The new offerings on Disney+ peak early this month: on May 4 to be precise, as in May the Fourth Be With You, the reason this date is widely designated “Star Wars Day.” Some diehards — you’re looking at one — also choose to acknowledge the day after as Revenge of the Fifth. The streaming service is rolling out new “Star Wars”-themed banners and design skins in commemoration of that galaxy far, far away to give the site architecture a refreshed feel whenever you click on any “Star Wars” content. May 4 is also the Disney+ release of “The Rise of Skywalker,” but your time would be much better spent treating yourself to a binge of the most immersive, kinetic, world-expanding “Star Wars” ever, a show that’s streaming its final episode on May 4: “The Clone Wars.”
The “Star Wars” galaxy is a whole lot bigger because of “The Clone Wars.” And if you’ve never watched any of it and consider yourself a big “Star Wars” fan, you’re to be envied: you have so much fun ahead of you.
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George Lucas created this series himself and it bears his unmistakable stamp: instantly memorable characters, quirky creatures, in media res plotting, extraordinary worldbuilding, pulpy dialogue, and a healthy dose of politics. The series went into production right after “Revenge of the Sith” concluded the prequel trilogy in 2005, and as the animation wizard to lead day to day production, Lucas chose Dave Filoni, a native son of Mt. Lebanon, Pennsylvania, who had previously worked on “Avatar: The Last Airbender” and “King of the Hill.” It was a harmonious match: in Filoni, Lucas had found his heir, the person who understood his sensibility most acutely and could evolve it for the 21st Century.
Unfortunately, a lot of “Star Wars” fans and casual viewers were resistant to giving “The Clone Wars” a chance. Whatever backlash there is against “Star Wars” content produced under the aegis of Disney was equaled or exceeded by the backlash against the “Star Wars” prequels, and here was more storytelling — dozens of hours more — set during the prequel era. It also had big shoes to fill: a previous 2-D animated series of “micro-episodes” called “Clone Wars” had aired to great acclaim under the direction of Genndy Tartakovsky in the leadup to “Revenge of the Sith.” That series was almost wordless, boiling “Star Wars” down to its leanest essence. It was brilliant, but it didn’t have to be the only take on the period between Episodes II and III, the time of a great war between the Republic with its Jedi-led clone army and the secessionist Separatists.
Then came the worst decision of all: to stitch together the first four episodes of Filoni’s new 3-D animated series and release them as a Frankenstein’d “movie” into theaters in the summer of 2008. Of course it didn’t work. These were TV episodes cobbled together as a marketing ploy against Filoni’s wishes, with the animation still at its most basic — the computer graphics on “The Clone Wars” would evolve substantially with each subsequent season.
The reviews for the film were terrible, and after that, a lot of fans might not have been willing to give the TV series a chance. But for those who did, this very quickly became the “Star Wars” they had been looking for. And for a generation of young kids first being weaned on the saga, this series would come to define what “Star Wars” meant for them.
This was particularly true for a generation of young girls, due to the character of Ahsoka Tano. The 14-year-old Togruta voiced by former Disney channel star Ashley Eckstein (who’s since turned her fame from the show into the fashion empire Her Universe, which markets geeky apparel to girls, long neglected by the merchandising side of “Star Wars”) was precocious and daring and more than capable of holding her own with Anakin Skywalker when the Jedi Council assigned her to be his Padawan. In her first mission with Anakin she accompanies her new master on a quest to rescue the kidnapped infant of Jabba the Hutt, a stinky Huttlet named Rotta — the seeds for Baby Yoda were planted even in 2008! And she’d cross sabers with the vile Sith wannabe Asajj Ventress (Nika Futterman), calling her “the hairless harpy” — proving that she’d have a whole arsenal of Han Solo-style verbal barbs to snarkily assail her foes.
