Star Wars: The Clone Wars recap: An Open Letter to Lucasfilm
Congrats on a spectacular season opener. Your underwater coming-of-age epic on Mon Calamari was just about the best three-parter you’ve ever given us. Dave Filoni & Co. truly outdid themselves, creating a wholly new, textured environment that felt somehow totally alien and completely relatable at the same time. As Star Wars has always done at its best, you made us feel, to paraphrase Obi-Wan Kenobi, like we’d just “taken our first steps into another world.”
So what happened last night? Believe me, the animation in “Shadow Warrior” was peerless, as always: moody rain effects, subtle shades of flickering candlelight in Dooku’s lair, intricately choreographed fight scenes. But, exsqueeze me, “Shadow Warrior” sucked. Even despite appearances from Count Dooku and General Grievous. In fact, I can’t think of an episode I’ve liked less since I started this recap a year ago. And I think I know why.
I’m not one of these crazed (anti)fans who considers May 19, 1999, the day The Phantom Menace was released, to be the day my childhood died. Was it a disappointment? Sure. Was it a total loss? No way. I honestly feel the podrace sequence is one of George Lucas’s purest, most visceral Star Wars pleasures—a 50-something-year-old guy reflecting on his boyhood love of all things that go zoom. I’d also say that three-way lightsaber fight at the end might be the most exquisitely choreographed battle of the saga, a last gasp of flesh-and-blood kineticism before the anemic, CGI body doubles for Christopher Lee in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. In fact, I’d go on record saying that I think Phantom Menace is a better film than Attack of the Clones, which feels like the most hesitant and uncertain Star Wars film of the lot. To me, AOTC seems like a self-conscious do-over, an obvious response to the criticism of The Phantom Menace built around actors utterly incapable of channeling more sober-minded material.
Still, there are a few things about The Phantom Menace that are utterly irredeemable and which should have been, let’s say, “retired” from the canon. I think I speak for every Star Wars fan imaginable when I quote Boss Nass: “Wesa no carin’ about da Naboo!” I can understand the impulse that’s led to appearances from Jar Jar and the Gungans on The Clone Wars so far. They’re the white Ronto in the room and probably have to be acknowledged. In small, small doses they’re even tolerable, but in no way should they be anchoring an entire episode like they did last night in “Shadow Warrior.” I actually felt bad for you guys while watching it, because I realized that if a total newcomer were to tune in to the show for the first time, he or she would probably never come back…which would be terribly unfair because it was in no way an accurate reflection of what the Lucasfilm storytelling team is capable of.
NEXT: Five reasons why “Shadow Warrior” failed, plus a few suggestions to see to it that this never happens again.
1. A Breakdown of Logic—So relations between the Gungans and Naboo have deteriorated, huh? I thought that the cultural rift between the two peoples had been pretty well repaired because of the events in Menace. And in the season four opener new Gungan leader Boss Lyonie sent troops to aid the Republic on Mon Calamari just because Naboo’s former Queen Amidala was in danger. So all of a sudden the Gungans are threatening to march on Theed, and not one of the pidgin-talkin’ amphibians, save Jar Jar and Tarpals, are questioning it? Nobody notices that Boss Lyonie is delivering fiery anti-Naboo rhetoric in an unblinking monotone, like he’s drugged, or under the control of a Jedi Mind Trick or some Gungan voodoo spell? To quote Johnnie Cochrane while making his infamous Chewbacca defense, “This does not make sense!” The only reason I can conceive of any of this happening at all is because Uncle George wanted more of…
2. The Gungans—The floppy-eared amphibians aren’t funny and never were. I know kids do like them—I was one of them back in 1999 when I was 13—but you have to realize that kids aren’t your only audience. I’d venture to say that for every kid who watches The Clone Wars, there’s an adult who watches too: a parent who wants to watch with his or her kid and bond over a mutual love of that Galaxy Far, Far Away. Or a 20 or 30-something who’s still able to geek out on all things Star Wars. If you’re reading this, you probably fall into either category. The Clone Wars has done a pretty great job of catering to us older Star Wars nerds—that’s why we’re recapping it on EW.com. Lucasfilm also needs to realize this important fact: we’re the ones who would actually buy the Star Wars merc for the Clone Wars’ kid audience, and I can’t imagine ever bestowing a Jar Jar or Captain Tarpals action figure, or poster, or lunchbox, on any young lad.
Actually, there are many juvenile elements of Star Wars that I do like, that have tinges of irony or quirky humor to appeal to adult sensibilities too. All the aliens from the original trilogy are at least tolerable. (Hey, at least the Ewoks don’t speak, right? Be thankful for that.) And my favorite Special Edition tweak is as juvenile and ridiculous as they come: the “Jedi Rocks” number in Return of the Jedi. I know a lot of people hate it, and I understand the concern that it marginalizes Max Rebo and the original members of the band, but step back and think about it for a moment. It’s one of the few CGI updates to that movie, and it’s a case where pixels are being added not to soup-up a battle or an eye-candy visual, but to create a demented alien musical number. The thought that somebody (okay, George Lucas) thought that adding a floorshow was just what Return of the Jedi needed is not only crazy, but, I think, really endearing and lovable. To me, that’s an example of the quirk that makes Star Wars so idiosyncratic. And it fits in beautifully with the Pepe-le-Moko-as-directed-by John-Waters vibe of the whole Jabba’s Palace sequence. That’s a tradition I loved in the Clone Wars episode “Hunt for Ziro” last season, when we saw another elaborate 1920s Chicago-style floor show and learned that “Jedi Rocks” songstress Sy Snootles was in fact a Stanwyck-caliber femme fatale.
