Dave Filoni’s work on Star Wars commenced in 2008 with the Clone Wars TV series. That show started off a bit shaky but eventually won fans over and helped keep excitement for Star Wars alive throughout the late 2000s and early 2010s, eras when Star Wars was at the nadir of its cultural importance due to the strong negative reaction to the prequel trilogy.
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Where the prequels were a muddled mess of cool ideas thrown together in a mishmash of unintelligible plot twists and garish CG fights, The Clone Wars was a slower-paced, more measured reminder of a different era of Star Wars. The show understood the nuanced characters and quieter genius of the original trilogy, and much of that was due to director Dave Filoni. There’s a reason that franchise creator George Lucas picked Filoni to lead the show’s development. The guy just gets Star Wars.
This has been evident for years now, but it bears repeating with the release of the fantastic animated shorts called Tales of the Jedi. These six episodes range from fifteen to twenty minutes in runtime and divide their attention between two major figures of the Clone War era: Ahsoka Tano and Count Dooku. These stories aren’t revelatory, by any means, but they help to recontextualize characters that many fans felt they already understood perfectly well.
If you’re a diehard Star Wars fan who kind of tuned out of the franchise between the prequel films’ release and the release of the sequel trilogy, you’d be forgiven for not understanding why everyone is so excited about Ahsoka Tano. She never appears in any of the nine films, she’s never referenced by name, and her only presence in the saga is a vocal cameo at the very end of The Rise of Skywalker that you would miss unless you were specifically listening for it.
Yet, Ahsoka Tano is one of the most popular characters in the franchise. She’s arguably the protagonist of The Clone Wars series, and she plays a major role in the plotline of Star Wars: Rebels. She’s made cameo appearances in multiple video games and the smash-hit show The Mandalorian. Soon, she’ll even star in her own Disney+ series, which is likely to continue the story of Rebels following that show’s cliffhanger ending.
Tales of the Jedi serves as something of an appetizer to the upcoming Ahsoka series’ main course. Here, we get a rare glimpse into the process of a youngling being inducted into the Jedi Order. A young Ahsoka is found by Master Plo Koon, the odd-looking alien Jedi we see shot down in the climactic betrayal of Order 66 in Revenge of the Sith. The show chronicles her training under Anakin Skywalker and helps explain how she was able to survive the clones’ betrayal when so many other Jedi were blindsided by their soldiers’ sudden mutiny.
The other half of the series’ runtime is dedicated to digging deeper into the character of Count Dooku, a former Jedi who led the Separatist movement during the Clone Wars as the villainous Darth Tyranus. There was always something strangely sympathetic about Christopher Lee’s turn as the Count in the prequel films, but those movies scarcely left enough room for their protagonists to emote properly, let alone give any pathos to side characters and short-lived villains.
Tales of the Jedi remedies this issue by allowing audiences to spend a bit of time with Dooku long before his fall to the Dark Side. Here, we see the conflicted Jedi questioning the order that has trained him. Why are the Jedi complicit in so many unforgivable elements of galactic society? If the Order is dedicated to peace, why do its adherents carry dangerous laser weapons prominently on their belts? Dooku’s hesitance to accept the Jedi’s teachings at face value is presented here as reasonable doubt, not outright heresy.
Many fans pointed out that the prequel trilogy arguably accidentally makes the case that the Jedi Order is less than the paragon of virtue that Luke Skywalker assumes it to be in the original films. This was likely not by design–the text of the prequels holds that the Jedi are above reproach and would do anything to protect the galaxy. The subtext of the Jedi being easily manipulated political tools of the Republic is a side effect of terrible writing and unclear character motivations, but it’s a perception that has resonated through recent Star Wars properties.
Ahsoka’s returning voice actor, Ashley Eckstein, is in rare form throughout Tales of the Jedi. Her heartfelt performance as Ahsoka helped make her a fan-favorite character from the outset. She does an astonishing job of selling the character as an optimistic young girl who wants nothing more than to impress the Jedi Order. Likewise, she completely nails the character’s more stoic personality after she becomes disillusioned with the Order, and, in Tales of the Jedi, we hear Ahsoka’s transformation happen in the span of a few short episodes.
Likewise, Dooku’s returning voice actor, Corey Burton, does a great job with the character. It’s obvious that he’s no Christopher Lee, but Burton has ably acted as Dooku ever since the later seasons of The Clone Wars. That Lee ever lent his legendary voice to the character in the earlier seasons is itself a minor miracle, so it’s hard to begrudge Burton as he does his best impression.
Other standout vocal performances help fill out the side characters in these gorgeous short animations. Liam Neeson, incredibly, returns to voice Qui-Gon Jinn, and it’s great to hear him back in the role. Unsurprisingly, Dee Bradley Baker does a stellar job as the clone troopers. He’s always been unusually great about imbuing individuality and character into dozens of seemingly-faceless clones, and, despite his brief appearances here, his unmistakable clone cadences lend Ahsoka’s sections a distinctive nostalgic feeling.
It’s also not a surprise to see that the show looks incredible. The animation team that worked on The Clone Wars got steadily more and more comfortable with the show’s distinctive style throughout its seven seasons, with the final season including some standout visuals that helped solidify it as essential viewing for Star Wars fans. The team only grew more talented throughout the first season of The Bad Batch, a sequel series that follows a team of genetically-modified clones as they evade the Empire.
Tales of the Jedi sees the Lucasfilm animation team step up their game to still greater heights. Some standout episodes, like “Life and Death” and “Resolve,” are so visually gripping that it’s almost a distraction from their plotlines. It can be hard to look away from the stunning landscapes and impeccable textures for long enough to register what the characters are even saying, and that’s high praise for an animation style that critics once derided as being the worst part about The Clone Wars.
Special attention also was clearly given to the handful of action-heavy moments. Tales of the Jedi is a mostly quiet, meditative experience, but it breaks into frenetic action in a few places. Those action sequences are all the more gripping, given how infrequent they are, allowing the animators to really sell the weight and fluidity of the fights. It’s likely that the team once again contacted trained fight choreographers and used motion capture suits to help the characters’ movements feel natural and weighty.
Filoni’s role in the wider Star Wars universe is similar to that of Kevin Feige in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Filoni has helped bring the disparate parts of the Star Wars canon together in a holistic and unmistakable way. The franchise splintered in so many strange directions throughout the 90s and early 2000s that it was hard to even say what Star Wars was about anymore by the time The Clone Wars premiered.
However, under the direction of talented creative teams and with seemingly-limitless financial backing, the franchise has roared back to life in an incredible way. The excellent sequel trilogy, coupled with the surprisingly rapid pace of new TV shows on Disney+, has turned Star Wars back into the kind of franchise that obsessive fans can lose themselves in. It’s poetic that Tales of the Jedi does something similar for the Clone Wars era as a whole. Filoni’s biggest strength has always been in rehabilitating the worst excesses of the prequel trilogy and recontextualizing those films’ strangest decisions.
In Tales of the Jedi, Filoni’s team has proven that Star Wars doesn’t need to be bombastic to be moving. The Jedi are quiet, introspective monks who occasionally find themselves at the center of galactic conflicts. But Tales of the Jedi deigns to ask why the Jedi themselves are even so special. If their Order can make the mistakes that led to the Clone Wars in the first place, do the Jedi even deserve their special place in the spotlight? These questions will likely come into even clearer focus when Ahsoka hits Disney+ sometime next year.