Star Wars: The Clone Wars is an odd film that came along at an odd time. Though the relatively low-budget animated film tells a story that takes place between the events of Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, the movie was released in 2008, three years after the Star Wars prequels had concluded. It's easy to forget, but there was at least some degree of enthusiasm for all of the prequels when they were initially released. People can talk about how much they hate Attack of the Clones now, but I have clear memories of large crowds cheering with joy when Yoda pulled out his lightsaber and went berserk. Still, most of that goodwill had dissipated by 2008, and The Clone Wars was greeted with an incredibly chilly critical reception. Many of the reviews didn't merely pan the film, they pronounced the entire Star Wars franchise dead and buried – The Clone Wars was merely a final insult added to the injury.
To be sure, The Clone Wars isn't good – it's certainly inferior to all of the live-action Star Wars movies (yes, even the one you're about to mention). However, the most substantial problem with the movie is that it was shown on the big screen. The Clone Wars was created as a feature-length advertisement for the animated television series of the same name (which would later gain a reputation as a perfectly respectable endeavor). As a TV pilot, it's passable: it looks vastly superior to most Saturday morning cartoons, boasts some solid voice acting and offers just enough decent stuff to suggest that things might get better with time. As an animated theatrical feature, it's hugely disappointing: a cheap-looking, underwhelming story that doesn't really contribute anything particularly interesting to the Star Wars universe.
The plot centers around the kidnapping of Rotta, the infant son of notorious crime lord Jabba the Hutt (Kevin Michael Richardson, Static Shock). It's an unfortunate situation, but it also represents an opportunity: if Anakin Skywalker (Matt Lanter, 90210) and his new apprentice Ahsoka (Ashley Eckstein, Star Wars Rebels) can rescue Rotta, perhaps it'll be easier for Obi-Wan Kenobi (James Arnold Taylor, TMNT) to negotiate a peace treaty between Jabba and the Republic. It seems like a straightforward mission, but the villainous Count Dooku (Christopher Lee, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring) is working to frame the Jedi for Rotta's kidnapping.
This is very much standard-issue crisis-of-the-week fare. Considering the weightier stories that were told over the course of the TV version of The Clone Wars, it's surprising that they decided to launch the whole affair with this fairly ho-hum rescue mission. Still, there's some decent stuff here and there: Anakin is actually a bit more intriguing than he is in the movies – sulkiness is part of his personality, but no longer his defining trait. Ahsoka is even better; an overconfident and energetic new addition who quickly proves more interesting than the more iconic characters around her (Yoda and Obi-Wan have never been duller than they are here).
There's a reasonably fun little buddy movie tucked away somewhere in here, but it mostly gets trampled under a sea of action scenes. I'm not usually one to complain about an overdose of space battles, but given the animation's fairly lackluster look, it all starts to feel like little more than noise fairly quickly. The dialogue isn't anything to write home about (there are times when The Clone Wars makes George Lucas' dialogue for the live-action movies feel like Tarantino), but the movie is more enjoyable when it's focusing on things other than lightsabers and blasters. Unfortunately, that isn't very often.
Predictably enough, The Clone Wars is perhaps a little more kid-centric than the live-action Star Wars flicks (which are already pretty kid-centric, anyway), making room for lots of silly Baby Hutt reaction shots and goofier-than-usual battle droid gags. Still, it's lacking the vibrant zeal it needs: there's a breathless bit of opening narration that suggests the film is paying homage to enthusiastically cheesy old adventure serials, but the rest of the movie rarely captures that spirit. This isn't bad enough to replace the infamous Christmas special as the least tolerable Star Wars thing ever made, but it's nonetheless one of the lower points in the history of this storied franchise.
Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Rating: ★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 98 minutes
Release Year: 2008