So you’ve got this Disney “Plus” thing on your Roku now, although as far as you can tell the “plus” means “plus Hulu, plus ESPN.” That’s what you paid $13 a month for, right? Hulu for you, ESPN for the sports fans in the house, Disney for the kids.
But then there was that show you all watched together over the holidays, The Mandalorian. That was interesting — certainly better than Zootopia or the umpteenth viewing of Frozen. You weren’t going to watch, but then critics started raving about it. One of them mentioned that prior Star Wars knowledge wasn’t necessary to enjoy The Mandalorian. And whaddya know, that critic was right!
This week, Disney+ begins streaming a new season of a TV series from another quadrant of the vast entertainment universe that George Lucas created. Star Wars: The Clone Wars is an animated show, it’s deep into its television run — on its seventh and final season — and is not nearly as accessible as The Mandalorian. With those caveats, I’m still recommending it for people like me who enjoy the Star Wars style, even if we can’t be bothered with the endless mythology that goes with it.
So basically, a long time ago in a galaxy called cable TV that seems far, far away, the guy who created Dexter’s Laboratory and Samurai Jack made a Star Wars cartoon in about two weeks. It was called Clone Wars and was based on the idea that Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker’s dad (the future Darth Vader) were pals before they were mortal enemies. They fought side by side in something called the Clone Wars, a massive intergalactic barfight set between the events covered in two theatrical films that rank near the bottom of many, many Star Wars fans’ lists.
One reason George Lucas is routinely hailed as a genius is that he had an uncanny feel for his audience. Behind the iconic, seemingly immalleable topline characters that have defined Star Wars, Lucas has moved an awful lot of furniture around over the years. He’s gambled with characters and story twists to intrigue (or irritate) his fan base while pulling in more casual observers that have been trained to take Star Wars seriously. Lucas’ track record, and those Disney billions, have largely validated his approach.
Nowhere has this been more evident than with the whole Clone Wars subplot. Star Wars: Clone Wars ran for a couple of seasons on Cartoon Network. Then Lucas said heyyyy, why don’t we make it 3-D and start over? That led to Star Wars: THE Clone Wars, which is this show. Over the course of six seasons, it became so beloved that when showrunner Dave Filoni announced that Disney+ would be reviving the franchise for one last season, the base went wild.
In hindsight, it’s also kind of genius that Lucas anticipated how his cozy little corner of the cosmos could fit perfectly in a world run by violent video games. The original Star Wars debuted in 1977. It would be another decade before gaming technology evolved to the point where kids could spend their weekends wandering through endless mazes blowing away Nazis and drug lords.
Violent video games were controversial for a time and made Tipper Gore a household name, but they also paved the way for mainstream acceptance of today’s generation of Star Wars entertainment. Now, we think nothing of watching humans blow away scores of white-clad storm troopers and hundreds of zombie robots at a time, in gunfights that quickly escalate to Battle of Shiloh intensity.
In fact, very few sentient beings seem to die in the Star Wars universe. The only human-ish character I recall being killed off in The Mandalorian got a longing, sentimental closeup of his memorial cairn in the season finale. Seemingly hundreds of storm troopers and shiny killer droids of various sizes and shapes were obliterated, but all of the significant players — including those who eschewed protective headgear — walked away from their various calamities good as new, ready for season two. That’s what passes for family friendly these days, but I’ll take it.
And if you loved The Mandalorian, you’ll probably find the new season of Star Wars: The Clone Wars pretty entertaining as well. That’s thanks to a simple, tight, well-executed story, and a manageable set of characters who don’t banter like your usual cartoon figures.
The fact that The Clone Wars was designed as an anthology series works beautifully in the streaming age. Perhaps owing to the nearly six-year gap between Seasons 6 and 7, this final lap is basically self-encapsulated and requires almost no effort to get up to speed (narrator extraordinaire Tom Kane will help with that part).
Granted, it’s still a cartoon, and lacks the subtlety of The Mandalorian. As the good guys are speeding toward a planet in search of their quarry, one of them notes dismissively that the race of creatures they’re visiting are so primitive, they worship a flying reptile. Before anyone can even say, “Have you heard of such a nutty—” bam! A flying reptile lands on their windshield. Those kinds of things happen on a lot on The Clone Wars.
But the Star Wars signature blend of 20th-century industrial-grade weaponry and space-age trickery, its boutique approach to weird and wonderful monsters and robots — not to mention the franchise’s overall respect for military rank, personal courtesies, and other things that have gone out of style lately… you’ll find them all here.
Which means you can watch with your kids and not feel a sense of doom, like you will when you watch the new Disney+ competition show Shop Class, where one kid design-builds a Little Free Library he says was inspired by the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. Oy.
Bottom line: If you loved The Mandalorian, you just might like Star Wars: Clone Wars.
The final season of Star Wars: The Clone Wars premieres today on Disney+, with new episodes dropping Fridays through May.
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Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.