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Published: 3/24/2005

Animated 'Star Wars' micro-series is a pared-down, jazzed-up version

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Last Monday and every night since, if you happened to flip to the Cartoon Network precisely at 7 - wasn't it cool!?! For three minutes Star Wars was cool again.

For exactly three minutes.

That's the running time of each episode of Star Wars: Clone Wars, which just started its second season. The network calls it a micro-series; it's animated by Genndy Tartakovsky, the inventive stylist responsible for three of the most clever series in years, Samurai Jack, Dexter's Laboratory, and The Powerpuff Girls. The remaining episodes this week air at 7 p.m. today and tomorrow.

Skip them at your own risk.

On the other hand, if you do, who could really blame you?

As of late, Star Wars has been boring; the latest series was swamped first by The Matrix and then The Lord of the Rings, and the charm was nonexistent.

Yet in Clone Wars, there's none of that talk of trade disputes or city council gerrymandering that lowered eyelids during Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones. There's not a lot of talk at all, actually. Or cloying moments of forced laughter, or the spacey acting that made Episode I and Episode II feel at times as if you'd been cornered at Radio Shack.

Begin your rehabilitation with the new DVD of Star Wars: Clone Wars, Vol. 1 (Fox, $19.98), which includes the first 20 micro-episodes along with commentary from Tartakovsky, and art galleries packed with streamlined, playful Easter egg-colored ideas. This series is so good, it begs a question a lot of Star Wars fans have been asking for years now:

Who needs George Lucas?

Especially with a fresh eye like Tartakovsky, who directs Clone Wars as if he owns a divining rod that points to exactly what's wrong. Where the new films have been busy, full of ugly CGI images in shades of mud and rust, Clone Wars opts for the style Tartakovsky perfected with Powerpuff Girls: straight lines, solid colors. There's a minimum amount of detail. The look is stripped down to the most vital elements, and the story is similarly uncomplicated. The effect is like coloring-book chic.

You know it'll be different from the first episode. We meet the elite unit of the clone warrior army - whose members look like the storm troopers of the original films.

If this were one of the new movies, I'm guessing we'd get a long, dull explanation of how it's possible to have elite clones in a clone army. Tartakovsky either doesn't notice the minutiae or doesn't care, and the story serves him well this way: While Attack of the Clones (2002) showed us the start of the Clone Wars, and the new film, Revenge of the Sith (which opens in May), will show us the end, Tartakovsky's series takes a war epic and boils it down to the everyday details of fighting it.

Anakin Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda, and Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson's character) become the central Jedi, while the tepid romance between Anakin and Princess Cardboard, sorry Amidala, takes a backseat. It's all about the battles in Star Wars and not the war. Nothing of dire importance to the shape of the Star Wars universe ever happens. Tartakovsky breathes easy.

Lucas is out of the picture.

We breathe easy.

Incidentally, there's an Ohio connection here: Tartakovsky, 35, emigrated from the former Soviet Union at age 7, and his family promptly moved to Columbus.

Speaking of Ohio: Astro Boy: The Complete Series (Sony, $49.98) is a new five-disc set of the animated Japanese series originally brought to this country in the 1960s by Fred Laderman, a Toledo-born producer (and 1945 Scott High School graduate) who had the great idea to sell the black-and-white series into American syndication. Astro Boy, with his short black spiked hair and tiny clothes - he reminds me a bit of Martin Short - is one of those pop icons you're probably familiar with even if you've never seen an episode.

The character hasn't changed in 40 years but the series has: This set contains 50 episodes of the recent incarnation that played on the Kids WB. The animation is smooth, the plots more elaborate, but the rough, stiff charm that made the original a baby boomer favorite has been replaced with, gasp, progress. Too bad. Now it looks like every other Japanese animated series. If you're wondering, the beloved episodes Laderman brought to America are not yet available on DVD.

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BRIGHT EYED AND BUSHY TAILED: Sweetness is not a quality that art gets across so well. Here Comes Peter Cottontail (Sony, $14.98), a new DVD reissue of the stop-motion animation TV special from 1971, is not art and it's not sweet, and that's probably why it's still wonderful. From the team of Arthur Rankin, Jr., and Jules Bass, who gave us The Year Without a Santa Claus and the legendary Heat Miser, Peter Cottontail has the perverse mission of trying to find a moral to Easter without bringing Jesus Christ into it. It's purely secular; and unfortunately, I doubt they'd be able to get away with it today.

If you're of a certain age this will sound familiar: Danny Kaye is the narrator, Seymour S. Sassafrass. Casey Kasem is the voice of Peter, a lazy good-for-nothing rabbit who challenges Iron Tail, an evil bunny with the voice of Vincent Price, to an egg-delivery contest. Iron Tail has brown eggs and flies on a demonic bat. Peter sleeps-in Easter morning, then freaks out, then learns a lesson.

I realize I'm in the minority, but Finding Neverland (Buena Vista, $29.99), fresh from the Oscars and new on DVD, could have used a demonic bat. Peter Cottontail has the kind of imagination kids relate to - it doesn't quite make sense, but the logic applied is always its own. Marc Forster's Neverland, which tells the story of how author J.M. Barrie (Johnny Depp) was inspired to write Peter Pan, has a precision-tooled sweetness that tastes about as natural as Sweet N' Low.

The power of imagination and inspiration is the theme, but it's carefully patrolled for the real eccentricity that comes with imagination. It's too buffed, and while no one expects Forster to discover where inspiration comes from, I just wish he hadn't been so certain where to put it.

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YOU LIKE ME, YOU REALLY SORTA LIKE ME: The best one-woman show to hit town last year was undoubtedly Being Julia (Sony, $26.98). That is, the best one-woman show populated with other actors - none of whom you'd want to be. Talk about thankless. Annette Bening plays a 1930s stage diva in London's West End, and goes so over the top to tell a story of ego and resilience in middle age (adapted from a W. Somerset Maugham novella), the effect is both intoxicating and a grand illusion: a midrange movie star elevating herself to the level of show-business royalty through the sheer force of her iron will.

What a drama queen.



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