensen. In the animated series, Anakin is much more of a heroic, devil may care type to appeal to the general fans-and more of a combination of the best elements of Luke and Han Solo, though the Dark Side is starting to slowly creep in to his personality and actions. Sadly, Samuel L. Jackson is no longer around to voice Mace Windu as he did in the pilot movie, but T.C. Carson does a fine job bring the Master Jedi’s indomitable attitude to the small screen, whilst six movie STAR WARS veteran Anthony Daniels returns with his own inimitable vocal style to the golden protocol droid See-Threepio. There’s also the highly notable voice guest casts this year to look out for (including such genre faves as George Takei, Michael York, James Marsters and Ron Perlman). With their contributions a vital component to the show’s success, it’s painfully disappointing to me that they don’t really have any behind the scenes contributions made to the DVD set-certainly they deserve some interview time.

Inexperienced Clone Troops go into battle in Rookies.

As well as the adventure element, and the characters themselves, the accessibility of the saga to audiences is another of STAR WARS greatest strengths, and this animated series keeps the tradition going-there’s no hideous over writing and techno babble like the modern STAR TREK series and the tone of the series is always just about right (no continuing misery ala the modern BATTLESTAR GALACTICA series). As for the episodes, well they have a terrific range and variety, from the kid friendly action STAR WARS we all know and love (like the exciting Artoo is kidnapped storyline in Downfall of a Droid/Due of the Droids), to fantasy, to the tougher edged (like the excellent Clone episode Rookies, and the season closing Hostage Crisis), from STAR WARS action (the Malevolence and Ryloth trilogies), to fantasy, to horror (Lair of Grievous) to outright comedy (Bombad Jedi-I don’t care what anybody says I like this episode-Jar Jar, once again voiced by Ahmed Best, and Threepio made a great team!!). Even the few weaker shows in the season (the Dooku Captured storyline and the Blue Shadow Virus duology) have more good than bad elements, and the originality factor and the strong animation makes up for any deficiencies.

"Heesaa Back!" Old and new friends meet through the series.

Criticized for daring to have its own unique house style and not following other accepted CGI animation trends, the ultimate look of the ever evolving THE CLONE WARS proves to be its greatest strength, improving and becoming ever more complex, ambitious and detailed with every episode-you can see that the dedication and hard work is really paying off-it’ll be interesting to see what the show looks like by the time it reaches its projected third or fourth seasons.

The Jedi-braced for lightsaber action!

Additionally, beyond the movies and established character/story-lore, the Production Team have a love of the popular, ever growing, Expanded Universe, too, and try to put into the animated series the sort of references that make that side of the STAR WARS experience a little bit more real and “official” for long terms fans of that universe off-shoot, as well as getting the new fans interested in this other non-Lucas created side of the franchise. The EU also has several major characters which have finally been brought to well deserved visual life, like Asajj Ventress (the villain who should have been in the live action film series). And it’s not just the characters, either. Y-wing fighters and other familiar technology get the chance to appear in the show, too (will the Millennium Falcon, or perhaps one of her sister Corellian ships, even make a future guest appearance? Who knows, but let’s certainly hope so!).

Darth Sidious gives orders from afar...

The previously established universe of Lucas from the Prequel Trilogy is also starting to show a lot more in the animated series, bridging the gaps between EPISODEs II and III, and then III and IV. However, even with such dedication to continuity, some previously established storylines and character traits have even been changed or there have been occasional story plotting hiccups, i.e. the dastardly General Grievous has a cough prior to the damage inflicted him on by Mace in the also excellent Genndy Tartakovsky 2005 animated series which was set during the title crawl of EPISODE III. Can someone please explain to me why that is? Continuity mistake or deliberate change to established fact?

Cad Bane and his Bounty Hunter posse make their brutal presence felt at the end of the season.

The first season ends effectively, but branches into new territory, with the villains kind of winning, and stealing, the show in Hostage Crisis, as new Bounty Hunter/Lee Van Cleef look-a-like Cad Bane makes his play as the most promising new villain on the STAR WARS block for quite some time. Let’s hope that Dave Filoni’s plans to have the Separatists win a few more battles within the STAR WARS universe become realized. Again, there must be no safe bets in the story telling.