Seven years before Rey, “Star Wars” fans already had a girl Jedi to look up to in Ahsoka, and thanks to George Lucas himself. And the culture around “The Clone Wars” and its subsequent series, “Star Wars Rebels” and “Star Wars: Resistance,” if smaller than those for the live-action films, has certainly been more positive.
One side benefit to the furor over the live-action Disney “Star Wars” films, though, has been to retroactively elevate Lucas’s own prequels a tad more. But also, in the way it fills in the gaps between the movies and enriches characters like Anakin Skywalker and Mace Windu, “The Clone Wars” makes the prequels much better. The show expands the scope of the prequels far wider, introducing stunning new designs for species (check out the wordless floating mushroom jellyfish creatures, the Parwans, a personal favorite of this writer) and planets. An entire three-part arc is set underwater on the ocean world of Mon Cala (home to Admiral Ackbar who makes an appearance as just a “Captain” during the time of “The Clone Wars”). One episode from Season 4 called “Bounty” is set on a planet with an unbreathable atmosphere where everyone has to live in pressurized tunnels underground connected by supersonic trains. Frankly, for worldbuilding alone, “The Clone Wars” puts the post-Lucas theatrical “Star Wars” films to shame.
Series composer Kevin Kiner made sure the series wasn’t just a feast for the eyes, too, bringing in unique instruments to give cultures like the Nightsisters of Dathomir a distinctive aural signature. A blaring organ lends some Morricone-esque flair to the introduction of bounty hunter Cad Bane (a series MVP character and proof of something great about “The Clone Wars” that was lacking in the prequels: it has scoundrels!) In the final episodes of the series’ run, Ahsoka experiences the events leading up to Order 66 and Kiner’s music is all ominous, pulsing electronica, like something you’d expect in a Michael Mann movie. “Star Wars” doesn’t just have to be one thing, and in pushing wider what it could be, in terms of characters and aesthetic flourishes, “The Clone Wars” proved that emphatically.
But “The Clone Wars” went deeper as well as wider: Matt Lanter channeled Han Solo in his portrayal of Anakin Skywalker, capturing a sense of cocky swagger that, for all his charms, Hayden Christensen never quite managed in the live-action films. In Lanter’s portrayal, something deeper emerges: the sense that the very qualities that made Anakin a hero — his “go it alone” spirit, his desire to always be in charge, his care for others bordering on being a controlling jerk — are the qualities that also make him a villain. And what the show did for Darth Maul (Sam Witwer) is extraordinary: it took a character that had but three lines in “The Phantom Menace,” showed that because “the dark side of the Force leads to powers that some consider to be unnatural” he survived being cut in half, and then dealt with the aftermath. When we first meet Maul, discovered by his half-brother Savage Opress (Clancy Brown), he’s a shell of his former self. He’s missing his legs, sure, but what’s worse is that he’s lost his mind for more than 10 years. When he finally gets his wits back, he says he wants to “start with revenge” — against Kenobi, of course — but what he’s ultimately after is far more complex. He’s rejecting the whole idea of the light side/dark side divide and wants to just enrich himself as a crime lord. He’s suffered enough, why not live the good life?
Darth Maul is not the only instance of “The Clone Wars” pushing deeper than the Manichaean light side/dark side divide that often defined the saga. You could argue that the prequels already did much of what “The Last Jedi” achieves, introducing shades of grey into the Arthurian majesty of our collective idea of the Jedi: they kinda suck. As ex-Lucasfilm staffer Justin Bolger put it recently on Twitter regarding a scene from “The Phantom Menace,” “Beloved Jedi Qui-Gon Jinn sat at the dinner table of two slaves. He enjoyed their hospitality. He ate their food. And then he told them… ‘I didn’t come here to free slaves.’… The revenge of the Sith started long before #Order66.” “The Clone Wars” goes even deeper in showing how much the Jedi had compromised their values. By fighting this war at all — by becoming generals and abandoning their role as peacekeepers — they were playing right into the Dark Side’s hands.
