The Clone Wars review: Onderon, and on and on

One of the weird realizations about The Big Announcement is that if they’re going to make Episodes VII through IX, there’s no reason they won’t make Episodes X through XII as well.  And if you find the idea of endless Star Wars movies a bit jarring, well, you’re not alone.  But the truth is, we’ve already seen new Star Wars movies, because that’s what The Clone Wars has become: a series of longer-form stories, told over several installments.  Yes, there are some standalone episodes throw in (and they’re almost always terrific), but it seems like these mini-movies are now the dominant mode.  And that can be good.  And that can be bad.

Editor’s note: This review covers the whole Onderon arc, episodes 5.02 – 5.05: ‘A War on Two Fronts,’ ‘Front Runners,’ ‘The Soft War,’ and ‘Tipping Points.’

The Onderon mini-movie, i.e. the past four episodes, is unfortunately an example of the latter.  It’s certainly ambitious, and in some ways it really benefits from the longer runtime.  The subtext, for example, is more complex than we’ve seen in the past: we’re given multiple points of view on terrorism vs. patriotism, activism vs. apathy, and the Jedi in general vs. the Jedi as Generals.  It also allows for some much-needed character growth – primarily for Ahsoka, whose Jedi ideals are constantly challenged.  And there’s even a tiny bit of overall plot development, as Ahsoka’s future gets murky and she finally – finally! – learns a bit about Anakin’s double-life.  (I always suspected that she had figured it out by this point but hey, guess not.)

So themes are developed and Ahsoka is given room to grow. Good. When the Onderon arc focuses on those two areas, it works pretty well. But it often gets lost in confusing story points and a slew of new characters. And I do mean a slew: a couple of kings here, a rebel spy there, a droid general, a human general, on and on. Plus the arc starts by introducing us to Steela and Saw (and re-introducing Lux!), a pair of rebels whose relationship is deliberately ambiguous. Are they friends? Enemies? Frenemies? Former lovers? Future rivals? Add in their constant flirting with Ahsoka and Lux and it’s downright bizarre. What starts out as a possible love interest for Ahsoka quickly becomes a love triangle, then a love square. Throw in Ahsoka’s commitment to the Jedi order, and it becomes the rare love pentagram! Okay then.

Mind you, I’m not against going in different directions and focusing on characters other than the core Jedi.  But the Jedi are also in this story, competing for screentime with everyone else – except that after the first episode, they specifically stay out of the limelight. That left the new characters to be put in constant mortal danger (‘cause someone has to), which really isn’t that dramatic. When I meet a character and s/he dies a few minutes later, there ain’t a whole lot of emotional impact.

Speaking of lack-of-impact (terrible segue alert!), Steela and Saw turn out to be brother and sister, in a twist that adds nothing to the story other than an echo of the Original Trilogy.  And that’s another problem: these four episodes are loaded with throwbacks to Episodes I-VI, and eventually those constant homages just get distracting.  The first time I noticed one, in a line taken straight out of Qui-Gon’s mouth, I smiled.  But pretty soon it became a drinking game, the kind for people who like to get real drunk real fast.  Hey Clone Wars, here’s a little secret: this is the fifth season.  You’re an established part of the franchise by now.  You’re making movies at this point, so you can stop acting like a fan film.

What I enjoyed most in this arc were the new details, the scenes that showed the inner workings of the war.  There’s a fun sequence early on where the Jedi teach the rebels how to disarm a destroyer droid, and it’s weirdly fascinating (even though it devolves into a bowling lesson).  There’s also a neat bit of strategy that hinges upon how battle droids need to recharge after a few days.  And I loved the moment where a kid witnesses a battle and promptly bursts into tears.  These scenes show a truly expanding universe, so to speak, not one that endlessly circles around the same recycled dialogue.

But I’ll say this for these episodes – in true Star Wars fashion, they save the best for last.  The climactic rescue of the king (the good king, not the bad one) was terrific, constantly teeing up expectations and then subverting them.  Plus the animation was really spiffy, using long sweeping shots to swerve in and out of the action, taking full advantage of the “digital camera.”  And one death – the last one, the important one – may not have hit me in the heart, but it was a genuinely suspenseful.  The way the scene was constructed, dropping the audio and using a slight slow-mo, made it one of the most mature moments of the series.

