More mischievous than ever our old friend Yoda these days is. On the new weekly series Star Wars: The Clone Wars (Cartoon Network, Fridays at 9 p.m. ET), the tiny Jedi master seems tinier than ever, trickier, too. Bouncing through a battle scene in the second episode, he scurries acrobatically—a wise and wiseass jumping bean. Deftly does he outmaneuver some robots controlled by an Eartha-Kittenish villainess named Ventress. In the 3-D digital animation of this series, his skin glows a healthy shade of moss, and his sprightliness helps this latest George Lucas diversion achieve some commendable action-adventure zip.
Watching The Clone Wars, I decided that it would entertain certain discerning sixth-graders—and this was even after recognizing that these warm feelings have been conditioned over three decades. The relentless grandeur of John Williams' old score simply excites a Pavlonian response, with its fanfare for common boyishness triggering a stream of drool from any American male with the slightest trace of geek in his makeup.
To appease the more committed geeks in the audience, I should note that this show is not to be confused with the article-free Star Wars: Clone Wars, an animated series from 2003. Rather, it follows a theatrical film titled Star Wars: The Clone Wars, which opened to contemptuous reviews in August and, critics presumed, existed foremost as a feature-length promo for the state-of-the-art show that debuts Friday night. The new series depicts some military campaigns that unfolded around the time of the two most recent live-action Star Wars films.
Those also being the two most soulless installments of Lucas' space opera, most sane adults will not have the strength even to begin sorting out what is up with all the confederacies and coalitions in this corner of the galaxy. It is enough to that know that Anakin Skywalker and his cleft chin are around and that they bring a nobility of purpose to blowing things up. Many of the objects of this up-blowing are clones, which enables the show to achieve an impressive body count without disturbing a parent's moral sense. Some clones, especially the good guys, experience moments of torture in their hand-me-down spirits. "We're just clones, sir," one says to his boss in a moment of peril. "We're meant to be expendable."
Here, Anakin has a spunky wisp of a girl sidekick named Ahsoka Tano. She's a space-opera cutie (full lips, retroussé nose, striped hair) on a mission to win over a female audience—a kind of avatar for both the children who've only recently outgrown Dora the Explorer and older, dorkier girls given to fantasizing about entering hyperspace while wearing a tube top. Ahsoka and Anakin squabble like 10-year-olds playing My First Flirtation.
In the first episode—titled, with a melodramatic majesty that's vintage Lucasfilm, "Rising Malevolence"—the two of them play hooky in order to go on a rescue mission with one-in-a-million odds, and they bicker. At the end of the episode, after disobeying orders to go on their humanitarian lark, they're ordered into a meeting with the Jedi Council for a slap on the wrist. Uplifting Anakin says to perky Ahsoka: "Through it all, you never gave up. You did a great job, but if I'm getting in trouble for this, you're gonna share some of the blame, too. So, c'mon, let's go!" She replies: "Right beside, ya, sky guy!" Then R2-D2 tweets and toodles like a bemused chaperone.
Cute! Too cute? Does it matter!? The Clone Wars feels like the logical terminus of Star Wars' three-decades-old adventure in prolonged preadolescence. In the '70s, critics Michael Pye and Lynda Myles pegged the wizardly original as "pinball on a cosmic scale." The new series aspires to the level of a virtual-reality game. That's both the source of its great visual charm and the key to its emptiness, which is too dull to get worked up about—it's a vision of storytelling as a game that's all sensation, and it's meant to be expendable.