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Which Version of THE CLONE WARS is Better?

With Star Wars: Rebels premiering Friday October 3rd, Lucasfilm is going back to an era that hasn’t been explored in television before. The 20 or so years between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope will be the focus of the new animated series.

This is a huge change of pace. Most Star Wars material released in the 21st Century so far has focused on the prequel era, specifically the Clone Wars. This galactic conflict–which, in-canon, only lasts about 3 years–has been the focus of many books, games and two television series.

It’s those two TV shows we’re talking about today. Specifically, the question of which one is better: Star Wars: Clone Wars, which ran from 2003-2005, or Star Wars: The Clone Wars, which aired from 2008 until earlier this year.

There’s a lot to talk about, so prepare to jump to hyperspace and dive right in (slight spoilers follow):

Star Wars: Clone Wars

Source: Wookieepedia

Source: Wookieepedia

The Plot

The fabled Clone Wars, which will become known throughout the galaxy far and wide, have begun. Over three seasons and twenty-five episodes, the Jedi and their Clone Trooper army fight Count Dooku and his Separatists in space and across several planets.

The first two seasons of the series–which aired as 5-minute shorts between other shows on Cartoon Network–tell one main story surrounded by a bunch of smaller arcs. The main arc involves Count Dooku (Corey Burton) sending the Sith hopeful Asajj Ventress (Grey DeLisle) after Anakin Skywalker (Mat Lucas) in order to kill him. Their battle is intense and wages far and wide from deep space to the jungles of Yavin IV.

Surrounding that story are several smaller ones that are still really compelling. There’s Obi-Wan Kenobi (James Arnold Taylor) and a platoon of Clone troopers (André Sogliuzzo) assaulting the Intergalactic Banking Clan on the planet Muunilinist, who are bankrolling the Separatists. Mace Windu (T.C. Carson) and some clones take on an entire drone army all by themselves. Yoda (Tom Kane) rescues two Jedi all by himself. And a group of Padawans led by Jedi Master Ki-Adi Mundi (Daran Norris) encounter the dreaded General Grievous (John DiMaggio/Richard McGonagle).

The third season–which is only 5 15-minute episodes and leads directly into the opening of Revenge of the Sith–sees Anakin officially become a Jedi Knight, then sends him and Obi-Wan off to the frozen wasteland of Nelvaan in order to potentially find Grievous. Meanwhile, Grievous leads a direct assault on Coruscant in order to capture Chancellor Palpatine (Nick Jameson) for Dooku.

The Execution

Upon its 2-volume DVD release, Clone Wars was reedited to flow together as full-length films. There’s a big reason for that. This series is just one gigantic visual feast and it’s best appreciated by letting it all soak in at once. Fragmenting it only deadens the energetic pace and fluid animation.

Directed by the legendary Genndy Tartakovsky (Samurai Jack, Dexter’s Laboratory),  the animation is a master class in motion, camerawork and staging. The best sequences in this series are the ones containing little or no dialogue. For my money, the best fight of the series is when Mace Windu decimates an entire droid army on the planet,Dantooine. It’s all on farmland, and the tall grass and flat prairies feed into the battle like the futurescapes of Jack or the rain-soaked rice paddies of Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit.

Of course, the fact that the highlight sequences are silent doesn’t diminish the stellar vocal work. Mat Lucas, primarily an editor on various TV shows and movies, was Hayden Christensen’s official voice double during production of the prequels. He’s got the voice down to a T; the only difference is that he can actually act. He manages to sell Anakin’s frustration and rage far better than what we ever got onscreen.

James Arnold Taylor is  a terrific Obi-Wan, really playing up the smirk that Ewan McGregor brought to the part. As the first people to ever voice the sinister General Grievous, DiMaggio and McGonagle are incredible. They bring a palpable undercurrent of menace to the role that’s a bit lost in subsequent portrayals.

Fans of Avatar: The Last Airbender will recognize Azula’s laser-focused rage in Asajj Ventress, and that’s entirely DeLisle at work. Coupled with the Sith’s strikingly unpleasant look, it makes for an intriguing villain.

Although this series was largely approved by Lucasfilm as a way to drive up action figure sales, it stands on its own as a remarkable piece of work from one of animation’s great modern voices. Tartakovsky’s love for the Star Wars universe seeps through in every frame. It’s very easy to see why this series won 3 Emmys in its time; it deserves every ounce of praise it gets.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars

Source: Wookieepedia

Source: Wookieepedia

The Plot

The Clone Wars, which lasted 6 seasons from 2008 to 2014, actually begins with a 2008 feature film, also called Star Wars: The Clone Wars. If that sounds confusing, well, the film wasn’t even supposed to be made. Lucasfilm–which was an independent company prior to its 2012 purchase by Disney–had actually begun making the show on its own dime. As he explains in this interview, George Lucas saw the production footage and figured that they might as well go ahead and combine four episodes into a film to promote the series.

