On this week's Clone Wars, we took a break from teaching rebels how to blow up power stations and headed back to the Jedi enclave. A group of Jedi younglings gathers for an important rite of passage: the discovery of their lightsaber crystals. Each youngling must confront his or her own greatest flaw in order to find their personal crystal-and the animators give us some striking visuals in the process.
Whew. I never thought we were going to get off Onderon. This week's episode was a pretty simple and straightforward one, and while it had its flaws (namely a few too many characters to hit the right emotional resonance), it was a relief to get away from the back-patting battles and into some good old-fashioned Star Wars mysticism. Remember the days when the Force worked in mysterious ways?
We learn in the introductory narration that younglings are hard to come by these days. I guess that's why Anakin was able to decimate the next generation of the Jedi order in such a short amount of time? Anyway, Ahsoka is in teacher mode at the moment, leading six younglings, Katooni, Petro, Zatt, Ganodi, Gungi, and Byph, on the Gathering. They must enter the icy cave at Ilum and find the lightsaber crystal that chooses them.
This week's fortune cookie reads, "He who fights himself finds himself." It's reminiscent of Luke Skywalker's training on Dagobah, when he battled a phantom of Darth Vader only to find his own head rolling out of the helmet. The younglings are in for some hazards (they could fall to their deaths or die in freezing water), but they're in for a far less traumatic experience. It seems if you're raised in the Jedi order, rather than coming to it as a teenager, you get a kindler, gentler training experience.
This is a rather sweet introduction to the "Young Jedi" arc. It's clear that the younglings are meant to be stand-ins for young Star Wars fans. When they arrive on Ilum to find Yoda waiting for them, they're overjoyed to be greeted by a real celebrity Jedi knight. Clone Wars is clearly asking kids to put themselves in the younglings' shoes. What if I got to meet Yoda? What challenges would I face in the crystal cave?
Yoda uses sunlight to melt the frozen entrance to the cave, and he and Ahsoka explain the younglings' quest. They must enter the cave, find their crystal, and exit before the sinking sun causes the entrance to freeze over again. How will they know which crystal is theirs? They'll just know.
Each youngling brings into the cave some small personality flaw, something that will interfere with their ability as a Jedi. Katooni is timid and lacks confidence in her abilities. Petro is selfish and brash. Zatt relies too heavily on technology and not enough on his own instincts. (If there ever was an audience stand-in, it's Zatt; he's glued to the Star Wars version of a smartphone.) Ganodi is easily frustrated. Byph is afraid of what he'll find in the darkness. Gungi is impatient.
Naturally, when each youngling's crystal calls out to him or her, the youngling must overcome their flaws. Katooni must climb to reach her crystal, only to find herself trapped when she tries to take the easy way down. Petro dashes off to find his crystal with no concern for the others; when he thinks he's found it, it turns out he's grabbed a piece of ice by mistake. He can find his crystal only after he's stopped to help one of his compatriots. Zatt must abandon his smart phone and trust in the Force to guide him. Ganodi must break through her frustration and refocus her energies. Byph must hurtle into the darkness without his friends for support. Gungi must sit by the side of an icy lake and meditate until it freezes over, knowing that the entrance to the cave is closing as he waits.
So there are a couple of really nice things about this episode. One is that we have some simple "mysteries of the Force" moments. It's not overdone, but each youngling brings only his or herself into the cave, leaving the Force to deliver the lessons each young Jedi needs. There's no talk of midichlorians, just a dark place that feeds on your fears.
The other was that this episode was quite gorgeous in places. I know a lot of folks are resistant to the 3D animation, and this Clone Wars will never match the elegance of the 2D animated series, but the animators know how to use the tools they have at hand. Sometimes there are rough spots; some of the guest characters are a bit doll-like (Lux in the last arc, for example) and Wookiee fur always looks really funky, but Ahsoka is more beautifully animated in each episode, and when they put their minds to it, the animators can really create an environment. My favorite, embedded up top, is Ganodi's sequence, when she finds herself surrounded by twinkling lights. The use of light of this episode-for crystal, ice, fire, and sunlight-really added to the ambiance and mystique.
It was also a bit easier to take this episode on its own terms. Sometimes, it's easy to forget that Clone Wars is an episode aimed at kids-especially when I'm itching for some Battlestar Galactica-style politcking or bloodshed. Yes, when the door freezes over and Petro manages to burst out anyway, crystal in hand, my first thought was, "Damn, I kind of wanted that kid to get trapped inside." But no, his escape was appropriate for the story Clone Wars was trying to tell: no one can keep a Jedi down except a Jedi. Patience and compassion are important, but so is confidence and a desire to fight your way out. Perhaps the secondary moral should be, "If you find yourself stuck without an exit, make one." And that's not a bad moral to walk away with.