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Star Wars: The Clone Wars

Featuring the voices of Matt Lanter, Ashley Eckstein and Christopher Lee

Directed by Dave Filoni

Classification: PG

George Lucas was so savvy about the commercial potential of the story of a galaxy far, far away that he famously traded his fee for directing Star Wars to 20th Century Fox in exchange for a large percentage of the box office and the merchandising rights. So it's no surprise that Lucas has closely controlled the billion-dollar cottage industry spawned by his 1977 blockbuster. As a result, he's maintained a strong level of customer loyalty over the ensuing three decades - surely no one gets a better parking spot at Comic-Con.

Nevertheless, even defenders of the much-derided second movie trilogy must concede that some products from the Star Wars factory have been substandard. The television spinoffs have been particularly dodgy. Though Lucas has done his best to erase painful memories of 1978's Star Wars Holiday Special - still the only TV special to be largely uttered in Wookie - two mid-eighties animated series starring the Ewoks and the droid team of R2-D2 and C-3PO were nearly as woeful.

The latest Star Wars product to hit movie theatres suggests that the franchise's small-screen track record is unlikely to improve. A full-length animated feature that's essentially a preview for a series that debuts in the fall on CTV and Space, Star Wars: The Clone Wars is a noisy, hectic and largely unthrilling adventure set roughly in the period between Episode II: Attack of the Clones and Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.

Embroiled in battles all over the galaxy, the Jedis fight on behalf of the Republic against the separatist forces led by Count Dooku, voiced here by Christopher Lee, one of the few stars from the original movies who return to play their cartoon counterparts. (Samuel L. Jackson and the voice of C-3PO, Anthony Daniels, also contribute.) After valiantly saving a planet from separatists, Obi-Wan Kenobi (James Arnold Taylor) and Anakin Skywalker (Matt Lanter) are sent by their Jedi superiors to investigate the kidnapping of the infant son of Jabba the Hutt (Kevin Michael Richardson), the dangerously obese crime lord who controls routes that are coveted by both sides in the war. What our heroes don't know is that it's all part of Dooku's elaborate and somewhat baffling scheme to crush the Republic and kill off the two pesky Jedis.

Besides being the Star Wars series's first official animated feature (two Ewoks movies were released theatrically outside North America), The Clone Wars is notable for its prominent use of female characters, especially in the action sequences. Anakin is none too happy to be saddled with a Jedi trainee named Ahsoka Tano (Ashley Eckstein) but she proves to be useful in the fight against villains such as Asajj Ventress (Nika Futterman), Dooku's chief henchperson. While these characters' form-fitting attire is reminiscent of Carrie Fisher's gilded bikini in Return of the Jedi, they at least get to stay in the thick of the battles.

And the battles are pretty much the whole movie. The quick-cut images of laser fire, exploding droids and gravity-defying acts of Jedi derring-do grow monotonous - there is little to distinguish one sequence from the next. The digital-animation techniques give the visuals some depth and texture, but the movie is rarely as slick as Vexille or Appleseed, two recent Japanese anime features. With its cluttered, relatively rudimentary design, Star Wars: The Clone Wars could be easily mistaken for a demo from Lucasfilm's video-game department.

Nor do the voice actors fare much better than their live-action predecessors; they are saddled with the same tin-eared dialogue and one-dimensional characters that stymied the prequels.

And while the movie and the accompanying series are being pitched to a younger audience than most new Star Wars ventures, parents may be perturbed by the film's relentless violence. When compared with the gentle likes of Wall-E, Star Wars: The Clone Wars seems like Saving Private Ryan. The soundtrack is filled with the agonized cries of cloned but still identifiably human fighters who give their lives to protect the Republic - though my heart goes out to the droid who utters a final "Whhhyyyy?!" after being shoved over a ledge. Perhaps this unfortunate machine has glimpsed the cruel heart at the centre of Lucas's well-plundered universe.