Dave Filoni and the Magic of Star Wars Animation

If you’re anything like me, the only reason you’re still paying for Disney+ is The Mandalorian. It’s amazing how, after the divisions and rifts caused by the (at best) mixed reception to the Disney-era Star Wars sequel films, a piece of media in the franchise could be so overwhelmingly acclaimed. And the praise is well deserved, as The Mandalorian is pretty much the perfect distillation of what makes Star Wars so enduringly great: Time-tested Western and Kirosawa-inspired Japanese aesthetics and iconography, wrapped up in a fun, exciting sheen of 1970s-era cassette futurism. The program has brought onboard more subscriptions to the streaming service than anything else in their library, and has already been greenlit for another season, as well as (rumor has it) several spin-offs. As the inaugural flagship into Star Wars’s foray into live-action, serialized television, it’s undoubtedly a rousing success. 

But while The Mandalorian is the first live-action Star Wars series, it’s not the franchise’s first dip into the world of television. Not by a long shot. Star Wars actually has a fairly long history with televised content, starting just after the first film hit theaters in 1977. In the following year, the infamously and unanimously maligned Star Wars Holiday Special aired. A surreal, nightmarish fever dream of of bizarre pseudo-Christmas imagery, coupled with nonsensical celebrity cameos (Bea Arthur? Seriously?) and cheap, hokey effects guaranteed that not only would the program be hated by fans and critics alike, but that George Lucas himself would vow never again to show it to the public (you can still find versions of it online, if you’re in the mood to torture yourself). 

However, the one bright spot in an in otherwise abysmal attempt to reach the TV-viewing audience is a brief animated segment, which introduced us to the notoriously-cool-looking bounty hunter Boba Fett, and was also the first official piece of Star Wars animation. The cartoon was short, but a welcome reprieve from the live-action nonsense happening elsewhere throughout the special. Whereas the bulk of the program left a bad taste in viewers’ mouths, and a strong desire to forget what they just watched, the animated segment persisted in the imaginations of many. This led to two major revelations within Lucasfilm, both of which ultimately led us directly to 2019 and the premier of The Mandalorian all these years later:  

  1. Boba Fett, and by extension, anyone that looked like him, is not only incredibly cool, but also equally profitable, and 
  1. Animation is a medium in which Star Wars has amazing potential. 

As a result, the franchise adjusted to these newly-revealed shifts in public attention, which in the next few years would result in both a huge marketing focus on the character of Boba Fett in the publicity and merchandising for Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, as well as a significant investment within Lucasfilm to pursue possible animated series. Unfortunately, the only fruits of this push toward cartoons would be animated Droids and Ewoks programs in the mid-80s, which were, by all accounts, terrible. By this point, Lucas was too distracted by his various production credits on things like Jim Henson’s Labyrinth and The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, a busy slate that would lead well into the 90s with the eventual production of the Star Wars prequel trilogy. It wasn’t until after Revenge of the Sith released in 2005 that work could truly begin on a bona fide, long-form animated program set in the Star Wars universe. 

Lucas wanted to develop a show set in between Episodes II and III, to show the events that happened off screen in those years. A live-action series was considered briefly, but was deemed too expensive (this would not be the first time that a Star Wars TV show was abandoned due to budgetary concerns), thus lending itself to an animated format instead. The unfortunate side affect of this choice in medium is that adults tend to automatically discount and dismiss animated programs as being strictly for children, unless it’s specifically marketed otherwise. And in all fairness, the shows that I’m here to pitch you on are, technically, kid’s shows. But make no mistake: These two programs, The Clone Wars and Rebels are every bit as nuanced, mature, and epically mythic as the original Star Wars trilogy, and are both worthy and necessary additions to the greater canon of the universe. 

The Clone Wars, as its name suggests, fills in the three-year gap between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, by showing the actual events of the titular war, which happens largely offscreen in the theatrically-released films (and was first mention off-hand by Obi-Wan in the original film). Premiering in 2008 with a theatrically-released pilot before airing weekly on Cartoon Network, the series takes the style of old World War II newsreels, which were one of George Lucas’s inspirations for the original trilogy, with opening narration providing context for the week’s episode. We see everything from battles on the front lines to underhanded espionage campaigns to simple day-in-the-life stories of those just on the fringes of the war. It’s the most wide-reaching and expansive look into the workings of the greater Star Wars universe that we’d ever gotten at that point, and served not only as a great jumping-on point for kids new to the franchise, but also as a perfect piece of supplementary media for those already entrenched in the mythology. 