The Clone Wars, the movie, is thus somewhat important viewing. Set shortly after the events of Attack of The Clones–and in an unspecified time gap in the 2003 series–the movie opens with Anakin (Matt Lanter), Obi-Wan (Taylor again), various Clone troopers led by Captain Rex and Commander Cody (all voiced by Dee Bradley Baker) and Admiral Yularen (Tom Kane) fighting on the planet of Christophsis against the droid army of General Loathsom (yes, really) (Corey Burton).

A ship arrives and the Jedi believe it to be reinforcements, but instead, it turns out to be the young Jedi Learner Ahsoka Tano (Ashley Eckstein), who says she was sent by Yoda (Kane) to be Anakin’s new Padawan. Reluctantly, Anakin takes her on and Ahsoka proves herself in the battle against Loathsom. Afterwords, they’re informed by Yoda about Jabba the Hutt (Kevin Michael Richardson)’s young son’s kidnapping by a gang of bandits.

Anakin, Ahsoka and the clones take off after the Huttlet, while Obi-Wan flies to Tattooine to ensure Jabba his son will be returned; in exchange, the Hutts will allow the Republic passage through the Outer Rim, which they’ve been restricted to by the Separatists. It turns out Count Dooku (Christopher Lee) staged the kidnapping of Jabba’s son in order to discredit the Jedi; he plans to have Anakin find the kid, then have them summarily dispatched by Asajj Ventress (Nika Futterman), blaming the Jedi for the Huttlet’s death.

Given that it was originally part of the TV series, the film really has no set break between it and the show. The new show mostly consists of stand-alone adventures bouncing around all over the galaxy with a variety of characters. However, there are the occasional multi-episode arcs and characters who act as that season’s main antagonist.

Season 1 has General Grievous (Matthew Wood) as the main villain. Season 2, subtitled Rise of the Bounty Hunters, sees a group of mercenaries led by the charming, deadly Cad Bane (Burton) come into focus. Season 3–Secrets Revealed–and Season 4–Battle Lines–witness the war drag on and the Republic’s dark secrets come to light. Notably, Season 4 sees the return of the once-thought-dead Darth Maul (Sam Witwer), now with cybernetic spider legs and dreams of destroying both the Jedi and Darth Sidious (Ian Abercrombie).

Season 5 was the last season of the show to air on television, as Cartoon Network pulled it in 2013 due to Disney gunning up production on Rebels. However, 13 episodes of a sixth season (as opposed to the other seasons’ 22 episodes apiece) eventually surfaced this year, first on German television and then on Netflix subtitled The Lost Missions. Starwars.com also recently unveiled The Clone Wars: Legacy, a section containing finished story reels (unfinished animation synced to complete vocal and sound effect tracks) for one episode arc, “Crystal Crisis on Utapau,” and concept art for two more: “Darth Maul: Son of Darthomir,” which has been turned into a comic book miniseries, and “Dark Disciple,” which is being adapted into a novel to be published next year.

The Execution

With its shoddy animation, rote story, and poor presentation, the film Star Wars: The Clone Wars is not very good. It’s obviously episode footage slapped together and the end result, despite director Dave Filoni (of Avatar fame and also the Supervising Director of the series) giving it all he’s got, is hard to stay engaged in (There’s also a very odd pre-credits moment with an audio montage of Clone troopers yelling in battle ala Zero Dark Thirty, that falls flat). The film’s very ugly first 25 minutes betray its rushed origins, and the film goes up from there, but not much.

The series, on the other hand, is much, much better. Maybe it’s television having a different aspect ratio from film, maybe it’s the simple fact that Lucasfilm Animation had more time, but whatever the reason, the show is an immense delight and a wonderful survey of this universe.

It doesn’t hurt that the series has a slew of talented crew, with writers like Harley Quinn co-creator Paul Dini, the Tick’s creator Ben Edlund, and Lucas’ own daughter Katie turning in nuanced, action-packed yarns and directors like Filoni and Giancarlo Volpe (who later did Green Lantern: The Animated Series) combining smart camera choices, pleasing visuals and well-honed action chops to really grab the viewers’ attention.

The cast is a genuine marvel: an ensemble that only gets better with time. Taylor was always great as Obi-Wan, but the longer running times really allow him to sell just how much of a snarky bastard Obi-Wan is. Lanter may not sound like Hayden Christensen, but he manages to sell Anakin’s encroaching onto the Dark Side wonderfully. Kane brings as much pathos to Yoda as Frank Oz ever did.