Overall, the DVD box set extras accompanying the full season episodes are very good, but, as with all STAR WARS and INDIANA JONES releases, they are never complete enough. The four disc set has no individual cut scenes (which does not bode well for the eventually to be released six film box set extras) or NEXT EPISODE trailers (there’s none of the CARTOON NETWORK promotions (and, disappointingly, the series launch behind the scenes documentary introduced by Ashley Eckstein hasn’t been released, either!)) and on the general behind the scenes front, there’s so very little footage you wonder what’s happened to it all (it would have been great to have had more featurettes on things like the music, the animators at work, more on Skywalker Ranch, some more input from George Lucas in general- even a “I hope you enjoy the box set” intro from him would have been welcome!!), as would interviews with Season One producer Catherine Winder on setting up the series (she may have left LUCASFILM after the premiere season, but someone could have at least interviewed her for the complete DVD release) and a few of the directors, like Steward Lee, the terrific Rob Coleman and Atsushi Takeuchi. There are also no audio commentaries- at least on the DVD set- which I found a great surprise. So, all in all, this was not really the most comprehensive selection of extras that we’d previously been promised on the STARWARS.COM site (who’d stated that a lot of time was being spent crafting material worthy for the box set) and obviously all the best stuff was being held for the Blu-ray format anyway (which LUCASFILM/ WHV really wants more sales in anyway). Beyond Blu-ray, which has extra material we are sadly unable to review (basically, the Jedi Temple Archives: an extensive database exploring test footage, early concept art, 3-D character and object turnarounds and early animation), perhaps they are saving more extras for an ultimate box set of the entire series when it ends in four years time?

Our heroes make battle tactics at the beginning of the series.

On the plus side, however, the five to six minutes behind the scenes mini documentaries/production team talks about the original story ideas, character concepts, designs, look and attitudes towards making the show which accompany each episode are generally very well put together-you may already appreciate the work and talent that goes into the episodes, but with this DVD experience you’ll learn to appreciate it a whole lot more. The featurettes cram in a lot in of intriguing critical behind the scenes decisions (and its always nice to see all the unused concept art from the Original and Prequel films being looked at and considered for new use. Ralph McQuarrie and Joe Johnston’s incredible work on the first trilogy being the cornerstone for the series on its totally visual level- a fact that is clear to see throughout the behind the scenes stuff), though they are still not long enough for me-I could easily watch at least fifteen minutes on each episode. Be aware, though, that some parts of the featurettes are not new-having already appeared on STARWARS.COM in the video commentaries area.

Jedi Starfighters and Y-wing bombers appear in the Malevolence saga.

Intriguingly, for this first season, series creator Lucas doesn’t appear on the video clips, strange considering how much input into the storylines and visual content he has (its nice to see his love for animation finally come to fruition and what better way to enjoy this passion than using his own creations within its medium). It has to be said that, with their dedication and enthusiasm, Henry Gilroy, Kilian Plunkett and Dave Filoni are the luckiest people in show business. These are fellow STAR WARS fans living the dream. It’s nice, though, that they are pretty humble about it all and not afraid to poke fun at themselves. And they don’t sit on their laurels and get comfortable with STAR WARS storytelling, either. They admit their problems and the things that have to be overcome within the series parameters (the tight budgets being one factor in the premiere season). One intriguing and commendable aspect of their work is that they fiercely protect the saga’s history and characters-sometimes even challenging George about his own series and laws when he decides to break them!! (and the controversy the Creator sometimes brings-it was George who brought Jar Jar back for the animated series, much to wrath of the Prequel haters-though, in my opinion, it was a move that proved correct-the slapstick comedy character (Lucas’s STAR WARS homage to Buster Keaton) works well in the animated medium). What still doesn’t work on the comedy front, though, and present within the whole first season, and beyond it, is the slapstick Battle Droid stuff -a necessary inclusion for the children’s audience, but it still doesn’t work in my book-worse than it was in the Prequels. Less dialogue and more visual humour on that front, please.

