The widespread obsession with and adoration of Star Wars and its sequels and prequels has, for this particular viewer at least, long since moved into the realms of the absurd. In the very first article I wrote for this site (it's still available here), I outlined my relationship with this initially exciting but now overblown franchise, from my anticipation and excitement at the first film (which as far as I am concerned is still called Star Wars, not A New Hope, probably the wankiest title ever for a science fiction film) to my increasing exasperation at the direction the series subsequently took. I've now reached the point where I never need to see a single one of them ever again. The news that George Lucas is now remastering them in 3-fucking-D is for me final proof that this once creative mind has gone completely doolally.
But this attachment to the initial trilogy in particular, films that for many helped define their childhood or teenage years, continues to haunt a whole generation of modern filmmakers, and the films themselves have long since become part of modern pop culture. Just about everyone has heard of them, and a high proportion of those would be able to quickly recognise a visual or aural reference, which also makes them some of the safest films to parody, given the size of the audience with the potential to get the gag.
It's interesting how these things go in cycles. When Mel Brooks parodied Star Wars back in 1987, one of the complaints was that it was delivered too long after the original film's release to be either relevant or effective. And yet twenty years later, when Seth Green's Family Guy did likewise with Blue Harvest, it attracted considerable praise and a sizeable fan base. But by the time that little gem screened it had been beaten to the post by another animated send-up of the series, this time from the creators of Robot Chicken.*
If you've never heard of Robot Chicken, and that's always possible, then to save me repeating myself check out our review of season 4 here. Unlike Blue Harvest, which was a direct parody of the first Star Wars film with the main characters played by the Family Guy cast, Robot Chicken Star Wars is a collection of sketches inspired by the all six Star Wars films, a blend of previously aired skits and material created specifically for the two Star Wars specials collected here.
Inevitably there's some variation in content and quality, though opinion on the latter will be very much down to personal taste. For my money the first episode has the edge on the second, having the smarter ideas and the wittier scripts, though their edge is intermittently blunted by the decision to censor stronger language and gestures – gestures, for fuck's sake – in order to target the programmes and DVDs at a younger audience. And in case you think this is solely down to the US or UK distributors, the commentaries confirm that this was a conscious decision on the part of creators Seth Green and Matthew Senreich, though there's a sneaking suspicion that the person these enthusiastic fan boys really didn't want to offend was actually George Lucas, at whose opulent ranch both shows were premiered.
It's fair to say that every one the sketches here requires a familiarity with the Star Wars films to fully appreciate or in a good many cases understand at all. Even the show's established mastery of the five-second gag relies on this background knowledge to make the jokes work, such as the taboo-stretching quickie in which Leia and Luke share a moment of post-coital discomfort, or the disastrous consequences of dropping a light sabre when there are people in the room below. There are plenty of alternative takes on well known sequences, the best of which strip characters of their gravitas and authority. Scenes featuring the Emperor (voiced by Family Guy's Seth McFarlane) being acknowledged favourites with the writers, resulting in a sketch in which he takes a phone call from Darth Vader and balls him out for allowing the Death Star to be destroyed ("What the hell's an aluminum falcon?"), visits a hairdresser who suggests hiring bounty hunters and gives him a new look ("I like where this is going!"), has his attempts to threaten Luke drowned out by the noise of builders still working on the construction of the second Death Star, and sees a confrontation with this young Jedi degenerate into a "your mama" insult contest.