The show also goes messier, too, with the kind of big swings and head-scratching choices that big tentpoles could use a lot more of. A huge cinephile, Filoni retold the story of Hitchcock’s “Notorious” in one episode, with Anakin as Cary Grant and Padme as Ingrid Bergman. Plus, there’s a two-part Godzilla story. And film legends contributed to the show, as well: Walter Murch directed an episode. So did David Lynch collaborator Duwayne Dunham. Not to mention that Harley Quinn creator Paul Dini wrote several episodes too, as did “Sons of Anarchy” writer Charles Murray. Want to have an entire episode built around the aesthetic of Mobius? There’s one here. Want to see a Mandalorian-themed version of Picasso’s “Guernica” hanging in a city plaza? The episode “The Lawless” will hook you up. This is a show where a bar patron will lustily swoon about Darth Maul’s brother, “Wow, I’d like to check his midi-chlorian count.” And that then will drop a stunning hint about the fate of the fish people, the Selkath, from the beloved “Knights of the Old Republic” video game when Count Dooku says to one bounty hunter Selkath, “Your people were once a peaceful race… how far they have fallen.” A line that also proves that hinting at a horrifying backstory is always more effective than actually explaining it and filling it in.
If you’re looking to recharge your “Star Wars” batteries, you’d do no better than to watch “The Clone Wars.” It doesn’t just expand the “Star Wars” universe that much more. It makes you want to keep on exploring it.
Also New on Disney+ This Month
Disney Gallery: Mandalorian
If you’re still looking for even more “Star Wars” content beyond “The Clone Wars” this May 4, Disney+ is unveiling a new “making of” series about “The Mandalorian,” the live-action hit that launched the service back on November 12. All the filmmakers who were involved, including Jon Favreau, Deborah Chow, Bryce Dallas Howard, and “Clone Wars” mastermind himself, Dave Filoni, should make appearances.
Jerry Herman’s musical about the Yonkers matchmaker is certainly canonical, even if this Barbra Streisand-starring film adaptation is not. She’s too young for the part of Dolly Levi, and the fact she’s romantically paired with Walter Matthau is… odd, to say the least. That Gene Kelly directed this flat mess is proof positive that the films that bore co-director credits for Kelly and Stanley Donen, such as “On the Town” and “Singin’ in the Rain,” were really just Donen efforts after all. That said, you might find yourself enjoying parts of “Hello, Dolly!” despite your better judgment… it can be surprisingly watchable, as WALL-E himself found out.
Click to the next page for the archive of new releases to Disney+ from April 2020.
ARCHIVE OF NEW RELEASES, APRIL 2020
Disney+ is an oddity in the streaming landscape. While it took over pop culture last fall with Baby Yoda and “The Mandalorian,” that blockbuster series was very much the exception for its content model thus far: this is a platform that relies almost entirely on its studio’s back catalogue of classic films. There won’t be another original live-action series of the stature of “The Mandalorian” until, well, “The Mandalorian” Season 2 later this year (assuming its post-production still continues as planned).
As for its classic film titles, Disney+ maintains a family-friendly focus, so many of the company’s more mature titles produced under its Touchstone banner, let alone its 20th Century Fox archive, don’t appear on the service. Even still, Disney+ touted the depth of its content offerings in the leadup to its November 12 launch with an epic Twitter thread of hundreds of beloved (or at least on-brand) titles spanning decades: from the 1940 version of “Swiss Family Robinson” starring Thomas Mitchell, which Walt Disney bought and suppressed so as to make his own 1960 version, all the way through “Coco” and “The Last Jedi.”
If the service is an oddity unto itself, it’s the oddities on the platform that have been among its most interesting offerings — including a “Disney Parks at the Holidays” special from the 1960s “Wonderful World of Color” TV series in 1966 that was the last TV broadcast Walt Disney himself appeared in before his death.
