Case Study 41: Lego Star Wars: The Yoda Chronicles, Episode 1–“The Phantom Clone”

Original Airdate: May 29th, 2013 on Cartoon Network

Star Wars is one of those unstoppable action/adventure mega-franchises that I end up discussing oh-so-frequently—much like Dragon Ball, Gundam, Marvel and DC. After having lain dormant for a decade, the film franchise is undergoing a revitalization, hewing to the Marvel Cinematic Universe formula of being bought out by Disney and having a constant stream of movies in various stages of production orbiting around one central, tent-pole series. In a complete coincidence, today brings us the trailer for the second outing in the brave new world of ceaseless Star Wars titles. But 2005 to 2015 was a good decade for Star Wars offerings on the small screen, even if they were pitched squarely at the kiddie market. Two separate versions of The Clone Wars filled the hours on Cartoon Network, successfully banking on the notion that kids didn’t know any better when it came to avoiding the prequels. But they set the stage for the current incarnation of Star Wars on TV, Star Wars: Rebels, which is apparently well-crafted enough to draw an adult audience, or at least an audience of adults willing to watch cartoons intended for children, which is a group that I would not have previously put myself in and yet here I am nonetheless. Regardless, the Lego-based video game adaptations of the Star Wars franchise seem to have spawned their own crop of TV shows. This may seem like an odd choice, considering the characters in the Lego Star Wars games don’t talk and the levels of meta-merchandising are starting to get rather cumbersome when you have a cartoon cash-in based on a video game cash-in based on a plastic-toy cash-in based on a film franchise designed to sell stuff. But it’s a choice that, for the most part, worked out pretty well.

Strengths

  • Funny. I’ve shown on this blog that time and time again entertainment–especially entertainment for kids, which is by definition not sophisticated–lives or dies based on how successfully it pulls off comedy. This is not to say that something has to be funny to be good, but it never hurts. It is true, however, that the most maudlin, sentimental melodrama will never be nearly as obnoxiously bad as something that tries to be funny and fails abjectly. In any case, it’s a trademark of the Lego game series to take the piss out of overly serious media franchises, and nothing is more overly serious than an epic battle between good and evil with the fate of the universe hanging in the balance. The series even manages to avoid leaning too heavily on C3PO (Anthony Daniels,) which is great because C3PO is right up there with Carrot Top, Gallagher and Daniel Tosh. The best bits are tried-and-true comedy staples given new life by being inserted into the typically dour Star Wars setting. Yoda’s (Tom Kane) lack of shoes make it hard to run in the rain, leading to slapstick gold. When Yoda and Mace Windu (Adrian Holmes, Debug) are trying to piece together the identity of the undercover Sith Lord operating from inside the Republic and R2-D2 frantically holo-projects an image of Chancellor Palpatine (Trevor Devall, Kid Vs. Kat,) Windu and Yoda agree that asking Palpatine who the undercover agent might be is a great idea. There’s even a reprisal of that hoary old bit where a person tries to maintain two divergent conversations via call-waiting, except it’s a million times funnier when it’s a three-way phone call between Palpatine, Yoda and General Grievous (Kirby Morrow, Lego Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitzu) and Palpatine’s Lego-head is spinning between a nice face and a mean face depending on who he thinks he’s talking to. Which brings me to…
  • Unique aesthetic approach. The Lego-riffic nature of the whole affair is also redeemed through clever, detail-oriented use of distinctive visuals. When Grievous attacks C3PO and a roomful of padawans offscreen, we see the outcome of the battle when C3PO’s detached Lego-head comes bouncing down the stairs. When a gunship makes an ill-fated jump into hyperspace, Yoda, Windu and R2D2 are stranded in space as the gunship breaks into a million little Legos. The animators really committed to the distinctive Lego aesthetic, and it shows from the very first moments of the episode, as the opening shot places us beneath Grievous’s Starfighter–where we can see Lego divots. Hee!

Weaknesses

  • Gigantic plot hole. Much like The Wrong Mans, Lego is trying to succeed at both comedy and action, but unlike Mans, Lego only pulls it off on one front. And while that’s better than failing at both things, if Lego wasn’t attempting to tell a credible adventure story about saving the galaxy and so forth, there’d be more time for jokes. Grievous and Palpatine’s whole plot centers around Grievous stealing the Kaiburr crystals from the padawan’s lightsabers. Now, maybe the phrase “Kaiburr crystals” means something to you if you’re a hardcore Star Wars nerd, but I asked the nerdiest Star Wars nerd I could find and even he was only able to come up with the fact that lightsabers are powered by focusing crystals and by inference that’s what a Kaiburr crystal must be. The reason this distinction is important is that if there’s something special about the damn Kaiburr crystals I have no idea what it is, because the show never bothers to explain, and apparently Kaiburr crystals are only found in JEDI lightsabers, and only they can power the Central McGuffin, and again none of this is ever actually made explicit. In other words, there needed to be a reason for Grievous to get involved with Yoda and the padawans, so the writers slapped some bullshit together and hoped no one would notice. I understand that it’s a Star Wars cartoon and some familiarity with the source text is to be expected, but if it’s something I would have to be a religious viewer of the various animated series or a dedicated student of the canonical novels to understand, you’re setting the bar too high for most people, resulting in a pretty unsatisfactory adventure.

Motivation: This is Star Wars, after all, so the survival of the entire universe depends on Yoda’s actions here.

Final Episode Judgment: 6/10. This is an amusing way to spend 22 minutes if you’ve got a Star Wars superfan in your house who isn’t too picky about actual storytelling.

NEXT TIME: I plumb the depths of Hanna-Barbera to bring you the coverage of Huckleberry Hound that 2016 so badly needs!

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Case Study 41: Lego Star Wars: The Yoda Chronicles, Episode 1–“The Phantom Clone”