Other personal favourites include: the Death Star officer (splendidly voiced by Malcolm McDowell) who delivers orientation day training on how to fake strangulation when Vader thinks he's using The Force; Obi-Wan taking advantage of Luke's lack of vision during his light sabre training to kick him in the nuts; an uncomfortable dinner on Cloud City in which Han Solo and Boba Fett find creative ways of giving each other the finger (a gesture not censored in Episode II); two mechanical Walkers competing in a Dukes of Hazzard style race across the icy surface of Hoth; increasingly silly variations on Vader's "pray I don't alter the deal further" warning to Lando Calrissian; Chewbacca having a Fonzie moment in a bathroom mirror; an alternative ending for Return of the Jedi that sees dancing Ewoks crushed by falling fragments from the exploded Death Star; the stormtrooper who picks the wrong day to take his young daughter to work; and a borderline pervy scene in which Boba Fett repeatedly taunts the frozen figure of Han Solo ("Begging for a little piece of Boba – yeah, you like that, don't you"). My personal favourite takes an alternative viewpoint of Luke's cantina confrontation with Ponda Baba, showing how unfortunate timing, a language barrier and an idiotic friend can seriously screw up your career.
There are others I was less keen on – an alien chat show, a song and dance routine with Obi-wan's ghost, and an "Empire on Ice" musical skit (the songs, set to music from the films, play like bad amateur theatre and the visuals aren't that interesting – then again, I'm not exactly the world's biggest stage musical fan) – and others that start well but don't really go anywhere (Dr. Ball is a good example). But this variance of opinion will differ from viewer to viewer, and as ever the sketches come too thick and fast for either boredom or irritation to set in. All in all it's a spanking collection of inventive and often hilarious sketches, splendidly animated and enthusiastically performed by a cast that includes its share of original Star Wars cast members – Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams and Ahmed Best – and in the absence of the real thing, a spot-on impersonation of Harrison Ford by Keith Ferguson.
Robot Chicken Star Wars was shot digitally, from which an NTSC master was presumably produced for US transmission, from which a standards converted to PAL for its UK release. Detail wise it survives the process well and the contrast and colour are both consistently good. Motion blurring is largely invisible unless you hit the pause button during an action sequence. The show is shot 4:3 with a few of the sequences – usually those that recreate actual shots or sequences from the films – letterboxed to 16:9 or 14:9.
Dolby 2.0 stereo only on Episode 1 but a choice between Dolby 2.0 and Dolby 5.1 surround on Episode 2, but this is not a show where it makes a whole lot of difference whether there's location sound at the back or not, and sonically the two tracks are similar, with a slight bit more finesse on the 5.1. Although in no danger of landing any major awards, the sound on both episodes is clear and well mixed, and optional English subtitles are provided on both discs.
Got a few minutes? You'll need 'em for this lot.
Robot Chicken Star Wars – Episode I
Those who have any of the Robot Chicken series DVDs will be used to finding a cast and crew commentary on every episode, but there are seven of them here (they're located in the Setup rather than the Extras menu) and you're going to need to be pretty devoted to sit through them all. There are two Actors Commentaries, both of which Seth Green and Matt Senreich take part in, and while some information on the show is shared, these are boisterous affairs that consist largely of joking about and laughing. There are also a few gaps that kick in rather suddenly, sometimes in mid-discussion, suggesting cuts have been made. The two Writers Commentaries are a lot more informative, providing information on pretty much every sketch here and even a quick breakdown on the process of their creation. There's general agreement that the Ponda Baba skit is the best in the show. Too right. There are also two Crew Commentaries that unsurprisingly focus on the show's production and provide some interesting detail on the construction and shooting of the sketches. Finally there's a commentary in which Seth and Matt are joined by George Lucas's kids Katie and Jett, who provide a little background on being part of the Lucas household, but for the most part this is one of those chats where you probably had to be there to appreciate its appeal.
The Chicken Nuggets feature allows you to use your remote control to put the episode on hold when a chicken icon appears on screen and watch a video of Seth Green and Matthew Senreich talking about the sketch in question. It's the sort of info you'd normally expect to be covered by a commentary, but given the shortness of the sketches and the fact that once these two get into the commentary booth they end up arsing about, this allows them to talk as long as they like, something they frequently take advantage of. You get a lot more on the background to the sketches here than on any of the commentary tracks, but if you're planning to watch all of them I'd set aside a good hour. The two also choose the Ponda Baba sketch as their personal favourite.
