Comparing Clone Wars Cartoons: How to Treat the Audience
A long, long time ago, George Lucas was dismayed at the result of the first Star Wars film. “I made a kids film,” he said. He shouldn’t have worried; there’s nothing wrong with making a film that skewed younger. There’s no rule that says that something made for a younger audience has to be dumbed down. Look at Empire Strikes Back, the pinnacle of the franchise. There was comic relief with C-3PO and R2-D2, a funny psychic puppet and even screwball physical comedy aboard the fugitive Millennium Falcon. At the same time, though, there was a kind of darkness that the franchise hasn’t felt in a long time. Luke’s vision on Dagobah, the Han-in-carbonite cliffhanger and the duel between father and son all managed to be thematically rich examples of filmmaking that entered the cultural consciousness.
While Star Wars has arguably always targeted younger audiences, some attempts to reach kids have stood out more than others. The two animated series chronicling the Clone Wars, named Star Wars: Clone Wars and The Clone Wars, are prime examples. Both shows, made years apart, covered the same time period, the same kinds of stories and, usually, the same pool of characters. The differences in the shows are more telling than the similarities, though. While the first series was fluent in the visual and dramatic language made iconic by the original trilogy, the second series was marked by how it talked down to a younger audience.
The root of these differences can be attributed to the creators of the different programs. The first series was created in 2003 by Genndy Tartakovsky, of Samurai Jack fame. Despite garnering huge acclaim, Tartakovsky was not involved in the production of any further Star Wars material. Regarding the second series, George Lucas was credited as the creator, but it was Dave Filoni, the supervising director and executive producer of the series and the director of the 2008 film that kicked it off, who really gave the show its heart. Filoni’s response to the cancellation of The Clone Wars showcases Filoni’s passion for what really was his slice of the Star Wars universe.
Both of these men brought their unique set of skills to the table when crafting their respective takes on the Clone Wars. Each show had its own strengths and weaknesses in various regards, but when it came to storytelling, Tartakovsky proved that less is more. While Filoni’s series made everything explicit and detailed, Tartakovsky’s Clone Wars used restraint when portraying everything from combat to prophecy.
The Tartakovsky Saga
Tartakovsky’s series knew when and when not to employ dialogue. Take the extended duel between Anakin Skywalker and Asajj Ventress on Yavin 4. Nearly wordless, the sounds that are heard serve to frame the action and develop atmosphere. The whooshing through tree canopies and the sound of a lightsaber blade sizzling in the rain allowed the viewer to truly feel like they were in the jungle watching the two in combat. This careful use of sound ratchets up the tension in the duel, a conflict made all the more harrowing by the singular focus of the battle. The audience sees nothing else for the three episodes in which the duel occurs, and the conclusion really pays off. When Anakin lets out a scream of primal rage, it rings with meaning for both the character and the audience.
Atmosphere also came into play when Anakin’s dark future was tackled in the second season of Tartakovsky’s series. After interrupting a rite of passage ritual on the planet Nelvaan, Anakin is tasked by tribal shamans to find out why their planet is ailing. Obi-Wan sees this as a chance for Anakin to undergo the Jedi trial that his former apprentice never had to face: the Trial of the Spirit. Indeed, as Anakin enters the cave he senses to be the source of Nelvaan’s woes, he falls into a deep meditation. Cave paintings on the walls come to life, portraying a male warrior whose increasing power begins to swallow and destroy everything around him. As the rigid lines of paint swallow the cave, the face of Darth Vader forms on the wall, snapping Anakin out of the vision. Rather than disregarding this parallel of Anakin’s own growing power, or simply using the vision merely as a means to advance the plot, the Nelvaan arc ends with Anakin saving the planet from Separatist forces by succumbing to blind rage. It creates a bittersweet ending, for while Anakin saves the day, he finds himself one step closer to darkness, which comes a head in the events immediately following Tartakovsky’s series: the film Revenge of the Sith.
This bittersweet ending echoes the harshness felt in some of the darker moments of the Star Wars films. Indeed, none of the Star Wars films in either trilogy attempt to teach moral lessons in any obvious manner, and neither does Star Wars: Clone Wars. Tartakovsky spends more time with the characters, so all of the actions taken aren’t viewed from a moral lens, but through the haze of character motivation. Take the introduction of General Grievous in the final episode of the first season. There’s no overt message, no lessons, just the foreboding sense that war is hell. Even though the outnumbered Jedi say nearly nothing, the fear is palpable. When the Jedi Sha’a Gi breaks down, it’s not to further a moralistic agenda, it’s because he’s afraid, desperate and, ultimately, weak. These stark, frank depictions of minor characters are as real as it gets in a universe where worms live in asteroids.
Because Tartakovsky’s series exercises such control over atmosphere and storytelling elements, moments of character shine through and become the most memorable moments of the series. These moments certainly set the series apart from Filoni’s take on the same material. Star Wars: Clone Wars took time for characters and wasn’t afraid to slow things down. Even in the midst of battle, small moments of calm punctuated chaotic melees. Even when the combat took hold, character moments still managed to shine through, such as Obi-Wan’s eyebrow-arching confusion while battling the Gen’dai bounty hunter Durge. By saying little and showing more, Tartakovsky’s series didn’t stop to say everything for younger viewers, and it certainly didn’t feel the need to make point-five past lightspeed as far as pacing was concerned. In this respect, Star Wars: Clone Wars stands near the top of the franchise’s food chain as far as quality is concerned.