Padme is captured on Rodia in Bombad Jedi.

This box set release is the ultimate viewing experience of the animated series, in their proper aspect rations (which varied greatly on UK and US transmissions in their premiere run). Colour, variety and depth stand out like beacons. From the amazing purple coral world of the unnamed Toydarian moon, to the vistas of swamp land Rodia, the battle ravaged gray’s of Ryloth and the crystalline citied Christophsis, the universe of STAR WARS has never looked better. And then there’s the flip-side of the Force-with the dark lair of Grievous, with its labyrinth passages of death and violence at every turn, which never been more dark and disturbing. The superb visual experience is backed up with an equally great and complex sound mixing by David Accord and Matthew Wood-a loving testament, and continuation, to the work previously established by Sound Maestro Ben Burtt for the Original Trilogy.

By far, the most eagerly awaited bonuses for the fans on the four disc set must surely be the episode director’s cuts of what many consider the season’s seven best adventures (Rising Malevolence, Shadow of Malevolence, Rookies, Lair of Grievous, and the Ryloth trilogy)All of these are very good and greatly improve on the original transmission versions. Whilst there are noticeable new sequences (especially in the Ryloth trilogy-Ahsoka shows a lot more nervousness prior to her disastrous first command mission in Storm Over Ryloth, whilst the search by Mace Windu and his men for the Ryloth resistance fighter Cham Syndulla is slightly longer), a lot of the new material are very subtle lines of additional dialogue, extensions of scenes and little visual moments that make the STAR WARS saga a unique viewing experience. And Rising and Rookies, in particular, work even better with these small additions, whilst the more adult flavoured Lair has even more power and atmosphere seen properly, and could well be the overall best episode of the series thus far, with a great story from Henry Gilroy and superb, stylish and innovative direction from Takeuchi.

Count Dooku isn't impressed with Kowakian monkeys in Dooku Captured.

Onto a different side of things, and the overall packaging of the set, though nicely designed and conceived, turns out to be pretty basic and nothing like the inspired quality we should have got in comparison to the incredible packages coming to territories like Japan, who have a release which looks absolutely superb with its additional individual character post cards, figurine charms, a beautiful new poster and stunning cover artwork-all encased within a stunning special collectors tin. I think all STAR WARS fans worldwide deserved that kind of treatment. However, everyone gets a lavish 64 page production journal going behind the scenes from Dave Filoni’s perspective that’s full of visual goodness, so that’s at least a further positive bit of news.

At the end of the day, however, it’s the episodes, and the seven extended directors cut, that are the ultimate objective of purchase, and in that service the box set ultimately delivers. Live the experience much more than you ever did in your original broadcast viewings, which prove even better in Blu-ray (with a picture quality five times greater than ordinary DVD!).

It’s been said several times before, but there is simply nothing like this show on TV, and it’s incredible how it has appealed and captured the imagination of all its desired target demographic factors so quickly. Its success, through the sheer talent working behind the scenes, is well deserved and long may its quality reign continue…

A rare group episode for our heroes, in Destroy Malevolence.

All in all the Season One box set is a lovely treat for fans, especially for the Xmas holiday season, and acts as a fine warm up to savour in the wake of the now playing Season Two-which looks set to be bolder and more exciting than ever before (some of the Season One featurettes have little mentions of things to come, so keep attuned). We can now look back and see how this first genesis season got the show up and running and went on to break new ground-becoming the highest rated series in CARTOON NETWORK’s history within the US in the process- setting the template for future seasons to no doubt improve in all areas of production. THE CLONE WARS Season One box set lets us savour this first little gem like a raw, unpolished but still highly desirable diamond.


AFICIONADO RATING-EPISODES (including director’s cuts): 9 out of 10

AFICIONADO RATING-DVD EXTRAS: Good, but could have been much better (which the Blu-Ray release will be), and we deserved the kind of treatment packaging-wise that the Japanese release got - 7 out of 10

AFICIONADO OVERALL RATING FOR THE DVD BOX SET: 8.5 out of 10

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