Animation Meeting (6:37) sees Seth Green perform the character action to camera for the animators to work from. Lots of footage is speeded through.
On Air Bumps is divided into Aired Bumps (13:59) and Unaired Bumps (8:46) and short pieces that that played in breaks during a Robot Chicken evening on an American channel whose name flew past too quickly for me to catch. They consist of Seth Green, Matt Senreich, Breckin Meyer and Mike Fasolo talking to camera about the show and pissing abouts.
Promos features nine promos for the first Star Wars special, most of them a minute in length or under. George Lucas visiting a psychiatrist is rather funny and was created specifically for the promo.
Behind the Scenes (6:47) kicks off with Seth and Matt repeating the story about how the first Star Wars special came about, then takes a high-speed and music-assisted peek at the production of the programme. Ends with the recording of the chicken-cluck version of the Star Wars theme used over the end credits.
It's hard to comment on the Deleted Scenes as my disc froze up here in a sea of digital blocking, but these appear to be the same as those on other Robot Chicken discs, with sketches voice acted and illustrated by storyboards.
Alternate Audio (9:10 total) provides some alternate takes on five of the sketches, each introduced by the voice artists. Hearing the alternate voices for the Space Slugs does tend to add credence to the claim that it was only when it was done with English accents that it was funny.
Production Design (19:03) is introduced and narrated by Seth Green and production designer Jed Hathaway and provides a fascinating look at the construction of the sets and characters used in the show. This really brings home how much work is required for even the shortest of scenes.
Time Lapse (3:07) is just what it says, time lapse footage of the animators at work, played back at such a speed the characters almost move in real time.
Photo Gallery is a static and less interesting version of the behind-the-scenes footage above.
Loudly introduced by Scott Chernoff, Panel Presentation has Matt, Seth, Breckin and Adult Swim president Keith Crofford take part in two different panel discussions about the show before a live audience.
There are three Bonus Episodes of Adult Swim shows, which are obviously designed as extended ads for the company's other products, but at least you get whole episodes to decide whether you want to see more. There's one Robot Chicken (11:38), something called Harvey Birdman: The Dabba Don (12:03), which sets up Fred Flintstone as Tony Soprano in a spot-on parody of a famous opening sequence but doesn't really go anywhere with it, and Frisky Dingo: Pimp My Revenue (11:29), which I'm sure has its fans.
There are also a couple of Easter Eggs. The first is accessed by going to the Extras menu and with the 'Chicken Nuggets' extra highlighted (it is by default), press the Up button on the remote to highlight the red button Boba Fett is about to press (as in the above screen grab) and select this for a 42 second slideshow of fanboy photos from the Skywalker Range visit. The second is slightly trickier to spot. On the Setup menu with the word 'English' highlighted (the default position), press the Left remote button to activate a small light on Vader's chest and select this for footage of the actors rehearsing the 'Empire in Ice' number (1:36).
Robot Chicken Star Wars – Episode II
Though not en extra feature as such, it's worth noting that you can choose between the 23 minute broadcast version or a 38 minute special extended version created specifically for this DVD release. There's a substantial amount of extra material in the extended version, having a total of 28 additional sketches varying from a few seconds to a couple of minutes. They vary in quality as much as those from the broadcast version, but there are some small gems here, including the above-mention scene in which the Ewok's are crushed by Death Star debris, and a hilarious quickie in which the removal of Vader's helmet during his death scene with Luke is snapped by a fleeing officer on his mobile phone.
