HOLLYWOOD — You’ll know you’re in a different galaxy within the first seconds of “Star Wars: The Clone Wars,” which substitutes the Warner Bros. logo and theme music for the familiar 20th Century Fox searchlight and fanfare.
While anything remotely “Star Wars” potentially is a welcome trek for hard-core fans, however, it will be a mixed thrill given that the saga returns to the big screen as a cartoon.
George Lucas’ prequel trilogy was so overloaded with computer-generated imagery that the digital animation of “Clone Wars” isn’t much of a leap. The somber tone of those three movies — chronicling the downfall of Anakin Skywalker from snotty, brooding teen to black-hearted Darth Vader — is gone, replaced with a variation of the campy humor and camaraderie that characterized the original trilogy.
Still, a “Star Wars” movie should be an event. But whether because of its cartoony format or its relatively lightweight story, “Clone Wars” definitely is not an event.
For fans, it serves as a fairly promising introduction to the “Clone Wars” animated series debuting on Cartoon Network this fall. The movie centers on a fresh adventure of Anakin and his Jedi knight elder Obi-Wan Kenobi during the Clone Wars that have been so pivotal to “Star Wars” since the beginning — but about which we’ve heard so little.
There was a passing reference to this civil strife in 1977’s “Star Wars” and a few glimpses of its onset in “Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones.” The action here and in the TV series takes place between that movie and “Episode III — Revenge of the Sith,” before Anakin goes bad.
The new movie sets up a seemingly bottomless well of story possibilities for the TV show. There are plenty of returning characters, new faces and bit players around which Lucas’ team can build episodes, so the series hopefully won’t be merely another ’Droids-vs.-Clones battle every week.
“Clone Wars” adapts a story arc director Dave Filoni (also the supervising director of the TV show) and company had been developing for the small screen.
Anakin (voiced by Matt Lanter) and Obi-Wan (James Arnold Taylor) start off in the heat of battle, leading a band of the Republic’s clone soldiers against the comically inept android troops of a separatist movement led by the evil Count Dooku (Christopher Lee, reprising his live-action role).
To show Anakin’s soft, mushy, pre-Vader side, he’s given his own Jedi apprentice, Ahsoka Tano (Ashley Eckstein), a spunky alien girl who quickly forges a wisecracking bond with her usually stoic mentor.
The two are assigned to lead a rescue of giant slug crimelord Jabba the Hutt’s squishy, squirmy baby Hutt, who has been kidnapped in a conspiracy that gives all our familiar prequel heroes a part to play.
Among them: Jedi masters Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson, also back from the live-action flicks) and Yoda, Anakin’s future bride Padme Amidala, and androids R2-D2 and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels, who was featured in all six live-action movies).
Filoni, a veteran of the animated series “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” and executive producer Lucas’ team craft a distinct design to set the animated version apart from the live “Star Wars” universe.
The characters have a chiseled, almost harsh look to them (Obi-Wan’s beard resembles a miniature snowplow that’s been grafted to his face). Their movements are a bit jerky, deliberately patterned somewhat after Gerry Anderson’s “Thunderbirds” and his other cult action series featuring puppets.
Why? The best guess is to make good on the promise that this is “Star Wars” as you’ve never seen it. The jerky motions seem at odds with the fluid acrobatics of Jedi warriors, but this probably will be far less noticeable once the “Clone Wars” adventures move to the small screen.
While the movie has a huge body count as ray guns and light sabers flash, “Clone Wars” comes off as rather cute overall. The Shakespearean tragedy of Anakin’s transformation into Vader behind him, Lucas turns his gang loose to be merry, even silly.
Again, that tone probably will work better in the shorter TV installments. In theaters, it makes for a reasonably fun if generally forgettable story, at least in terms of the grand-opera standards of the live-action “Star Wars” films.
Maybe it’s for the best that this movie landed under the Warner Bros. banner. “Clone Wars” simply could not have lived up to that breathless pause of anticipation that always rises in the silence between the Fox fanfare and the first blaring note of the “Star Wars” theme, which also has been modified to let audiences know at the outset that this is a galaxy a bit farther out than they’re used to.
“Star Wars: The Clone Wars,” a Warner Bros. release, is rated PG for sci-fi action violence throughout, brief language and momentary smoking. Running time: 98 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G — General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG — Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 — Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R — Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 — No one under 17 admitted.