[box cover]

Star Wars: Clone Wars, Volume One

At the end of Star Wars: Episode II, George Lucas kicked off the "Clone Wars" that help destroy the Old Republic. But after whetting fanboy appetites with the final 40 minutes of Attack of the Clones, Lucas immediately ripped the rug out from under them — announcing that Episode III would begin with the final battle of the war, leaving more time for (gulp) character development. Bad news for fans? We'll see. But it was excellent news for the licensees of the "Expanded Universe" of Star Wars books, comics and other ephemera: They'd get to spend the next few years blowing up droids and clonetroopers amid lightsaber battles on exotic worlds. Lucas was allowing them to fill in the conflict he wouldn't be filming.

Among the best of these "Expanded Universe" offerings? Star Wars: Clone Wars — a "micro-series" of 20 three-minute animated shorts that aired on the Cartoon Network starting in 2003. Directed by Genndy Tartakovsky ("Samurai Jack"), the shorts were essentially a relentless series of visually driven, wildly creative battles and duels that followed Yoda, Mace Windu, Obi-Wan, Anakin, and other Jedi Knights as they put the smack on the faceless forces of evil across the galaxy. On Fox's Clone Wars: Vol. One DVD, these shorts have been compiled into a single 69-minute feature — with those classic Star Wars transition wipes smoothing the space between chapters — and it's one big sugary meringue of kick-ass. The story, such as it is, is almost painfully simple: While Obi-Wan leads an army conquering the homeworld of the Banking Clan, Anakin is drawn into a duel with Asajj Ventress, a wannabe Sith witch recruited by Count Dooku to bring out the lad's inner Dark Side. There are also a handful of asides as we follow other battles on snow, desert, and water worlds — including one that introduces the lightsaber-wielding cyborg General Grievous, who plays a supporting role in Episode III. All this mayhem serves as a gorgeous showcase for Tartakovsky's peculiar brand of visual dynamism: He seems to have sweated out every possible way for a cartoon character to wield a lightsaber as he wipes out vast swaths of troopers and robots with a visceral glee. And on a couple of occasions he gets better performances from his voice talent than Lucas managed to extract from his flesh-and-blood actors (*cough* Natalie Portman *cough*). A lot of fans have gushed online that Tartakovsky has actually made a better Star Wars film than anything Lucas has offered from 1999 on, and they're partly right: While Clone Wars doesn't offer nearly enough story to satisfy, it does offer a heaping dose of the smart, witty tone we all hoped we'd get from the prequel trilogy. Tartakovsky is a master of comic timing within action sequences; the little pauses he puts between a lightsaber strike and the collapse of its recipient are often hilarious, and his constantly surprising art direction and choreography create a frisson of joy we haven't see in Star Wars since, oh, 1980.

Fox's Clone Wars DVD looks and sounds spiffy — especially if your only previous exposure to these cartoons was online. And the extras? There are two commentaries by Genndy Tartakovsky — a brand-new "Director's Commentary" that compliments the older (and vastly superior) "Hyperspace Commentary" that was previously only available to paid subscribers at StarWars.com. In them, Tartakovsky, obviously a visual thinker, repeatedly uses the word "funnest." There's also a pair of "making-of" documentaries: "Bridging the Saga" (8 min.) is notable for featuring (a) somewhere between 13 and 20 seconds of "Revenge of the Sith" space-battle footage; (b) George Lucas' hearty endorsement of Tartakovsky's efforts; (c) a sneak peek at all-new Clone Wars episodes currently in production; and (d) a couple of moments of grand-mal geeking-out on the part of art director Paul Rudish, who obviously relishes his chance to contribute to the Star Wars canon. Another featurette (4 min.) is a promotional piece that gets a little more into the nuts and bolts of writing and animating the three-minute shorts. Also here are still galleries, plus galleries for "Sketches & Storyboards" and "Posters & Artwork," the Episode III teaser trailer, game trailers for "Episode III" and "Republic Commando," and a "Republic Commando" Xbox demo. Good anamorphic transfer (1.78:1) with Dolby 2.0 Surround audio (English, Spanish, and French), and English subtitles. Keep-case.
M.E. Russell

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