In my opinion, The Clone Wars single-handedly redeems the prequel films. I’ve always defended the trilogy, because I feel that, despite the sometimes poor execution, you can still see the broad strokes off what George Lucas was going for in terms of the overall plot: The fall of the Republic, the weakening and destruction of the Jedi order, Palpatine’s rise to power, and most importantly, Anakin Skywalker’s fall to the dark side. Elements of all these crucial components to what Lucas hoped to accomplish are present in the films, yet both their limited runtime, as well as Lucas’s weaknesses as a writer and director, undermined how well they were ultimately executed on screen.  

As a result, by the time the credits roll on Revenge of the Sith, the audience is largely left without the emotional impact that Lucas intended. We see the Jedi gunned down by their Clone troopers during Order 66, yet we know next to nothing about them. We’re told how loyal the Clones are to their Jedi generals, yet they have virtually no dialogue in the films. And Anakin’s betrayal of Obi-Wan and the Jedi order, leading towards their final confrontation on the fiery lava planet of Mustafar, is robbed of any real weight because of how little we’ve actually seen the two together. The pair are supposed to be like brothers, yet we barely see anything supporting this. That, coupled with the fact that Lucas’s direction makes Hayden Christensen seem more like a potential school-shooter rather than the noble hero he’s described as in the original trilogy, makes the prequel trilogy one that mostly wastes the limitless potential that it could have had for compelling and competent storytelling. But as amazing as it sounds, The Clone Wars fixes all of this. 

Time is The Clone Wars’s greatest asset. While the prequel films only had a combined total of about 7 hours spread across three films, the animated series has nearly 70. This gives it ample time to explore all the characters, plot points, and thematic elements that the films had no time for. All those Jedi that we see die at the end of Revenge of the Sith? By the end of The Clone Wars, you’ll know all of them. When I was a kid watching the Order 66 scene play out in Episode 3, I didn’t really care about any of the deaths happening on screen, as I suspect most people didn’t. Why should we care about characters whose names we don’t even know? Now, after seeing The Clone Wars in its entirety, I think how sad it is that Aayla Secura was killed by Commander Bly, one of her closest friends, or how betrayed Plo Koon must have felt when he was attacked by his loyal WolfPack on Cato Neimoidia. The sheer gravity of that sequence in Sith now feels almost overwhelming once you have all the backstory necessary to make it fell like the tragedy that it was meant to be. 

And I feel for the Clones as well, which is a remarkable achievement considering that they’re quite literally just faceless grunts in the films. The Clone Wars recognizes that these pre-Stormtrooper soldiers are at the heart of the galactic conflict, and as such, deserve to be explored in depth. They’re not just an army of nameless canon-fodder, to be blown up whenever an action sequence is needed: They’re individuals, with unique names, personalities, and stories. In fact, the clones may be the most interesting characters in all of the Star Wars mythology, as they’re existence raising all sorts of interesting philosophical questions about the nature of free will and purpose, all of which The Clone Wars examines at length. Some of the most tragic and heartbreaking stories in all of Star Wars comes directly from the Clones and their chaotic and often brutally short lives. 

Speaking of the clones, The Clone Wars also fills in most, if not all of the plot holes surrounding the war that plague the films. Who ordered the Clone Army? What is Order 66? How was Palpatine able to amass so much influence and power? Why did he choose Anakin as his apprentice? Almost every question you had after watching the prequels is answered at some pint in The Clone Wars. Anakin in particular receives the most necessary and effective expansion, going from a bizarrely cold and unstable figure in the films to a heroic, charming, swashbuckling hero in the series. He’s every bit the man that old Obi-Wan describes to Luke years later, serving as both a loyal apprentice, trusted friend, and beloved surrogate son to Kenobi, which makes their inevitable showdown absolutely gut-wrenching. This is the Anakin Skywalker that we were meant to have from the start, and his character in The Clone Wars is one of the most likeable and endearing in the franchise as a whole, thanks largely in part to voice actor Matt Lanter and his fantastic performance. It also sees the return of Darth Maul, who survived his seemingly fatal duel at the end of The Phantom Menace and seeks control of the galactic underworld in a deliciously over-the-top performance from Sam actor Witwer. So if you’re wondering why Maul appears at the end of Solo, you’ll get your answers here. 