Once again the disc is overloaded with commentary tracks. As with disc 1 there are two Actors Commentaries, which are as jocular and laughter-filled as before, with the first in particular all but ignoring the episode for enthusiastic chat about the actors' other work and Christian Bale's notorious Terminator Salvation on-set outburst, to which Billy Dee Williams responds, "If I lose my temper like that, I need to see a doctor." The second commentary is a little more episdode focussed. There are a lot of digressions and joking around on the single Writer's Commentary, though there is also a fair amount on the creation of individual sketches. The Crew Commentary briefly explains the reason for the Extended Edition and focuses almost specifically on the on-screen action. There's also a Star Wars: The Clone Wars Special Guests Commentary in which Matt and Seth are joined by Clone Wars supervising director Dave Filoni and supervising sound editor Matthew Wood to get all fan-boy excited about Star Wars and movies in general. Finally Matt and Seth are joined by Frank Oz and Tom Root, which as expected focuses largely on Oz's work on the Star Wars films. All of the commentaries are for the Extended Version.
As before, Chicken Nuggets allows you to pause the episode when the chicken icon appears to bring up video of the usual suspects for some background detail on the sketch in question, shot from two angles for the short attention span crowd. These are not as detailed as those on the first disc, but still useful.
The Making of RCSW II (6:01) is an EPK that covers similar ground to the first with brief footage of the voice recording and plenty of interview snippets with the crew, all set to music.
Animation Meeting (6:31) once again consists of Seth Green acting out the episode for the animators.
Skywalker Ranch Premiere (4:27) is a jovial video diary of the production crew's trip to Skywalker Ranch for the first screening of the completed show, where they get to fawn hopelessly over George Lucas.
501st Visit (2:38) sees the show creators join an apparently well known group of Star Wars obsessives who dress up as stormtroopers or Darth Vader or some other bugger from the films.
Behind the Scenes: Sneak Peek (2:40) is a compilation of making-of footage and some comment from crew members, including Matt Senreich, who claims doing a second Star Wars show is 'surreal'. Not sure that matches my definition of the term.
Accepted/Rejected (3:52) has individual writers look forward to seeing the finished of sketches they've written, most of which never made it to the screen.
Time Lapse (7:15) once again consists of time lapse footage of the animators at work and clearly shows that the show is shot on digital SLRs rather than video or film cameras.
In Production Design (9:19) production designer Ross Shuman and art department coordinator Trish Gum provide narration for footage of the creation of the sets and characters. Once again this is probably the most informative extra on the disc.
There are three Video Blogs titled Writing Process (3:15), Voice Records (5:43) – which includes some booth recording footage and is thus the most fun – and Puppet Making (2:17).
Deleted Animatics (0:27) is a weak gag, being just Seth and the boys telling you there are no deleted animatics.
Alternate Audio (9:29) contains alternative voice work for seven sketches.
On-Air Bumps (2:10) are a collection of not too witty bumpers for the US TV screening.
Promo Spots (3:18) consists of six short promos for the show.
There are also trailers for Robot Chicken and six other Adult Swim shows.
Also included are two Bonus Episodes of the series proper for those of you new to the show or who haven't bought the box sets yet.
I was unable to locate any Easter Eggs on this disc, and the two that have been found on the US release appear to have been deactivated here.
Two witty and very funny shows on discs that are loaded with so many extras you'd have to be a seriously obsessive fan to be able to watch them all in a row – honestly, this review is a week late largely because of their number and my inability to take much of the crew's hyper-enthusiastic voices talking about the same things in one sitting. But as featured discs go you really can't fault either of them, and as a pair they make a fine appetite whetter for the inevitable upcoming third Star Wars special, though it should be noted that this two-disc set is as yet only available from HMV. You really will need a knowledge of the Star Wars universe to get any almost any of the gags here, but if you do then you should have a ball. Just space out those extras or you'll go nuts.
* MacFarlane acknowledges this at the end of Blue Harvest, when Chris says to his father, "Yeah, but didn't Robot Chicken already do this three months ago?" Chris, of course, is played by Seth Green, the co-creator, executive producer and one of the key writers and actors on Robot Chicken, while the Emperor in the Robot Chicken Star Wars specials is played by Seth MacFarlane.