A.I

Star Wars has always had Big Cartoon Energy, even in 1977

The history of animation in the Star Wars universe is … checkered. For every transcendent show like The Clone Wars or the new series The Bad Batch, there’s a wisely forgotten pockmark on the franchise like Star Wars: Ewoks. Sure, you can watch Ewoks and its contemporaneous cousin, Droids, on Disney Plus, but you could also hit yourself in the face with a hammer tonight. Choices, choices.

Despite how awful some Star Wars cartoons are, the modern incarnations are universally fantastic. The Genndy Tartakovsky Clone Wars series, the 2008-2020 CG Clone Wars, and Rebels are arguably as beloved, if not more so, than half the actual live-action Star Wars films. They’re dramatic, well-written, and genuinely exciting where the prequels, to be blunt, weren’t. This is in spite of the fact that the prequels were borderline cartoons themselves. George Lucas eschewed real locations whenever possible, creating alien landscapes and massive space battles through computer-generated imagery.

Against this tableau of artificiality, the flesh-and-blood actors in the prequels looked lost and disconnected from the technological fantasia that surrounded them. The animated Star Wars series, led by Lucas protege Dave Filoni, took the grandeur and design aesthetic of the prequels and gave them life, to the point where the Clone Wars era is one that Disney is more than happy to mine for content. But are these cartoons actually better than their IRL counterparts?

In a new episode of Galaxy Brains, Jonah Ray and I are joined by comedian, writer, actor, and big-brained cinema expert Patton Oswalt to discuss his new Hulu series, MODOK, out on May 21, the discrete pleasures of animation, and once and for all decide if the best Star Wars is live-action or the cartoons. Here’s an excerpt of our conversation (which has been edited for clarity):

Dave: I do think that in Star Wars, in the DNA of this franchise, there is an animator’s sensibility of unbridled imagination. How do you feel about that?

Patton: I mean, yeah, I guess it depends on the project. Are you going to say that The Clone Wars is better than Empire Strikes Back. No, but you also can’t say that Attack of the Clones is better than, you know, the end of The Clone Wars. It just depends on the project. Mandalorian is the best Star Wars story that’s been done in years. Why couldn’t you just tell that story in the movies? You don’t need to keep telling us that “the Skywalker saga finally comes to an end.” It came to an end in Return of the Jedi. That was the saga. That was those three movies. I don’t need to see the other stuff. Just think of all new characters.

Dave: I wonder if Dave Filoni being a part of The Mandalorian and asserting himself in the live-action franchise is part of why these shows are really starting to click, because of that animator’s sensibility and that understanding of the universe.

Patton: We’re definitely understanding that it’s got to be characters first and then they roam around this universe. You care about the Mandalorian character, you care about the people that he meets. OK, there’s a friggin’ Ugnaught voiced by Nick Nolte. And when he died, oh my God, my heart’s breaking. And then also what I love about The Mandalorian was that Star Wars has real aliens. It isn’t just people in masks. That each of those represents a different culture. No one is all good or all bad. They just are in conflict. The Jawas just have different aims. Luke was probably trespassing on their area, you see, and in Mandalorian, if you know how to talk to them [they leave you alone]. But it’s like, yeah, we’re just out here trying to kind of live, you know, same with the other night. Same with the Jawas.

Dave: There’s a basic humanity to all of the characters that is primary. If you’re listening to this and you are on the fence about what you want to do with your life, but you maybe want to be a writer or director or something, look to the humanity of the characters that you’re making first and foremost, and that will inform everything else. I hope that that is what we’re getting across to you as a listener. That these characters matter more than the fantasy and the fantastical situations and space and all that stuff. It’s about characters.

For a bigger deep dive into The Bad Batch and the Star Wars universe, or to hear our episodes on Mortal Kombat, Justice League, and Godzilla vs. Kong, check out the Galaxy Brains feed, wherever you get your podcasts.

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