And that isn’t to say the show only expands upon existing characters and stories. The show also introduced us to a new character, one that viewers of The Mandalorian met for the first time this past week: Ahsoka Tano. Ahsoka is introduced early in the series as sort of the annoying kid sidekick to Anakin and Obi-Wan. The Jedi council, in an effort to make Anakin learn responsibility and restraint, assigns him a young padawan learner, with whom he initially clashes with. And at first, Ahsoka is almost unbearable. Like much of the show’s first season, Ahsoka is clearly marketed to children, making her incredibly annoying and oftentimes just a source of comic relief. Over time, however, like with the rest of the show, Ahsoka grows and matures into a complex and deeply fascinating figure rivaled only by Luke Skywalker in terms of the quality of her character journey. Due to the influences of the characters around her, she is a combination of many of the traits that make them so compelling: She’s got Anakin’s impulsive heroism and unorthodox skill in battle, coupled with Obi-Wan’s more composed, thoughtful approach to conflict. In a lot of ways, she’s the perfect Jedi, flawed yet incredibly dedicated. We’ll see more of her later, as viewers of The Mandalorian already know, but for know, just know that she’s a phenomenal figure in Star Wars lore, and also contributes greatly to the believability of Anakin’s eventual transformation into the ruthless and terrifying Darth Vader. 

Perhaps the most crucial contribution made by The Clone Wars, however, is one made not on screen, but behind it. While the show is largely the brainchild of George Lucas himself, the day-to-day showrunning of the program was left to another man: Dave Filoni. Filoni, who at the time of The Clone Wars’s inception was working on Avatar: The Last Airbender (another prime example of the narrative potential in “children’s” programming), was hand-picked by Lucas after one short interview. Filoni has a grasp and understanding of what makes Star Wars work more than anyone else in the franchise’s history, perhaps even more than Lucas himself. His role in the program was to take Lucas’s ideas and refine them into usable narrative and character elements, something that was sorely needed in the prequels. Lucas is undeniably a brilliant conceptual thinker, with the universe which he created within the Star Wars franchise is matched only by Tolkien in terms of its sheer detail and scope. Yet Lucas’s weakness lies in actually translating those ideas into polished, digestible stories, something that the prequel trilogy exposes pretty blatantly. What Dave Filoni is able to do is approach Lucas’s conceptual pitches in a way that actually lends itself to good storytelling, simply because the man seems to get Lucas on a level that no one else seems to be capable of. Just watch this short clip from Disney+’s Mandalorian making-of series: 

This man doesn’t just get George Lucas: He gets Star Wars. He understand its greater themes and influences with such clarity and conviction that it’s honestly astounding. The Clone Wars and Ahsoka Tano are his babies, and his love and respect for them are abundantly clear throughout the show’s entire run, even in its earlier, more childish stages. 

The Clone Wars would run on Cartoon Network for a few years until a number of factors, most notable of which being Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm and its various franchises, forced its cancellation. Planned episodes were largely scrapped, with the few that had finished production being released on Netflix later under the name The Lost Missions. Sadly, because of the cancellation, the show was not able to hit its original goal, overlapping with the events of Revenge of the Sith and showing the end of the war as it happens simultaneously, in real time, with the events of the film. However, fan outcry online would eventually convince Disney to allow for a final season of episodes to be produced, giving the show a proper ending on Disney+. This final set of episodes would premier in 2019 to critical acclaim, giving audiences perhaps the most harrowing, emotionally-stirring story yet in the already-fantastic series. 

After the end of The Clone Wars, and in the interim before its inevitable return, Filoni turned his attention to another relatively unexplored era of Star Wars chronology, at the behest of Disney and Lucasfilm: The (relatively) unexplored years between the prequels and the original trilogy. The show was set to explore the galaxy at the height of the Empire’s tyranny, and how its people were living under occupation. It would also give us glimpses at just how terrifying villains like Darth Vader could be when not limited by the filming restraints of the original films. And most importantly, the program would show the humble origins of the Rebel Alliance, which would eventually defeat the Empire and restore peace to the Galaxy. The show, fittingly, would simply be called Rebels. 

Like with The Clone Wars before it, Rebels has shaky beginnings. Airing on Disney XD, which is very much the House of Mouse’s answer to other channels like Cartoon Network, the show bore all the marks of typical afternoon-cartoon fare: A simplified and exaggerated art style, cheesy dialogue, and characters which, at first, feel like they belong more to an 80s Saturday morning program designed to sell toys like GI Joe. But just like it’s predecessor, Rebels hits the ground running after a few early episodes and blossoms into another incredible addition to the Star Wars saga. 

