Let’s face it: There is no summer movie season this year. But all is not lost. Each Friday, we’ll be presenting “The Ultimate Summer Movie Guide,” honoring the greatest, goofiest and most memorable aspects of blockbuster seasons gone by. Maybe it will be a celebration of an iconic film or actor. Perhaps it will be the story of Prince’s Batman song. Or, like today, it will be a look back at the bad Star Wars movie everyone forgets.
When Solo came out in May 2018, it was a commercial disaster, grossing “only” $393 million worldwide. Now, that may sound like a lot of money, but for a Star Wars movie, that is most assuredly not. (Five films in the franchise have each grossed more than a billion dollars, and the next two highest-grossing combined brought in $1.6 billion.) Solo was dismissed as a catastrophe to the legacy of a hallowed 40-plus-year Hollywood juggernaut — an embarrassment unmatched in George Lucas’ cinematic galaxy.
But all the public drubbing conveniently ignored an earlier Star Wars movie that earned worse reviews and even less money than Solo. Sure, yes, Star Wars: The Clone Wars wasn’t held to the same standard as the “proper” Star Wars films — really, it was the first official spinoff in the franchise — but its release almost exactly 12 years ago was another seemingly dark time for the Rebellion. The Clone Wars was a kind of holding action after the poorly-reviewed prequels and before the much-anticipated new trilogy, which ended with last year’s extraordinarily terrible Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. The Clone Wars was a movie that made you wonder if we really needed any more Star Wars in our life. And, yet, it kick-started an animated series that ended up being a pretty big deal to a new generation of Star Wars fans.
This wasn’t the first time Lucas had dabbled with animation. In the 1980s, TV audiences were treated to the massively lame Star Wars: Droids and Ewoks. And the idea of a Clone Wars series didn’t start with that 2008 film. In 2003, Lucasfilm partnered with Cartoon Network to do Star Wars: Clone Wars, an animated kids series that focused on the legendary battle between the Republic and the drone army. (The Clone Wars comes up in the original Star Wars, also known as A New Hope, when Luke meets Obi-Wan, who confirms that, yes, he fought in the mythic Clone Wars, which is spoken about in hushed terms.) The 2003 series was masterminded by Genndy Tartakovsky, a celebrated animator and director who had made his name with Samurai Jack, a stylish adventure show featuring hip animation that was awash in stunning visuals.
“Lucas wants to keep the Star Wars property robust and active between motion picture releases,” Tartakovsky later explained when asked about the impetus to make the Clone Wars series. “[I]t turns out that George Lucas watches and really admires Samurai Jack, so they sent word that we … would be worthy of creating three-minute Star Wars episodes.”
The first two seasons of Star Wars: Clone Wars consisted of these bit-sized episodes — in the third and final season, the episodes were much longer, closer to 15 minutes — and the series was widely acclaimed. These mini-episodes aired in the interim between the release of the second and third prequel movies — 2002’s Attack of the Clones and 2005’s Revenge of the Sith — and, in fact, the animated series’ ending led into Revenge of the Sith. Star Wars: Clone Wars was, in essence, a little tide-me-over until the 2005 prequel finale — which was obvious to Tartakovsky when he and his team were told that, although they were featuring Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi, they couldn’t do anything to mess with their narrative arcs. (Basically, Tartakovsky was making the equivalent of webisodes, which he was cool with. “That was a good way to feature other characters and not always rely on our heroes,” he has said.)
But after Revenge of the Sith, Star Wars had an image problem. To be fair, yes, it was the biggest U.S. hit of 2005, pulling in $868 million worldwide, but the prequels as a whole had turned off a lot of fans, who felt the new movies hadn’t lived up to the original trilogy. Still… Revenge of the Sith did make $868 million, so there clearly remained a lot of interest in the franchise. And, most importantly, the prequels had hooked a new generation of fans onto Star Wars, which is what Lucas (who directed all three prequels) had always had in mind.
“The films were designed for 12-year-olds,” Lucas insisted in 2019. “I said that right from the very, very beginning and the very first interviews I did for A New Hope. It’s just that they were so popular with everybody, that everybody forgot that. … [I]f you were 10 years old when you saw A New Hope, you would be 30 years old when you saw Phantom Menace. So you weren’t a kid anymore. I think you were kind of embarrassed, and what you thought was a really fantastic movie for a 12-year-old wasn’t that great for a grownup. I think that was the main cause of the fall of Episodes I, II and III. Believe me, it took a beating.”
