Anyone who knows me will probably already know that I’m not the world’s biggest Star Wars fan. Some might find that weird since I was absolutely the perfect age when George Lucas’ movie hit theaters in 1977. I should have been hooked, especially after seeing The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi over the next six years. By the time Lucas returned to the franchise in the late ‘90s, I had already moved well past any childhood interest in Star Wars, and like most, I was pretty disappointed in 1999’s The Phantom Menace. Its 2002 sequel Attack of the Clones was slightly better, but none of it really got me motivated into digging Star Wars again. I was done.
That is, until 2003 when George Lucas did something surprising by giving some leeway to an award-winning animator named Genndy Tartakovsky to take characters introduced in the prequels and use them in a series of animated shorts on the Cartoon Network. It was a daring move that helped get me more excited for Star Wars then I had been for almost twenty years before… and maybe since.
The series directly tied into the prequel trilogy, filling the gap between Episodes 2 and 3, and I never really felt compelled to watch the other CG-animated Clone Wars series that began in 2008, even though that’s considered far more intrinsic to the lore.
Who is Genndy Tartakovsky?
Let’s get this out of the way, because in recent years, you may only know Tartakovsky as the director of Adam Sandler’s “Hotel Transylvania” animated franchise, and that might not seem like someone who might be responsible for anything particularly cool set in the Star Wars galaxy. There’s a lot more to Tartakovsky’s work before he did Clone Wars, beginning with his work on Tiny Toon Adventures and Batman: The Animated Series, two VERY popular television cartoons.
He really began making a name for himself in the ‘90s as the creator of Dexter’s Laboratory and writer/supervising/producer on The Powerpuff Girls, both for the burgeoning Cartoon Network. That, in turn, led to his next series as a creator, Samurai Jack, creating a body of animation work that must have caught the eye of George Lucas and Lucasfilm as something to tide the fans over between 2002’s Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones, and the 2005 finale of the prequel trilogy.
So let’s talk about what made Tartakovskiy’s Star Wars: The Clone Wars so great…
Simplicity is key…
There’s something that most people are realizing with Disney+’s new series The Mandalorian, and that something is that you don’t need this huge expansive epic for “Star Wars” to work as a concept. With Clone Wars, you had short episodic stories that didn’t require a ton of backstory, so that they worked well on their own merits.
This was proven very early on with Star Wars: The Clone Wars when Cartoon Network began airing these short blips before their Friday night programming block. They were just long enough to get fans pumped but not long enough to wear out their welcome. They even worked well when edited together, as they were for the DVD release. The fact that you didn’t really have to know almost anything about Star Wars before watching them made Clone Wars a welcome use of the characters and lore for those who really don’t have much of a memory for that sort of thing, too. Most of the earliest episodes were merely introductory pieces to each character.
Louder than words…
Another thing that has carried over to The Mandalorian is that there are many sequences in Clone Wars where there is absolutely no dialogue, and the actions do indeed speak louder than words. We’ve seen this work so well in comic books over the decades, and it was something that Tartakovsky and his team used exceptionally at least in the first couple episodes of the series, where exposition wasn’t necessary to move the story along.
The mood and tone were as compelling as any cinema
If you have ever questioned what can be done with the simplest 2D animation in terms of creating mood and tone using lighting and music, then you really have to watch Clone Wars (and some of Tartakovsky’s other Adult Swim work). There was stuff that was done, at least in the first two seasons, that’s as dramatic and filled with tension as anything from the Star Wars movies. It was done quite brilliantly despite the simplicity of the animation, but that’s become a bit of Tartakovsky’s stock in trade.
Size and scale and action!
This kind of goes without saying, but not needing $100 million to make each episode, Tartakovsky was able to make a good amount of the series straight-up action scenes with action choreography better than most of the Star Wars live-action movies. The environments created for the series, some new and some familiar, were expansive, and the war scenes depicted usually included hundreds and sometimes thousands of Stormtroopers or starships in the case of the space battles.
It made these short TV “cartoons” something that could have easily worked as a big-screen experience, and it’s disappointing that Tartakovsky hasn’t been able to bring any of his original creations to theaters yet (maybe he remembers what happened with The Powerpuff Girls Movie and has shied away from replicating that with one of his babies).
There was a lot of cool stuff developed in Clone Wars that certainly influenced what Lucas did in Episode III, including General Grievous fighting the Jedi. There was also stuff that you wished could be done in live-action, such as hundreds of Rebellion Stormtroopers dropping through space onto a starship.
The prequel characters were a LOT less lame
This might be the crowning achievement for Tartakovsky’s foray into the “Star Wars” realms because he was able to do so much more with the characters created by Lucas and his cast from the prequel trilogy. They became far more interesting and entertaining with what they were able to achieve in animation that they weren’t able to do in live-action.
Almost everyone who has seen the series has marveled at the episodes focusing on Samuel L. Jackson’s Jedi Mace Windu, which show him in action far more than either of the two prequels. The mostly-silent episodes were absolutely fantastic and are very much in the vein of Tartakovsky’s other work on Samurai Jack and the recent series Primal. Being animated allowed the older actor to be far more active than he has been in other recent movies but also for us to see the extent of Windu’s abilities with The Force. It helped Mace Windu even cooler than just the fact he was played by Jackson.
Clone Wars was also able to utilize a cooler version of Anakin Skywalker than he’s EVER been in any of the three movies. Sure, he was already starting to act like a little prick in most of his episodes, but the series took that to an extreme, giving him a cool lightning-like face scar received in the battle that made him a bit like Ziggy Stardust.
Besides using some of the creatures and characters from the prequels, Tartakovsky and his team also created a number of creatures, some of them better than others.
The original CLONE WARS series wasn’t ALL a bed of roses…
The third season of Clone Wars aired in March 2005, and it was comprised of just five 12-minutes installments. This is about when the series began to lose its way, maybe because the simplicity of the animation and storytelling from the earlier episodes was set aside, and some of the quality of the same began to falter.
It seemed obvious there was a need to tell some sort of over-arching story in that third season, focusing on Anakin’s journey. Let’s just say that it didn’t do much to make me like him by the time Episode III came along. This third season had most of the other characters interacting rather than focusing on just one or two per episode, and it’s only a little better than the Lucas films that came before or after. It’s a shame since the first two seasons were near-brilliant, but season three just fell back on old tricks, making it not quite as unique to the franchise.
You can easily find Tartakovsky’s Clone Wars if you know where to look, although it’s been made incredibly hard to get the episodes on DVD and Blu-ray, and I don’t foresee Disney+ streaming the series anytime soon. The reason? The series was made for the Cartoon Network, a division of Warner Media, and I imagine that they’ll want to have it available for their HBO Max streaming service. I doubt that Disney will ever agree.
It’s a little weird because the 2008 Clone Wars was originally affiliated with the Cartoon Network for the first five seasons, but then Netflix took it over for one season and Disney+ got it back for Season 7 and subsequently got the other seasons to boot. Tartakovsky’s Clone Wars, meanwhile, has been cast off and mostly forgotten, except by those who saw and loved it.