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Dead Tree Alert: Send in the Clones

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A brief review in the print TIME this week on Cartoon Network’s Clone Wars series, which debuts tonight. The gist: If you judge it against the original trilogy, it’s awful, like this summer’s movie was. If you judge it as intended—basically, as a moving action toy—it’s visually impressive, though the characters are inexcusably wooden (even characters like Yoda, once the most personable green guy in the Star Wars universe). Also, if you have kids, and they are anything like mine, they will love the living midichlorians out of it.

It’s always a critically tricky business reviewing a show that’s essentially for kids. Shouldn’t you simply rate it on the basis of how well kids will like it? I don’t think so.

Criticism isn’t mind-reading. When I review a show for adults, I don’t rate it on the basis of how well I predict adults will like it, either. I rate it on how well it meets the standards of this adult—character, writing, originality, emotion, excitement, intangibles, blah, blah, blah, but it all adds up to more than just how well I like it on a gut level.

TV shows should be judged by what they are and what they’re intending to do; it’s not fair to expect The Clone Wars to be Battlestar Galactica, but it is fair to judge it by the standards of other kids’ shows. Put it this way: when I was a kid, I loved Superfriends, and I loved Looney Tunes. That does not mean that Superfriends is anywhere near as good as Looney Tunes cartoons are.

When it comes to The Clone Wars, actually, the it’s-just-for-kids argument holds up even less well than with most shows. George Lucas has been trotting out this defense since The Phantom Menace, but it just doesn’t hold up. I have two Star Wars obsessed children, which means that I have been re-watching all the Star Wars movies a lot lately. And the original trilogy is (1) just as much, if not more, for kids as the prequel trilogy and (2) far, far superior to the prequel trilogy in its writing, performances and vibrancy of characters.

I mean, the original trilogy was not exactly freaking Philip K. Dick: it had Yoda, a Wookiee and Ewoks. It was proof that you could make a movie “for kids” that excelled on levels of storytelling which transcended age. So subsequent Star Wars products can’t claim this excuse. And The Clone Wars doesn’t even keep true, on a character level, to the prequel story it’s set within. It takes place between episodes 2 and 3, when Anakin had not yet turned to the dark side but was well on his way, having proven capable of atrocities like slaughtering the Sand People after his mother died. But the only sign of that in Clone Wars is that Anakin occasionally gets a little pissy with his padawan learner, Ahsoka Tano.

Cartoon Network’s Clone Wars is exciting enough in a cliffhanger-movie-serial kind of way, but there’s no reason it couldn’t and shouldn’t have been better. But yes, the kids will love it anyway. I have the action figures to prove it.