In other words, when it came to the prequels, Lucas wasn’t interested in you lame grownups — he was after your kids. And so, after Revenge of the Sith, he focused his energies on devising a new animated Clone Wars series. “[W]henever you create a universe, there’s just vast areas you’ve never touched,” Lucas said in 2008. His thought process was pretty simple: ”Well, gee, I did the movies about everything but the Clone Wars, so wouldn’t it be fun to do a TV series that is nothing but the Clone Wars, and we could just have all the adventures?”
The idea this time, though, was to make the animated series consist of more conventional 22-minute episodes, abandoning Tartakovsky’s animation style for something a little more anime-like. And while Lucas was developing that show, which would be called Star Wars: The Clone Wars, he had a lightbulb moment: What if we turned this into a film?
“[The movie] was almost an afterthought,” he said in that same 2008 interview. “We were doing the TV series and looked at some of the episodes on the big screen and said, ‘This is so beautiful, why don’t we just go and use the crew and make a feature?’ So we did.”
The person who mostly did it was actually Dave Filoni, a guy who’s probably not well-known outside of the Star Wars fanverse, but is incredibly important within it. In the mid-2000s, he was an L.A. animation director working on the Nickelodeon series Avatar: The Last Airbender when he was invited to meet with Lucas up at his Northern California headquarters. Soon, Lucas offered the guy a job to help oversee what would become the Star Wars: The Clone Wars series. In 2019, Filoni recalled to Vanity Fair the very weird way that Lucas told him he was hired: “[Lucas said,] ‘A Jedi Knight, in a situation where they’re bartering with somebody else, basically puts his lightsaber on the table and says, ‘Here’s how we’re going to do things.’ He just starts describing how Jedi would be in negotiating situations, how it relates to the Force and how they fit into The Clone Wars scenario.”
Never forget what a massive nerd George Lucas is.
Filoni would direct the Clone Wars movie, which served as the launching pad for the subsequent series. And like the previous Clone Wars series, the events took place between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, with Anakin (voiced by Matt Lanter) and Obi-Wan (voiced by James Arnold Taylor, back from the Tartakovsky series) doing battle with the evil Count Dooku (voiced by Christopher Lee, as in the prequels). In the film, Anakin is assigned to be the mentor to the impetuous Jedi apprentice Ahsoka (voiced by Ashley Eckstein), and our heroes have to rescue Jabba the Hutt’s kidnapped kid, paving the way for another adorable Star Wars baby that would show up about a dozen years later. (More on that in a bit.)
Star Wars: The Clone Wars was released in theaters on August 15, 2008. That sentence might seem pretty benign, but if you pay attention to the movie calendar, you know that an August release date, even though it’s still technically part of summer movie season, is usually when studios dump their less-promising fare. Star Wars movies have traditionally opened around Memorial Day — or, more recently, right before Christmas — which are among the biggest times of the year at the multiplex. By comparison, mid-August is when everybody is saying goodbye to summer and returning to school and jobs — they’re not really thinking about movies anymore.
Such an unglamorous release date seemed appropriate for The Clone Wars, which is the most inconsequential and least memorable of all Star Wars films. (Also, because it was released through Warner Bros., it was the first Star Wars movie not to have the indelible Fox logo and fanfare at the start, which made Clone Wars seem even less like real Star Wars.) And yet, it’s in some ways an improvement on the prequels.
Seen with 2020 eyes, Star Wars: The Clone Wars’ character animation, with its angular faces and stiff movements, looks a little primitive and low-tech, and the dialogue is full of the lame one-liners that have become synonymous with this franchise. (Just because Lucas, who didn’t write the screenplay, envisioned these movies for kids, that doesn’t mean they have to sound like they were written by them.) But after the visual bombardment of the prequels — where Lucas essentially invented the all-CGI-everywhere-all-the-time aesthetic that’s still prevalent in blockbuster movies — The Clone Wars was refreshingly minimalist, even kinda adorable. Where someone like poor Ewan McGregor (who played Obi-Wan in the prequels) was flattened by all the green-screen around him, the characters in The Clone Wars (although animated) had more gravitas and humanity to them. In a weird way, the animated characters felt realer than the prequel’s actual flesh-and-blood actors.
