rating: 4In the interest of full disclosure, I am a Star Wars fan. I've liked Star Wars since I saw the remastered releases of the original trilogy on VHS in the mid-90s - the pre Special Edition ones - and became obsessed with the various toys, novels, video games and other ephemera over the following years. As a 12 year-old I loved seeing the films with newfangled CGI bits at the cinema in 1997 (though I've since looked back on those changes with rather less enthusiasm) and, in 1999, I went to see The Phantom Menace 11 times at the cinema. That's right: 11 times. In the years that followed I've become more jaded and even reluctantly began to subscribe to the popular notion of the saga as one great big cash cow being flogged mercilessly by a once gifted storyteller turned greedy businessman. But in my heart - if I'm honest with myself - I love the prequels, I love the extended universe and I love the damn LEGO. Chances are I'm busily replaying Knights of the Old Republic on the Xbox as you read this. One thing I definitely didn't like, however, was the 2008 CGI movie Star Wars: The Clone Wars, with its electronic riffs on John Williams' original music and its inclusion of silly nicknames for the main characters - with Anakin's new Padawan Ahsoka Tano insisting on calling the future Dark Lord of the Sith "Sky-guy" and with him calling her "Snips". Add to the mix a baby Hutt called "Stinky" and animation of questionable quality (for a feature) and you had a film so terrible even this Episode I apologist never wanted to go near the subsequent Cartoon Network TV series for which it was the theatrical pilot. Yet when the opportunity to review Season 3 came up for this site I still had enough residual Star Wars fanboy goodwill to want to give it a shot. I guess part of me has always been curious to see what Lucasfilm Animation did with the series and I've been very pleasantly surprised by the results. It's not that the TV series is tonally all that different to the feature length 2008 movie - Ahsoka is still there and she still (occasionally) calls her master Sky-guy - but the show's style, format and animation quality work much better within the realm of television. 20 minute episodes, most of which use a narrated version of the standard opening crawl to get a chunk of set-up out of the way at the start, get straight to action and contain all the expanded universe characters, iconic starships and toyetic bounty hunters you could ever want. Without doubt, the overriding emotion I experienced watching this season (and whilst subsequently speed-watching all of Seasons 1 & 2) was one of "damn, I wish this was on TV when I was 8." It's in those terms that I'd talk about this show really: as brilliant entertainment for kids. And I don't mean that in a disparaging way at all, as children make up the series' intended audience. It's simplistic and cheesy, for sure, but it's better than any cartoon I saw on TV as a child with the exception of those made by Genndy Tartakovsky (the Powerpuff Girls and Samurai Jack creator incidentally directed the 2003 Clone Wars hand-drawn animated series which greatly influenced all the lead character designs here). Never in my memory has a cartoon series had such a high body count and featured so much feature film quality action as you get here in this third season. The animation quality has improved throughout the show's run, but at this point the visuals are staggering, as is the attention to smallest details. Far from the Star Wars license making the show a quick, easy money-maker: intense fandom (of the creators as much as nerds like me) ensures that, for example, when Jedi Master Plo Kloon turns up he has to carry the correct lightsaber and move in the right way. This obsessive level of detail filters into every aspect of the show, with sound and lighting just as polished. The show's writers have also rescued C-3PO from the hideousness of his toe-curling appearances in the prequel movies (the final battle in Episode II specifically) by making him genuinely funny again, with the droid back to his cowardly, caustic self in comedy episode Evil Plans, in which he and R2-D2 get into trouble attempting to buy the missing ingredient for a cake (seriously, it was funny). I would argue that the whole prequel "era" fits very well onto the small screen and some of the campy excesses of those films prove much more winsome here. Even poor old Jar Jar is good value when he occasionally turns up, as in the episode Supply Lines. Here the creators playfully use the popular reaction to the character to amp up his annoyance factor and the episode (as with all previous Jar Jar episodes) is really all about him irritating the other characters as much as anything else. Yet the show also gets quite dark too, especially in this season. Whereas clone casualties weren't so frequent in the first two series, here the death toll noticeably goes up a notch. Supporting characters die as a matter of course and some interesting ethical shades of grey (which were never explored in the movies) are raised here. What happens to deformed clones? Do clones that can't pass their combat tests get destroyed by the Jedi as suggested in opening episode Clone Cadets? Are the separatists actually evil? The episode Heroes on Both Sides shows a new side to the CIS, showing their parliament as Padme secretly visits one of the (we're told many) peaceful worlds operating under their banner. Meanwhile geeks will get to see other franchise related questions answered, such as "where does Darth Maul come from"? Whilst a whole raft of new questions are raised during the bizarre Mortis Trilogy of mid-season episodes, which put an interesting new spin of Anakin's selfishness and the nature of the force itself. Fans will also be pleased to see original trilogy characters like Chewbacca and Grand Moff Tarkin (here a pragmatic Captain in the Republic Army) making lengthy appearances, whilst Liam Neeson reprises his (frankly awesome) role as Qui-Gon Jinn from Episode I over two episodes. Beloved extended universe character Quinlan Vos also makes his first appearance in the series in Hunt for Ziro. For me this was the most exciting episode, with Vos and Obi-Wan Kenobi teaming up to battle the awesome cowboy hat-wearing Duro bounty hunter Cad Bane (the show's best original creation) and culminating in genuinely surprising twist. Even whiny, wise-cracking little Ahsoka finally stops being irritating in this season, coming of age over the episodes Padawan Lost and Wookie Hunt and promising a new, more mature relationship with Anakin (still annoying I'm afraid) in Season 4. The question of her ultimate fate (she isn't in Episode III, set after this animated series) is probably the single most compelling reason to keep watching the show up to its rumoured conclusion at the end of the fifth season. Star Wars: The Clone Wars is by no means perfect, but its flaws are increasingly part of its charm. It's lovingly made and I've no doubt it would be my favourite show ever if I were just that couple of decades younger. It's exciting, cool, funny and - if the second half of this season is anything to go by - it's getting even better.
ExtrasThe special features on these series have been sadly diminishing season by season. Season 1 boasted an in-depth feature (usually around 6-12 minutes long) for each of the 22 episodes, detailing the production challenges, the story concepts and talking about any new/recurring characters who might feature in the show. Season 2 instead had a feature (usually just shy of 20 minutes long) for each major story arc, but nothing on individual shows. Season three goes one less again, with only a handful of documentaries - one of which is a short explanation of why the mysterious Mortis story arc doesn't have a documentary. It's a crying shame because the quality of the features is so high (in some cases the have been more interesting than the episodes) and it would be nice to have at least as many of them here as there were on previous seasons, especially as the show is getting so much better technically. It's also a shame that the packaging is somewhat cheap for Season 3. The first two not only had neat slipcases containing the standard DVD case, but also a thick and high-quality artwork book. This series is simply a Blu-ray case with a much smaller collection of artwork coming on lower quality paper within. It must also be said that the cover art - featuring an angry Anakin Skywalker (the series most infuriating character by a country mile) on a blue backdrop - is a bit shoddy looking. It's a shame greater care hasn't been taken over the presentation of this set (it's Star Wars!) as Season 3 is otherwise very strong: the show's most intriguing yet. Star Wars: The Clone Wars Season 3 is out on Blu-ray and DVD today.
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