Because there isn’t that much new on offer through the service, this recurring feature singles out one recently added title to highlight as “The Best Bet” on the service each month, along with a couple other newly available picks and a selection or two from the back catalogue. Sometimes, “The Best Bet” will be a film, sometimes a series or TV special. It can be a new offering or a vintage favorite. This time, it’s a singular title: when Disney got Lynchian.
The Best Bet
“The Straight Story” is like the transcendental meditation famously practiced by its director, David Lynch. Watching it feels like an act of emotional healing. Its languid rhythm contradicts one of the key ingredients of drama: namely, conflict. There’s no real conflict in “The Straight Story” at all. Its story is gentle, a simple tale of perseverance and the kind people along the way who help ensure it has a happy ending.
It’s also a true one: in 1994, 73-year-old Alvin Straight, stripped of his driver’s license due to poor eyesight, embarked on a six-week, 240-mile journey via lawnmower to visit his ailing brother. Five years later it became a film as quintessentially Lynchian as anything the “Blue Velvet” auteur has ever made — and all the more remarkable in that it received a G rating and was picked up by Disney for distribution (after a successful debut in competition at Cannes and possibly as a consolation prize by the Mouse House, since the director already had wrapped shooting the ABC pilot for “Mulholland Drive,” on which the network’s executives ultimately passed.)
In “The Straight Story,” what Lynch did for the picket-fenced, Main Street Americana of “Blue Velvet” and the wind-whipped forests of “Twin Peaks,” he does for the golden wheat fields of Laurens, Iowa: he creates a vision of small town America that’s respectful, even reverential, while not ignoring the darkness that can seep in. Of course, there’s no nitrous oxide-huffing madman here or supernatural “Man from Another Place,” so you might be convinced that Lynch has sanded down his edges. Instead, his characterization of Straight (played magnificently by Richard Farnsworth), unfolds delicately over the film’s 112-minute running time: as he meets different people on his journey, he shares more about his life and what motivates him — a sweet story about how he’d have his kids break a twig in two, then point to a bundle of sticks he’d tied together that they couldn’t break and say “That’s family,” is heartbreakingly tender, but makes you think you’re in for a film full of fridge-magnet lessons.
Very quickly you realize that’s not the case: he hasn’t lived up to his own parable about family himself. His struggle with alcoholism created strain in his marriage, only one (Sissy Spacek) of his seven surviving children is present in his life — or even mentioned — and he’s compelled to make this journey to visit his brother because they haven’t spoken to each other in 10 years following an argument in which “unforgivable things” were said.
This isn’t a film about a life in which everything is pristine and perfect, but, despite their reputation, most other Disney films aren’t either. They’re about finding happiness and purpose despite the challenges we face, the tragedies we’ve endured (think of all those absent Disney animated film parents), and the baggage we carry around with us. “The Straight Story” is unique in that most of these heartaches are related by Farnsworth in conversation with the people he meets on his journey, almost all of whom are kind listeners. The closest anyone comes to being a jerk are twin brothers who overcharge him to repair his lawnmower. For its emphasis on conversation, “The Straight Story” practically becomes Lynch’s detour into Richard Linklater territory. But the staging of each talk is pure Lynch. One of the most moving moments comes at a small-town bar where Farnsworth’s Straight talks to a fellow septuagenarian about their respective traumas during World War II. “I can still see the swastika,” his drinking companion says of a German fighter that crashed into his camp. Lynch only employs a sonic flashback: the soft percussion of bombs falling in the distance accompanies the man’s story, though the camera itself never leaves the bar and remains trained on his face.
Lynch’s longtime editor Mary Sweeney contributed to the script of “The Straight Story” and its conversational cadences are much like that of Lynch’s own speaking style: direct, unfussy, relying on one-word answers where possible. When Straight buys a grabber, a tool for the elderly to pick things up without bending over, he’s asked, “What do you need that grabber for, Alvin?” His answer: “Grabbin’!” This is the Lynch who — when asked to describe himself — has often simply said, “Eagle scout. Missoula, Montana.” It’s the Lynch who understands the power of saying nothing at all, when Farnsworth and Spacek pause several times to enjoy the beauty of their surroundings: gazing at the stars in the sky and the lightning-flashes in a thunderstorm.