Nevertheless, The Clone Wars was a movie designed to sell audiences on an upcoming TV show — and specifically children. Which explains why there’s a baby Jabba.
Still weary from the underwhelming prequels, critics had their knives out for Star Wars: The Clone Wars, slashing away at this nothingburger of a movie. (The most withering comment came from Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman, who gave The Clone Wars an F and declared, “George Lucas is turning into the enemy of fun.”) Reviewers could see that the film was just a glorified promo for the show, which hit television less than two months later. And audiences could smell a stinker, too: The Clone Wars wasn’t even the No. 1 movie on its opening weekend, losing out to the debut of Tropic Thunder. (Even The Dark Knight, which had been out for more than a month, made more money.) It felt like a humiliation for a once-mighty franchise. Look how far Star Wars had fallen.
But here’s the funny thing about Lucas: Even when his ideas are shallow or cynical, they tend to work. Despite all the fans who grew up on the original trilogy and hated the prequels, the filmmaker had the right instincts in targeting the next generation, luring them with a new series of movies that they could grow up with — including a mediocre animated film that raised awareness for the animated show to come. And while it’s not only kids on the millennial/Gen-Z border who watched the Clone Wars series, they’re a huge, formative bulk of its audience, and they helped propel the show to success over six seasons spanning six years. (The seventh and final season, aired on Disney+ earlier this year, the first new season since 2014.)
As the show went along, the animation got more sophisticated, so did the storytelling, and as a result the Clone Wars series became a much-beloved part of the Star Wars saga for younger viewers — while simultaneously sometimes leaving us old farts deeply out of the loop. (My nephew, who’s now 16, grew up being a big Star Wars fan but kept telling me about Captain Rex, a character I knew nothing about because he’s from the Clone Wars movie and the subsequent TV series.) And because the show was so popular, more animated properties got greenlit — most notably Star Wars Rebels and Star Wars Resistance. (Star Wars: The Bad Batch is set to arrive on Disney+ next year.) These shows by and large moved away from the central Star Wars characters to create their own worlds, conditioning a new group of fans to think beyond the boundaries of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader’s drama. For them, Ahsoka and Rex were as important as Han and Leia — or Rey and Kylo Ren. And whereas The Rise of Skywalker angered a lot of the faithful, Season Seven of the Clone Wars series was a generally beloved finale that fans felt did justice to the storyline.
If this is making you nostalgic to revisit the film, well, you’d better have Disney+: That’s the only place it’s currently streaming. (I did find it in its entirety on YouTube, but you never know when the copyright police will have it taken down.) But, honestly, it’s better that the Clone Wars film exists more as a bygone legend — the same way that the actual Clone Wars are to Luke when he talks about them with Obi-Wan in A New Hope. The myth is more epic than living through the actual experience.
The recent live-action Star Wars trilogy was made after Lucas sold his franchise to Disney, handing the reins to other filmmakers to tell those stories. As a result, the Clone Wars series represents one of the last key creative contributions he made to the franchise that will forever define him. Now, the Star Wars galaxy is in the hands of other folks, like Filoni, who oversaw the different animated series but also executive produced The Mandalorian, which proved to be Disney+’s first big hit. Filoni directed the pilot, and then wrote and directed a subsequent episode from Season One. And he was there on the ground floor when Baby Yoda, the show’s breakout character, was being designed.
It might have been hard to imagine this flourishing new chapter when Star Wars: The Clone Wars was dying in theaters in late summer 2008, hoping that enough viewers would give the ensuing animated series a chance. “We were learning and we put it out in a time when you got more of a shot with the audience than you do now,” Filoni said recently of the woebegone film. “By the time the movie came out we were making individual series episodes that were much better. We knew we could make something worthwhile and we kept at it. George went to bat for us and was very patient.”
The patience paid off. For as much hype (and money) as the new live-action trilogy generated, you could argue that the real excitement among Star Wars fans now resides elsewhere — in those animated series and The Mandalorian, in all the stories that aren’t so closely connected to Luke’s original odyssey. (As Tartakovsky said years ago, it was actually more fun to explore the peripheral characters.) When it landed in theaters, Star Wars: The Clone Wars was treated as a fiasco — it was disparaged for not being enough like Lucas’ initial creation. In a way, that ultimately proved to be its saving grave, setting in motion an entire string of new shows that keep pushing the envelope about what exactly constitutes a star war.
Maybe the kids were right all along.