Rebels is essentially the Star Wars answer to Firefly: A rag-tag group of smugglers and rebels, galivanting around the galaxy, avoiding the law and getting into trouble. Over the course of the series, they find themselves more and more involved with the wider Rebellion, helping them to acquire bases, ships, and supplies. They come into conflict with all sorts of menacing and complex villains, including Imperial agents, Sith Inquisitors, and even fan-favorite villains from the old Expanded Universe like Timothy Zahn’s Grand Admiral Thrawn. The show also explores some of the stranger and more metaphysical aspects of Lucas’s mythology, such as the nature of the Force and the existence of wielders beyond the usual dichotomy of Light and Dark. 

Like with Clone Wars, the real strength of the show lies in its characters. The crew of the Ghost, a Corellian freighter which serves as the show’s version of the Millenium Falcon, are all remarkably compelling. There’s Hera, the Twi’lek pilot and freedom fighter, who co-leads with Kanan Jarrus, a Jedi survivor of Order 66. The crew’s resident Mandalorian is Sabine Wren, a young washout from the Imperial Academy who has a penchant for graffiti art, and who will undoubtedly be making an eventual appearance in live-action at some point. Rounding out the cast is Zeb, a large alien refugee who serves as the team’s muscle and Chopper, a borderline-psychotic astromech droid, both of which are based on Ralph McQuarrie’s original concept art for Chewbacca and R2-D2, respectively. They’re joined in the pilot episode by Ezra, a young Force-sensitive boy who is teetering on the edge between the Light and Dark sides of the Force. He’s essentially Disney’s Aladdin, and serves as the main protagonist of the series. 

Filoni imbues this cast of characters with the same multilayered complexity and intensity as those in The Clone Wars, and the show is all the better for it. Fans and casual viewers alike responded positively to the gritty, ground-level view of the Galactic Civil War that we got in Gareth Edwards’ Rogue One, and Rebels takes several cues from that approach in order to create what is essentially a story of guerrilla warfare. These aren’t noble soldiers and stalwart, uncompromising Jedi Knights. These are insurgents, who sometimes have to do things they aren’t proud of to survive. There’s a surprising amount of darkness here, much more than you’d expect from a show airing on Disney XD. Once again, Dave Filoni proves that a children’s program does not necessarily have to be beholden to sanitized standards and practices. 

And of course, this being another show in Filoni’s library, we also see the continuing journeys of several beloved characters from The Clone Wars. I won’t spoil most of the returns here, but I will say that you’ll get more evidence as to why Ahsoka Tano might be the greatest Jedi in Star Wars canon. And many of these stories directly inform the events of The Mandalorian as well, making Star Wars feel more like one single, cohesively connected universe than it ever has before. 

This has all been a very long-winded and superfluously verbose way of getting to a single point: Dave Filoni, the executive producer of The Mandalorian alongside Iron Man’s Jon Favreau, has been providing excellent Star Wars content long before the show many of you are watching now. I implore you, if you’re even remotely a fan of the franchise, or even if you’ve simply enjoyed what you’ve seen so far in this particular show, please go check out The Clone Wars and Rebels. I promise you they’re worth your time, and are every bit as good as The Mandalorian is, if not more so. Frankly, you may not have a choice soon anyway, with how lore-heavy The Mandalorian is becoming. Characters like Ahsoka Tano and Bo Katan, alongside McGuffins like the Darksaber, are all originally from the animated series’ that Finoli produced. While prior knowledge isn’t completely necessary to view The Mandalorian and to understand who these characters are what what they want, it makes for a much richer experience when you do have that experience with the material. And that’s not even factoring the rumored Ahsoka spin-off and Rebels sequel, which will undoubtedly be near-inaccessible if you don’t already know what’s going on.  

If you love Star Wars like I do, you’re doing yourself a massive disservice by not watching these shows, animated or not. Even if you don’t love Star Wars, and are just a fan of great TV, you should also give them a shot. Fans of The Last Airbender in particular should find plenty to love. And if you find that you don’t enjoy them, that’s okay too. I recognize that they’re certainly not for everyone, and they absolutely aren’t without their flaws. But I guarantee that if you have even a remote interest in exploring The Mandalorian beyond just what you see in the show, you can’t go wrong with any of Filoni’s earlier work.

He is the Chosen One.

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