For over a decade, animation has formed one of the key pillars of the Star Wars franchise. The success and popularity of The Clone Wars kept the franchise alive long enough for Disney to swoop in and turn out new movies. But before the series that introduced Ahsoka to the world came its 2003 forerunner. Having since fallen out of canon, it’s little more than a pop culture curiosity to most. However, it is a beautiful and vital piece of Star Wars art in its own right.
Developed, directed and created by Genndy Tartakovsky, the singular mind behind the avant-garde adventure series Samurai Jack, the Clone Wars micro-series was an expression of Star Wars unlike anything we’d seen. Although we’d had animations before – anyone remember Ewoks? – they’d never been given the same narrative space. At its most potent, animation steps back from the constraints of realism, offering a means of pure expression. For Tartakovsky, that means putting art into motion.
An old-school fan of traditional 2D animation, Tartakovsky brought his idiosyncratic style to Star Wars, inspired as much by classic Disney and Warner Brothers as anime. George Lucas, a fan of anime himself, wanted a series that had one toe in the hyper-stylised Japanese animation. For him, Tartakovsky bridged the art styles of east and west. It’s interesting to note that the forthcoming animated series Resistance will have a visual style heavily influenced by anime, reflecting how Japanese and western culture continue to overlap and intertwine.
For its western pedigree, the micro-series is influenced by art deco, and is very reminiscent of the revered Batman: The Animated Series. The character models are exaggerated with strange shapes and angles. But then, everything in this representation is exaggerated, especially the abilities of the Jedi. If you haven’t yet seen the micro-series, then perhaps you’ve heard that the Jedi in it behave more like superheroes, with athletic abilities that make Darth Maul look lethargic by comparison.
Tartakovsky’s style is marked out by its sparse dialogue and emphasis on visual spectacle and music. In this way he’s perfectly aligned with Lucas who, by his own admission, struggles with dialogue. Lucas is a visual thinker and the prequel trilogy, especially, is filled with beautiful compositions put to some of John Williams’ most accomplished pieces. The same is seen here, with each frame an artwork in its own right. One very early scene sees Anakin bid farewell to Padmé from his starfighter. They stare silently at each other, hearts clearly aching and hands pressed to glass, while Williams’ love theme swells.
Given the first volume of the series is made up of five minute shorts, there’s little room for character development. Instead they offer stylish insights into the raging war and the people fighting it. Tartakovsky has admitted that due to the time constraints of the episodes, the first volume only allowed for action sequences, something it excelled at. With its longer episodes, the second volume offered more scope, functioning more like a mini-movie than shorts. Effectively a prequel to Revenge of the Sith, the volume showed how Anakin became a Jedi Knight, how he got his scar and the kidnap of Palpatine. It also elaborated on Anakin’s lost Jedi trial in a sequence that paved the way for the later canon Mortis arc.
Though the absence of Ahsoka is felt throughout, the micro-series did serve as an important springboard for some of the period’s most iconic characters. It introduced audiences to Asajj Ventress, the Force sensitive assassin of Count Dooku. Though her origins were better expanded upon in the subsequent series, and her development brilliantly handled by Lucas’ own daughter Katie, the character we see clashing sabers with Anakin is easily recognised. We also meet General Grievous for the first time, who’s portrayed as more monstrous, able and ruthless than the phlegmy surrender-bot we see in Revenge of the Sith.
One of my favourite lightsaber battles in all of Star Wars doesn’t take place in any of the movies. It doesn’t even appear in canon, but instead in this micro-series, seeing Anakin cross blades with Ventress. When the rain begins to fall and smoulder on their sabers, and the light illuminates their skin, it’s clear that Tartakovsky is easily one of contemporary American animation’s most gifted and unique storytellers.
That the micro-series is no longer canon shouldn’t deter anyone from experiencing it. The stunning animation style alone is worthy of attention, but put to Williams’ music and imbued with Lucas’ storytelling know-how, it forms a vital if short-lived piece of Star Wars history. Though it was replaced with 2008’s The Clone Wars, there are moments that haven’t been contradicted and can easily still be considered canon. I don’t want to live in a world where Anakin wasn’t knighted and his braid gifted to Padmé who placed it beside the japoor snippet he carved her as a boy. That is the grace of this series; those small, poetic moments which accent Lucas’ greater epic, empowering stories we already love.