The country boy from Montana that Lynch remains shines through so clearly in this film, and in perfect harmony with his more surreal touches. The only moment of real suspense in the movie occurs when Straight finds himself hurtling down a hill with the lawnmower’s breaks busted. When he finally comes to a stop, breathless from panic, behind him, and unrelated to his fright incident, is a burning house that firefighters have set ablaze “for practice.”
This is a film that arthouse devotees of “slow cinema” and heartland churchgoers looking for a clean movie would enjoy together. How do you describe the mastery of a filmmaker who can make a movie that could bridge America’s political and cultural divides? That’s a level of skill matched only by someone capable of selling his movie to Disney without compromising his vision at all.
Also coming to Disney+ this month:
— Four new episodes of “Star Wars: The Clone Wars,” Dave Filoni’s often dazzling Lucasfilm animated series that has given fans some of the best “Star Wars” storytelling ever. These episodes focus on former Padawan Ahsoka Tano (voiced by Ashley Eckstein) as she navigates life after having chosen to leave the Jedi Order. In the original run of the series that concluded in 2013, Ahsoka decided to make her way throughout the galaxy on her own after the Jedi Order refused to defend her against a spurious murder charge trumped up by Admiral (later “Grand Moff”) Tarkin. But of course her desire to do good and help the innocent as war rages across the galaxy endures.
— “The Small One” (1978): If you want to get a sense of how aimless Disney animation was in the late ‘70s under company CEO Card Walker (who cut his teeth as a camera operator and short-film unit production manager with the studio in the 1930s and never left) take a look at this 26-minute short. It’s directed by Don Bluth, who’d leave the studio not long after to form his own independent studio (he’d later direct “The Secret of NIMH,” “An American Tail,” “The Land Before Time,” and “Anastasia”), and it feels of a piece with his later work. But it’s also oddly touching? It tells the story of the aging donkey who carries Mary to Bethlehem to give birth to Jesus. Or rather the story of how he comes to be her mode of transport in the first place — he’s the beloved pet of a young boy whose father forces him to sell him. And the purchaser, Mary’s husband Joseph, could not be more divinely inspired.
Yes, “The Small One” is from a time when Disney was open to adapting Bible stories. This writer once expounded in the late academic journal Jump Cut about how the caricatures of Jewish merchants in “The Small One” anticipates the Arab stereotypes of “Aladdin,” right down to a song called “Klink-klink, Klank-klank (Take the Money to the Bank),” which had some altered lyrics for its 2005 DVD release, likely reflecting concerns about the portrayal. In case you think Disney+ is devoted to avoiding “problematic” content in its back catalogue, here’s one that suggests they are not.
— “On Ice” (1935): This is a delightful short about Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, and Donald going for a skating party — even if why these holiday or winter themed shorts are dropping on Disney+ now is a bit of a mystery. Brilliant images abound – Donald attaching ice skates to a sleeping Pluto’s paws so he’s tormented on the frozen surface when he wakes up, Goofy going ice-fishing by using chewing tobacco as bait. Rather than hook them with a line, Goofy plans to beat them with a club when they surface to expectorate their chaw in a spittoon.
A Gem Already on Disney+:
In the “Short Circuit” collection of experimental animated films produced in the past few years, be sure to check out “Cycles.” It’s less than five minutes, but it covers a lifetime: it’s about two parents moving into a new home, raising their daughter there, and finally as they move out decades later. It packs a wallop, as if it were the opening sequence of “Up” as a standalone short film. The talented director, Jeff Gipson, who also debuted “Myth: A ‘Frozen’ Tale” at Sundance earlier this year, created this as a 360-degree VR experience — meaning that the house itself becomes that much more of a character. But no emotion is diluted by converting it to a 2-D version on Disney+.
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