How does The Clone Wars Theatrical Release Demonstrate a Return to the Character-lead Drama of the Original Trilogy?
On May 19, 1999, Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace debuted in cinemas across North America. As one of the most anticipated films of all time, there were extremely high expectations placed on the film. Upon release, however, The Phantom Menace sharply divided critics and fans alike -along with its sequel instalments Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith and remains a contentious topic to both groups to date. One of the greatest criticisms of the prequel trilogy as a whole is that it feels fundamentally unlike what many considered a Star Wars film to be. Whereas the original trilogy of films told the story of a galaxy at war, driven by the emotional connections to its cast of core characters, the later instalments told a story far larger in scale as it explored the collapse of an entire civilisation and the transformation of a democracy into a dictatorship. This macro representation of social decay lead to certain changes in storytelling technique as Lucas told this story through shots that were loaded with thematic resonance, highlighting the spiritual and political discord present in the story. In 2008 when Lucas revisited the Star Wars universe to produce Star Wars: The Clone Wars, the series largely returned to the storytelling techniques that were deployed in the original trilogy, as a serialised story such as that told in The Clone Wars would benefit greatly from being told through the eyes of particular characters rather than the methods of Episodes I, II and III. As a feature-length adventure, The Clone Wars theatrical release presents an extended look at this characterisation.
While the Theatrical Release of Star Wars: The Clone Wars is often dismissed as a broad and clumsy mesh of tv episodes, the film is ultimately an instalment of the Star Wars saga that fundamentally changes how we view its main character and as such it is something that cannot be dismissed. This fundamental change is, of course, the introduction of Ahsoka Tano, Anakin Skywalker’s new padawan learner. The revelation that Anakin had his own apprentice is hugely important to the character adding further context and tragedy to his downfall in Revenge of the Sith. However, Ahsoka does not exist only to facilitate Anakin’s character development. In fact, she is one of the franchise’s most important and multi-faceted characters in her own right. On a meta-textual level, TCW series explores the vast fictional universe more than any other Star Wars product and Ahsoka acts as an identification figure throughout her five-season stint. Through her eyes the audience discovers more of the galaxy than they have with any other character, making her a ubiquitous presence in this era of Star Wars. Within the text, Ahsoka’s adventures see her journey from a naive, eager to please apprentice into a wise and independent peacekeeper and warrior. Yet despite her impact and incredible growth as a character, Ahsoka leaves the series on a bitter note as the embodiment of the extreme failures of both Anakin Skywalker and the Jedi Order at large. These failures are major recurring themes of The Clone Wars and are introduced in the arc of episodes that begins with ‘Cat and Mouse’ and ends with this instalment.
Throughout The Clone Wars, Ahsoka is shown to connect with Anakin in a way that no other Jedi has. By working in such close proximity to him for such a long time and in such an intense environment, she easily picks up on how much her mentor struggles to work within the Order’s rigid framework and by learning from Anakin, his struggles become her struggles. Of course, their problems with the Jedi are not the only similarities between the two characters. Both are eager to please, brash, willing to take extreme risks in order to get their desired results. Ultimately, Ahsoka and Anakin are very similar characters. Which is perhaps why Ahsoka was not well received by all corners of the Star Wars fandom upon her debut. These aspects of her character were criticised in the early days of the series and are reminiscent of the criticism of Hayden Christensen’s Anakin faced – particularly in Attack of the Clones. Many fans were confused as to why -when making a point of supposedly “fixing” Anakin- the production team introduced a character who embodied many of his qualities they had taken a dislike to. In the long run, it is essential for both characters’ arcs that these similarities were not only established but stressed in order for their bond to grow deeper and deeper.
Regarding Anakin’s character, his actions throughout this film are heavily influenced by the personal tragedies that have occurred in his past. His harsh childhood has had a detrimental impact on the way he constructs relationships, as is most plainly the case with the two most important women in life – his mother Shmi Skywalker and Padmé Amidala. In both instances Anakin has had a difficult time letting go of the relationships he has forged, even telling Padmé in Attack of the Clones that “from the moment I met you, all those years ago, not a day has gone by when I haven’t thought of you”. His inability to let go is well known to the council, who it is revealed have assigned Ahsoka to him for this very reason. All apprentices eventually graduate from their tutorship, at which point Anakin will have to let Ahsoka leave his side.
However, still fresh from the family tragedy he faced in Attack of the Clones, there is a clear sense that Anakin is too scared to let anyone get too close to him at this time, which is the real reason for his initial frosty attitude to Ahsoka. Filoni and his team choose to highlight these poor relations this particularly well in the film by simultaneously examining the parental bonds held by another iconic character: Jabba the Hutt. The Theatrical Release subverts our expectations of how these men would act as father figures as Jabba -known to us as a violent, ill-tempered crime lord- is portrayed in the warmest manner we’ve seen him to date, as a doting father who cannot stand to be separated from his child. He’s uncharacteristically diplomatic and energetic in the quest to be reunited with Rotta, even bargaining with the Jedi Council to aid in the rescue. While this passion eventually spills over into the aggression we typically associate the character with, it is born out of love.
On top of the contrasting of perceptions, the shared history between the characters also comes into play to make it more potent. Toward the end of the film, Anakin is given the mission of delivering Jabba’s son back to him on Tatooine. The last time we saw Anakin on Tatooine he was returning his mother’s corpse to the Lars homestead, having just unleashed his fury upon the camp of Tusken Raiders who were keeping her held prisoner and murdering men, women and children alike. Now back there, he’s charged not only as the custodian of a young life – but with the mission of delivering a second infant back to their parent. Rotta the Hutt being Jabba’s offspring only adds a further sense of torment to Anakin’s mission as after all, it is Jabba who controls Tatooine and who profits from the slave trade that defined his Shmi Skywalker’s life.