But last night, I would rather have seen an entirely wordless episode–dialogue replaced by insane cackling–focused only on Jabba’s court jester Salacious Crumb and his fellow Kowakian Monkey-lizards, than yet another Gungan-fest. When Jar Jar popped out of his bongo to talk about how his ears go “boomba” due to the change in water pressure, I’d never felt more embarrassed about recommending this show. But I stood corrected just a few moments later when we learned that the Gungans also have some form of mind-control power. (I mean, you’re adding voodoo to the Gungans’ catalogue of Stepin Fetchit tropes?) And then again when Jar Jar tripped and fell—just while standing motionless, no less!—so that clueless Padmé could realize that Jar Jar and Lyonie share a ballpark resemblance. Right…because all Gungans look alike. This leads to a big-picture question…
NEXT: You can’t go home again. Except to Naboo. Constantly. Why is this place so important again?
3. By the Force, what’s so important about Naboo? What ever was so important about Naboo? I guess it’s a crucial trade hub. Maybe it sits on some attractive hyperspace routes. But as far as I can tell, they have no natural resources—other than screensaver-worthy pictorial beauty—worthy of plunder. The Naboo themselves, beyond a curious affection for Renaissance-derivative architecture, are hopelessly banal, and the Gungans a lost cause. The only reason it seems to keep popping up is because Palpatine hails from there. On second thought, maybe it does seem like the kind of milieu from which the most evil person in the galaxy would spring. Just why couldn’t it have been more interesting?!
4. The villains don’t seem menacing. At all. And they should be, and have been. But in “Shadow Warrior” you have the Gungans defeat General Grievous? Grievous, the butcher of worlds, the droid leader who’s escaped from Jedi taskforce after Jedi taskforce? Who could only be felled by Obi-Wan Kenobi? I know, I know, you’re going to say that the Gungans defeated the Trade Federation armies on Naboo’s CGI plains in Episode I. But they didn’t really. They were pretty much defeated until Anakin destroyed the droid control ship. I liked that Grievous’ capture in “Shadow Warrior” required the death of Captain Tarpals (probably the least annoying of that entire waterlogged race), but he shouldn’t have been captured at all. It makes Grievous seem so very much weaker than we ever could have imagined. Not to mention that it makes Palpatine look like a fool. Why would he need a droid general who allows himself to be captured by Gungans this easily? And he didn’t foresee this? I thought Palpatine was pulling all the strings.
5. Has Padmé lost her mind? How did she transform from a kick-ass Warrior Queen to a love-sodden fool willing to prolong the war by trading General Grievous for her hubby? Think about it this way. You want to end the war. You need General Grievous dead or captured to help end the war. You have General Grievous, broken and defeated, in custody. You should be feeling like this. Okay, so your husband has been captured. But he’s a Jedi! And not just a Jedi, but the Chosen One! You have so little faith in his abilities that you don’t think he can escape? He escaped from Dooku when three hungry monsters and thousands of battle droids were after him on Geonosis. Why don’t you think he could again? Worse comes to worst, you yourself can lead a rescue party to bring him back. For that matter, why would you think Anakin would want you to trade him for Grievous? He never would! And he’ll hold that against you forever. Also, you made your decision to give up Grievous based on advice from Jar Jar? The dude who handed the keys to the galaxy over to Palpatine by introducing a Senate proposal to make him a wartime dictator. Who you’ve seen pee on the democratic principles to which you so dearly cleave. Who I’d suspect of being a Sith Lord himself for the way he’s enabled evil if it weren’t for the fact that he’s the dumbest life-form in the galaxy.
I’m not certain Padmé would even have the authority to make a prisoner exchange. This seems like a military decision to me. And when word gets out about this, she should be forced to resign as Senator, stripped of her titles, and possibly face charges of treason. That should happen to her even if she weren’t a part of a crypto-fascist government headed by a would-be Emperor.
I’m sorry, “Shadow Warrior” was just bad. Not even bombad. And this lifelong Star Wars fan isn’t even going to attempt to justify it. I don’t expect adventures of the spectacular caliber of that Mon Calamari arc every week. Episodes like that are beyond expensive in terms of both money and manpower. But even the animated equivalent of a “bottle episode” would have been better than “Shadow Warrior.” A thirty minute shot of a bottle would have been better.
Lucasfilm, please don’t let this happen again. Okey-day?
Christian Blauvelt, a puzzled fan.
Before the Dark Times, before the Empire, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker fight to restore peace and justice to a galaxy far, far away…