The villains are also first-rate. As the insanely cool Cad Bane–a cross between Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name and an alien with a slightly roboticized voice–Burton shows why he’s one of the most revered voice actors of all time, selling the contempt and danger with every line. Similarly, he’s far more menacing as Count Dooku than the iconic Christopher Lee, who simply sounds bored in the film. The late Abercrombie sells both Palpatine’s genteelness and Sidious’ malevolence with equal candor. As much as I love Grey DeLisle, Futterman simply wrings more out of Ventress with a sly purr and fierce anger.

But the real standouts of the cast are Eckstein and Baker. As the headstrong, spirited Ahsoka, Eckstein brings a brash vibrancy that makes Ahsoka not only the show’s breakout character, but easily the best female in this universe besides Princess Leia. Baker–long an under-appreciated but omnipresent voice actor–has a much harder task: voicing every single Clone and giving them all distinct personalities. That’s an incredibly hard feat, especially when several episodes, like Season 1’s “Rookies,” largely or wholly consist of him talking to himself. It’s a genuine marvel and I’m shocked he never won an Emmy for his work.

The music, by composer Kevin Kiner, is also really enjoyable. What’s notable is that, while John Williams’ iconic Star Wars themes are used, Kiner surrounds them with several elements not typically part of a score: guitars, various Indian string instruments, etc. It’s really nifty stuff and the film’s soundtrack is well worth listening to on Spotify.

There are two downsides to this series, though, one unavoidable, one probably unintentional. First, as a good chunk of episodes revolve around Anakin and Obi Wan trying and failing to capture/destroy General Grievous, it’s hard not to feel a sense of repetitive failure creep in, given that continuity-wise, Grievous can’t be killed until Episode III. Second, the low-ranking battle droids (Wood), who were amusing in The Phantom Menace, are rather annoying here. They’re supposed to be comedy relief, and they don’t do a very good job at it; instead, they’re just annoying.

Oddly, despite Lucas’ insistence that the series was “PG-13,” every episode has a moral in front of it that thematically connects to the episode. It’s odd, but for kids, it’s a welcome thing to have, even if it’s a dated device.

Another oddity is that, in both the film and the series, a narrator (Kane) brings the audience up to speed on what events have instigated the plot of the episode. Kane-an iconic announcer who’s presented the Oscars a couple of times–does an admirable job and it’s a nice nod to the franchise’s film serial-inspired origins. Still, it’s a little jarring to not have any of the famous scrolling text around.

Final Thoughts

To be quite honest, I initially thought this was going to be a one-sided recommendation fully in favor of Clone Wars. I had heard nothing less than great things about it, and the later series struck me as a blatant cash grab. But once I actually watched it, my perspective shifted.

While Star Wars: The Clone Wars is an ultimately disposable film-really, it’s only vital if you want to see how Anakin and Ahsoka met–The Clone Wars the show and Clone Wars are both incredibly entertaining, well-made television and great additions to this universe. If you want an example of a legendary animation director turning in top-tier work in a universe he loves as well as something you could slot in as part of marathoning the whole saga, go watch Clone Wars. But if you want a long-running TV show that dives deep into such a wide-spanning conflict and is full of good writing, good direction and great performances, check out The Clone Wars. Either way, you can’t go wrong. May the Force be with you.

Star Wars: Clone Wars is available on DVD. Star Wars: The Clone Wars (TV show and Film) is available on Netflix Instant Video and DVD.

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Categories: Lists and Editorials, Star Wars

Author:Tom Speelman

A lifetime of reading comics and watching television has left Tom with an inexhaustible supply of pop culture knowledge from the obvious to the obscure. Rather than keep it all in his brain for use at parties, Tom turned to writing a few years ago to help him share that knowledge with as many people as are remotely interested. Tom writes for several websites including The Mary Sue, Strange Horizons, Loser City and others. For even further rambling, follow him on Twitter @tomtificate.

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3 Comments on “Which Version of THE CLONE WARS is Better?”

  1. 10/03/2014 at 1:32 PM #

    Reblogged this on tomtificate and commented:
    A big old comparison between the legendary 2003 Clone Wars series and the CGI version by Lucas that wrapped up earlier this year. This was one of the first articles for Another Castle I came up with and I’m very proud of it. I hope you like it.

  2. 10/04/2014 at 5:28 AM #

    They’re both great, but if I had to choose I prefer “Clone Wars” for its great animation, direction, and overall quality!

  3. 10/04/2014 at 3:33 PM #

    It’s terrific but me, I just can’t choose between the two!

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