On May 25, 1977, George Lucas changed the cinematic world forever with a little movie that reconfigured our cultural understanding of the word blockbuster. Since then, Star Wars has been eclipsed at the domestic box office by only a small handful of other movies. So I'd argue that no franchise in movie history can match the cultural impact of the Star Wars series. Let's put it another way: I doubt they'll be making cartoons about Avatar nearly 40 years from now.
Which brings us to Star Wars: The Clone Wars. The CGI-animated show on Cartoon Network picks up where its 2008 big-screen premiere left off. Star Wars cognoscenti, of course, won't need a history lesson to explain where the titular Clone Wars fit in the franchise's timeline. For everyone else, a bit of backstory is in order:
The series chronicles the heroic exploits of Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi during the three-year span between the live-action films Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. The two Jedi warriors fight on behalf of the Galactic Republic against the rogue droid armies of the Confederacy of Independent Systems—more commonly known as the Separatists—led by Jedi-gone-bad Count Dooku and the cyborg menace General Grievous.
That's the big picture. When it comes to individual episodes, most focus on a mission involving Obi-Wan (who's usually giving orders) and Anakin (who's almost always disobeying them). Often in the mix is a stubbornly independent young Jedi named Ahsoka Tano, Anakin's apprentice. Together, this trio's adventures span the galaxy, from Felucia to Coruscant, from Christophsis to Mandalore. (There are a few, often lighter, episodes that don't feature the future Darth Vader.)
The script blends equal parts intrigue and battle as the Jedi and their allies seek to outflank cunning enemies—be it in space, on the ground or anywhere in between. Specific missions include getting supplies to a blockaded ally, helping indigenous peoples ward off interlopers or trying to defuse an assassination plot, among many other things.
A Yoda-like object lesson typically flashes on the screen for emphasis. "Searching for the truth is easy. Accepting the truth is hard," reads one. "In war, truth is the first casualty," reads another. And occasional deeper subtexts ask questions about the nature of good and evil or lightly poke situational ethics. So while some episodes are pretty light or even silly, others can be grim, dark and—in its own cartoon world—pretty violent.
As for the mystical energy field known as the Force, my words from The Clone Wars movie review are still relevant when it comes to the series as a whole: "Clone Wars assumes that viewers are already fully in the know regarding the pseudo-spiritual energy field that the Jedi harness for good and the Sith (dark Jedi) for ill. There are no long, expository conversations about the nature of the Force like the ones that pop up occasionally throughout the live-action films. Mostly, we see how it equips Anakin, Obi-Wan and Ahsoka … with superhuman agility in combat."
The twist is that many young (some very young) fans of The Clone Wars animated series may have never seen the movies that define such spiritual subtleties. It may well be Cartoon Network that introduces kids to Star Wars rather than Star Wars leading them to Cartoon Network. And that's a fact parents would do well to grapple with before granting carte blanche permission to travel to a certain galaxy far, far away.
"A Sunny Day in the Void"
Under the command of the diminutive Colonel Meebur Gascon, a ship bearing five droids (including R2-D2) is bashed and battered by a shower of comets. It crashes on a virtually featureless planet, forcing its occupants to figure out a way home.
This episode is light and nearly combat free, but the themes are deeper than you might expect. The colonel and the computerized pilot, WAC-47, argue about the difference between the his "training" and WAC's "programming," with the alien's organic abilities often falling short of his more reliable computerized underlings. When the colonel implores to the sky above to "Show me a sign, deliver us hope," WAC admits to the other units, "I do not know who he is talking to. Maybe whoever programmed him."
The colonel eventually sinks into philosophical self-pity. "Life is a void," he says. "We search and search for answers, but there are none. Hope is just an illusion. Death is the only certainty." WAC bucks him up, saying, "Giving up is not in my programming. I'm surprised that it's in yours, Colonel." (The colonel does cheer up, and they're eventually saved by ostrich-like creatures, following neither God nor computer programming, but the animals' instincts.)
A couple of jokes are made about suicide. The crew finds a skeleton of both a creature and a robot. The colonel talks about rupturing his gizzard. Droids are called "stupid."
After getting shot down by Separatist forces, Obi-Wan, Anakin and Ahsoka find themselves stranded on the planet Felucia. Seeking a ride off the world, they stumble into a conflict between peace-loving farmers and a group of pirates who demand a share of their crops. The farmers have already contracted with bounty hunters for protection, but the Jedi's aid enables them to stand up to the pirates. This episode's stated lesson: "Courage makes heroes, but trust builds friendship." The underlying message here is that the best way to deal with bullies is to stand up to them.
Most of the battle scenes involve living, breathing combatants on both sides (as opposed to droids). One of the bounty hunters chokes a pirate to death and drops his lifeless body on the ground. Another pirate takes a spear to the chest. Laser- and cannon-fire blow up buildings and hovering speeders, resulting in further casualties on both sides.
"Cat and Mouse"
Anakin and Obi-Wan have been tasked with getting much-needed supplies to Senator Bail Organa on the besieged world of Christophsis. There's only one problem: It's being pummeled and blockaded by an impressive orbiting armada commanded by the spider-like General Trench.
Combat in this episode primarily consists of ships trading fire in space, with many resulting explosions and presumed casualties. A couple of brief scenes show General Trench's bombers devastating a city. (Mostly we see explosions there, too).
As is often the case in their relationship, Anakin has unilaterally decided that Obi-Wan's orders are not the best way to proceed. When he's labeled "reckless," Anakin responds, "Reckless … gets results." Likewise, When Obi-Wan says, "Might I remind you that this is not your mission," Anakin quips sarcastically, "You might."