The Filoni Saga
Contrast the duel on Yavin in Tartakovsky’s series to a battle between the same characters in a deleted scene from Filoni’s The Clone Wars film. Hardly the scene’s sole point of focus, the duel in the film is one of many things going on. As Anakin’s apprentice Ahsoka Tano jumps around killing droids and R2-D2 opens up a trap door, Ventress and Anakin cross blades and trade barbed dialogue. Certainly there are more things physically happening in this duel, but the rapid pacing of the scene robs it of meaning just to keep the plot hurdling along. Of course both duels had different goals, and the Filoni scene wasn’t trying to convey Anakin’s descent into darkness, but when handed the same general task of “have Anakin and Ventress fight,” the two shows took radically different turns.
This isn’t to say that Filoni’s show never had moments of darkness. Anakin’s eventual fall to the dark side is tackled head on in the episode “Ghosts of Mortis.” While encountering the malevolent dark side incarnate known as the Son, Anakin receives a fragmented vision of his downfall. As dark clouds swirl around the young Jedi, visions of Obi-Wan Kenobi, Palpatine, and Padme cause Anakin to yell out in torment just before the smoky visage and iconic breathing of Darth Vader appear. As powerful and well-executed the scene was, though, the consequence of Anakin’s knowledge that he will be manipulated by the dark side leads him to, oddly, be manipulated by the dark side. The Son’s Father eventually breaks Anakin’s imprisonment by the dark side by erasing his memory, thus rendering the scene of Anakin’s vision to be pointless. Even when tackling the nature of destiny and the Force, Filoni’s series still put more emphasis on plot than on thematic exploration.
These two comparisons highlight the major storytelling divide between the two series. Where Filoni’s series was more plot driven and obvious, Tartakovsky’s show was more concerned with taking its time and conveying messages through more dynamic means. The plot-heavy focus of Filoni’s series, however, supported another aspect of The Clone Wars’ narrative structurethat set it even further apart from Tartakovsky’s vision: the inclusion of moral messages.
Filoni’s series feels much more like it was directed to children because of the lessons that many episodes tend to impart. Each episode begins with a short proverb, or moral, that tells the viewer what the message of the episode will be. From humility to teamwork, The Clone Wars usually sought to teach a worthwhile lesson amidst the carnage of war.
This approach was simultaneously appropriate and problematic in the episode “the Soft War.” The third of a four-episode arc, the plot follows Ahsoka training a band of rebels who seek to retake their home world of Onderon. In doing so, however, these rebels inevitably become branded as terrorists, drawing fear from the citizens of Onderon’s capital. The show goes to great lengths to explain how the rebels’ weapons only hurt droids and how the current regime is corrupt, if legitimate, but actions of the Jedi (aiding a group of rebels to overthrow a legally accepted and neutral regime) are hard to justify in simple moral terms. The opening proverb of “struggles often begin and end with the truth” refers to how the rebels must win the trust of the civilians, which is admirable, but it doesn’t address the complicated questions of terrorism and sovereignty that the episode raises.
What the murkiness of “The Soft War” illustrates is that attempts to be moralistic and didactic for the sake of a younger audience can backfire. By attempting to assign parables and lessons to a war, Filoni’s series does disservice to complex themes that are unfit for the show. There’s nothing wrong with a children’s show attempting to tackle heavier themes, but the overt moralizing in The Clone Wars tends to make grey issues seem black and white.
Not only does this approach gloss over complicated issues, it also causes the audience to see the characters’ actions differently. In the span of an episode, a character’s arc becomes more predictable due to the presence of the frontloaded moral message. In the episode “Lightsaber Lost,” Ahsoka loses her lightsaber and is forced to enlist the help of an older Jedi named Tera Sinube. Ahsoka is impatient and Sinube isn’t as fast as he used to be. The moral is “Easy isn’t always simple.” Given this information, it can be deduced that Ahsoka will learn to take her time and be more observant. The audience knows that Ahsoka will do this because that’s the moral, and thus all characters are seen not by how they would act as an individual, but how they will act in the context of a lesson. All of the character development is jammed into an arc that panders to a younger audience, teaching morals in a way that presumes story and character should take a back seat to an arbitrary message.
However, Filoni’s series is not bereft of strong character moments. Indeed, the episode “Innocents of Ryloth” examines a small slice of a larger battle wherein two clone troopers bond with a small Twi’lek child in a war-torn city. The language barrier between the clones and the child creates both light comedy and touching drama, and the relationship that two battle-hardened solders make with a child of conflict eclipses whatever background plot that the episode have.
Episodes like “Innocents of Ryloth,” though, are few and far between. Character-driven storytelling is rare in Filoni’s series, as arcs that are plot and message-heavy dominate the series. By focusing more on action and morals, though, Filoni allows the essence of the Clone Wars to slip through his fingers. Lots of things are happening and plenty is being said, but at the end of each episode (and even at the end of the series), there is little sense that Anakin Skywalker or Obi-Wan Kenobi or anyone else has changed significantly. Obi-Wan even got a love interest, but it mattered little to his development in the long run. By minimizing the character arcs and the potential for complicated storytelling, Filoni’s The Clone Wars asks little of its audience and just shows battle after battle, punctuated by the occasional gem of character.
The comparisons between the two series go on and on, but the point is clear. Tartakovsky’s Star Wars: Clone Wars didn’t treat the audience like children, instead using a sophisticated array of cinematic technique to convey complex themes without being blatant. Filoni’s Star Wars: The Clone Wars, while occasionally evoking interesting ideas and crafting genuinely moving scenes, was less confident in its younger audience and the show suffered for it. If these superficially similar programs give any indication, any show treats the audience like children, it limits itself and underestimates its audience, which is unfair for both the creative team behind the show and the people watching them. To paraphrase Yoda: “Judge them by their size, do not.”
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