April 16, 2005

"Clone Wars" Volume One on DVD


""Anger...fear...aggression. The dark side of the Force are they."
Having been minorly let down by the final set of "Clone Wars" chapters which aired on Cartoon Network recently, it was refreshing going back to the original twenty on this set and realizing they're just as excellent as I remember. These early episodes prove the old adage that sometimes less truly is more; being held to a three-minute average running time for the first nineteen meant that Tartakovsky and his team couldn't waste a single frame on filler. It is rare to see storytelling as lean and stripped down as I found here, and even rarer to see such stripped down storytelling work so effectively.
If the last two movies are any indication, Star Wars seems to work better the less dialog there is to muck things up. In those terms, these first twenty chapter more than live up to the idea. Dialog comes rarely, and when it does it feels like each word was weighed heavily before being allowed to make it through. The result is beautiful word-less moments like Anakin's farewell to Padmé in Chapter 1, Mace Windu's utter domination of an entire battlefield in Chapter 13, and Anakin's rage at the end of Chapter 19. It also means that every sound effect, every shot, every glance relays something new and important to furthering the story along. The pace rarely lets up, but the staggering variety of locales, character dynamics, and objectives keeps the affair from ever getting boring or monotonous.
Many fans were ecstatic when it was announced Tartakovsky would be heading up "Clone Wars", and the reason has become obvious. Every frame of this series is absolutely beautiful. Many shots could be frozen, framed, and hung up on my wall. Traditional 2D animation dominates the foreground, but it is integrated seamlessly with gorgeous painted backgrounds and CG modelling work from Rough Draft, the people who pulled off a similar blend on "Futurama". The CG results in an unparalleled scope for many of the series' battle scenes. The movies don't touch some of the action scenes that take place here - indeed, conceived in live action, they would look ridiculous they are so unabashedly epic. Tartakovsky's previous show "Samurai Jack" was heralded for the humanity it injected into its characters through subtle changes in expression. The characters of "Clone  Wars" are presented with the care and investment that one would expect.
The first twenty chapters won an Emmy, and no wonder. They are spectacular entertainment. Not the best television I've ever seen, but easily some of the most breathtaking.
"She was... very beautiful. Kind, but sad."



"Wow. Thanks, Mean Joe!"
This DVD is the best presentation of "Clone Wars" to date. The analogue broadcasts and the Hyperspace QuickTime files don't even come close. This anamorphic widescreen release is stunning. This transfer reveals new detail to the image and makes already vibrant colours positively pop off the screen. The image is also completely clean, without a speck of dust on it. The only thing that kept this from being a perfect score was some small scale aliasing issues on the sharpest of lines (usually where the 2D animation met the backgrounds). This was not distracting at normal speeds but stood out when I went hunting for screenshots. I noticed no instances of colour bleed nor edge enhancement. A very spectacular presentation for a made-for-TV production.



"I have to admit that without the clones it would have not been a victory."
The English Dolby Digital mix leads more towards the front channels, but is never short of engaging, with sound effects and dialog never less than crystal clear. As is so often anymore, the music never really rises above the pack, but in terms of audio presentation, there is nothing that will pull you out of the experience. When the rear channels are used, they are used effectively, particularly towards the end of the film, when the zombies are coming in from all sides.



Special Features: "Bridging the Saga" is particularly memorable.
Immediately after watching the disc through with the English track, I popped on the Hyperspace commentary. While Tartokovsky succumbs to merely describing the onscreen action more than I'd like, the track has a good deal of behind the scenes tidbits and supplementary information through in as well. He is surprisingly candid about the restrictions Lucasfilm put on the production, and opens up about what he thought could have been done even better with more time and better planning. This track was originally recorded for the Hyperspace videos on Starwars.com, so you won't find any tidbits about Volume Two or Episode III on this one, aside from the limited information they had about Grievous for Chapter 20.
I listened to the first few minutes of the Director's Commentary after that, but was disappointed to learn that it is almost entirely just explaining the on-screen action for Star Wars outsiders. Worthwhile to the uninitiated, I suppose, but not much interest to me. I flipped through the track and listened in at random intervals, which merely confirmed my suspicions.
By far, the highlight of this disc in the featurette "Bridging the Saga". It opens with George Lucas lamenting the fact that the Clone Wars, this great people of adventure, would not be covered in their majority by the films themselves. That's where the microseries comes in. Lucas shows a surprising amount of knowledge about both the microseries and Tartakovsky's prior work. We also go inside the Clone Wars offices to get a glimpse of how Volume Two was conceived and completed. Star Wars diehards will find it most notable for the 20 or so seconds of new Episode III footage scattered throughout, but it is a very worthwhile featurette aside from that.
As it seems every Star Wars DVD now must also be a video game commercial, it is perhaps inevitable that a "Videogames" section would be included. The menu features three options. "Episode III Game Trailer" is very spoilerific about the new movie and mostly shows Anakin chopping everything in sight to bits. "Star Wars Republic Commando™ Game Trailer" features a variety of shots of bulked up clone troopers blasting things and running. Finally, the DVD apparently also contains a separate partition so that the disc can be played in an XBox as a Republic Commando demo. Good stuff for gamers, I suppose, but of no interest to me.
The "Behind the Scenes" section proves more a bit more interesting with a short featurette from when Volume One was made which shows both the artists and the voiceover talent doing their thing. There is also a gallery of character sketches and a gallery of promotional art. Each is worth your time, though both have previously shown up on the web in some form or another.
Finally, "Episode III Teaser Trailer" features the first trailer that played in theatres for Revenge of the Sith - the one with Obi-Wan from A New Hope's voiceover as we see what he's talking about onscreen. Pretty cool, and nice to have logo free in DVD quality.



Considering the comparatively low price for this disc (I got it for less than $15 at Best Buy weeks after the new release deals), it is more than worth your valuable time. Some of the most beautiful animation to come out of American television in years, taken just visually it would be worth your valuable time. Throw in a top-notch transfer and a surprising amount of extras, and picking this one up is a no brainer - especially for all of the Star Wars fans like me out there. Recommended.
  - ADAM LENHARDT

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