And maybe it’s not the same thing as mature, but this was also one of the harshest stories yet.  The way the bad king was deposed, Obi-Wan’s insistence that they abandon the rebels, Ahsoka’s suggestion that the good king be martyred – this arc was cold.  Thank goodness Hondo showed up towards the end for some much needed levity, because before that there weren’t many laughs.  There were a lot of clever touches – in the clothing, in the rehashed dialogue, in the irony of Anakin starting the Rebel Alliance – but clever ideas are hollow without strong characterization and snappy writing.  No matter what direction Disney takes the franchise, let’s hope they remember that.

Stray Thoughts:

  • In addition to being reminiscent of the Star Wars movies, Onderon also reminded me of Lord of the Rings (in its endless scenes of bickering kings) and Avatar (for, well, the flying beasties).  Everything was just too familiar.
  • These Jedi are just about the worst undercover operatives imaginable.  They talk way too loudly (especially in a safe house,) always push their luck with the Force powers, and Ahsoka looked downright silly in her oversized hood.
  • Plus they seem to carry around a bunch of dummy tanks and destroyer droids.  If they were so concerned with landing undetected on the planet, how’d they smuggle those on?
  • The music in these episodes (especially the first) was some of the best I’ve heard on the show.  Usually it’s somewhat inconspicuous but here it sounded fittingly exotic.
  • Also spotted a nice painting in the background of the throne room.  It actually looked like a painting.  Cool effect.
  • I imagine these will be excised when these episodes are spliced together, but the opening narrations seem to go on forever.
  • An EV droid doing torture – nice.  This little Easter egg worked specifically because it was in the background, nothing hammy about it.
  • The most striking bit of dialogue was when Lux said “You screwed me up.”  It’s hardly a swear word, but that’s still the most adult language I can remember hearing on this show.
  • Battle droid Miranda Rights are never not funny.
  • However, the droids seem to do a lot of standing around in these episodes when they should be trying to, I dunno, disrupt an illegal hologram or maybe kill some rebels.
  • My goodness, Lux cannot catch a break.

Overall Grade:

6 Replies to “The Clone Wars review: Onderon, and on and on”

  1. Why is an open ended movie franchise different from an open ended string of EU novels and comics?

  2. The only difference is that the SW movies have always had the sheen of being something special… the bedrock of the franchise, so to speak, especially in canonical terms. That dynamic may be lost now (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing).

  3. i couldn’t get myself to care bout these “rebels” at all. the problem for me with TCW is when they do an arc you dont like, you’re screwed for 3 – 4 weeks. it can be a bummer. especially when the following arc is “jedi babies”.

  4. “Avatar (for, well, the flying beasties)” –> Onderon first appeared in the Tales of the Jedi comics, where the antagonists were the Beast Riders of Onderon, who flew in to harass the city folk. I was glad to see this nod to Onderon’s history by still having beast riders. Overall, the creatures in this arc were amazing to behold for both animation and color and texture.

    My main gripe is that the Seps give up after losing 4 gunships to smuggled in rocket launchers. Apparently Dooku sends in a great general, but not enough support to hold the planet. They couldn’t keep the Jedi from landing, or Hondo from landing, and couldn’t bombard the rebels in the canyons from orbit? The Seps must be stretched to the limit to not afford a single ship in orbit. And yet they can evacuate out.

    As for the battle droids, I love the glimpses of sentience or quirkiness they have, like when a droid taps a ‘good to go’ knock on a tank before marching out. But yeah, battle droids just aren’t smart enough to figure out not to watch enemy propaganda and find a way to shut it off.

    I liked this arc, as an odd amalgamation of history: how the US got into Vietnam as “advisers”, but in Roman costumes. and of course Hondo. Everything is better with Hondo.

    still trying to figure out those two circular organs on the back of the bad king’s adviser’s head.

    and how knocking out the city’s power (to zap the battle droids’ ability to recharge) is supposed to win over the people. hey, we cut your power! join us!

  5. Good review. I liked the first episode of this and didn’t care for the rest

  6. Racer x — I’m actually really enjoying the Jedi Babies so far.

    James — I guess I should’ve known about the “Beast Riders” tie-in, but it’s been well over a decade since I read that comic and I just plum forgot. So kudos for the show for paying tribute to existing EU? I guess?

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