Kulipari: An Army of Frogs REVIEW: Lord of the Rings But With Frogs

kulipari

 

Haven’t you heard? Last week Netflix dropped a brand new animated series, Kulipari: An Army of Frogs and it’s actually pretty good!

Although normally I’m willing to give any animated show a chance, this particular series struck me as something special even from the very first teaser that came out months ago. A group of warrior frogs tasked with saving the world? Now that’s something I got to see.

Having slowly making my way through the 13 available episodes the past week, I can confirm that this show is a must see for fans of fantasy as well as family friendly animation. Although nominally based in the Australian Outback, it really is more of an otherworldly adventure where clans of different species struggle for survival, dabble in strange magic, and gear up for epic battles.

The best way I can describe this series is Lord of the Rings with Frogs. In fact many scenes have direct parallels to The Hobbit and LOTR. Whether it’s a group of outnumbered frogs defending their homeland from hordes of enemies from behind a hastily constructed wall in a Helms Deep-like situation or two young frogs traversing enemy territory disguised in armor like Sam and Frodo in Mordor, the similarities are numerous. Despite the use of familiar fantasy tropes, the show does feel rather fresh in a few key areas.

Whereas some animated shows feel rather aimless and lethargic in terms of plot, Kulipari keeps the stakes high and aside from some great character-centric early episodes the conflict between the Scorpions and Frogs looms large over the span of episodes. It helps a lot that the lead protagonist, a homely wood frog named Darel, exemplifies the traits of the likeable underdog. He desires to be a Kulipari, a legendary breed of warrior frogs, despite the fact that he was born to be ordinary.

kulipari-3At the core of the first season revolves this mystery of the Kulipari. These titular soft-skinned warriors who glow with brilliant colors and draw their strength from a powerful poison once saved the Amphibilands from annihilation. They have long since vanished. Do they still exist? Will they come back to fight once more? Can any frog become a Kulipari if they try hard enough? The show keeps you guessing as the truth is gradually revealed.

Perhaps the most brilliant decision the series makes is to create an interesting set of villains for the poor frogs to face. Lord Marmoo, general of the Scorpion Army, provides the primary antagonist. Voiced by the always reliable Keith David, the arachnid leader’s simple desire for conquest is compounded only by his complex alliance with the odious Spider Queen who has plans of her own. This shaky relationship is compounded further by their reliance on a group of fearsome but not-always-reliable reptile mercenaries. Each villain faction contains their own standout characters which make them fascinating to watch avoiding the normal villainous slog that animated series often struggle with.

Speaking of animation, clearly this is more of an independent production than a well-oiled machine. The fluid animation is often interrupted by wooden movement and poorly detailed close ups. It’s not terribly distracting and hopefully the animation will continue to improve in future seasons much as Clone Wars did. I’m sure if it gets enough viewers Netflix might pour more money into improving the quality.

The frog designs themselves are excellent, featuring vaguely humanoid bodies with versatile eyes that react to different situations with expressive features. In fact, all the creatures of this world seem to possess these special eye-shifting ability which adds great depth to the emotions of each scene. And while the juvenile humor may or may not work for you at times, you will find yourself surprised by the sheer amount of characters which inhabit this world and which ones earn your affection.

Originally planned as a set of animated films, the first season of Kulipari: An Army of Frogs fits neatly into the Netflix-style episodic format. Clearly a labor of love from creator Trevor Pryce, the story behind the story is certainly interesting enough. After two Super Bowl wins with the Denver Broncos, the former defensive end created a trilogy of books based on heroic frogs under attack by deadly scorpion soldiers. Pryce went on to self-fund this series claiming in Variety to have spent more money per episode than comparable offerings from Marvel animation. Each episode appears to be written and directed by the same team, a notable rarity in television.

Much like Star Wars: The Clone Wars, this ostensibly “for children” program is full of some rather dark themes and bloodless death and violence. I lost count how many times I heard the words “Bring me the head of the Turtle King!” And yes, some characters on both sides don’t make it out alive. This is not the type of show you put on for your young impressionable child while you go to the other room, but for younger kids it might work as something you watch and discuss together.

While the worldbuilding is plentiful, it also feels like merely a foretaste of things to come in later seasons. Although we don’t see much of civilization beyond the wretched wastelands belonging to the Arachnid Empire, the time we do spend in the Amphibilands (home of the frogs) and Turtle Cove (home of the Turtle King) is enough to whet our appetite for more. Plus who isn’t curious about anthropomorphic amphibian cuisine? I certainly am.

If you watched Disney’s Zootopia this year and wondered where all the reptiles, amphibians, and arachnids were hanging out, Kulipari: An Army of Frogs  answers that question for you: they’re right here battling for the fate of the world. Heroes, villains, allies, sorcerer, and warriors, this show has them all.

Check it out only on Netflix.

The Secret to Pixar’s Success: Honest Feedback

jacket illustration: © Disney • Pixar

© Disney • Pixar

I live just a few minutes away from the Pixar headquarters. Although I’m still awaiting my official invitation to tour their offices, I imagine it a vast playground of artists and storytellers dreaming up fantastical tales filled with unforgettable characters. Supposedly they serve free cereal around the clock.

The reality is that Pixar is a workplace much like any other. Their themed offices and unique perks are probably not the reason behind their hot streak of successes. Instead Pixar’s true strength is how they have mastered the unseen creative process that drives all their award-winning films.

In Creativity Inc., a new book by co-founder Ed Catmull, we get a glimpse into how Pixar does what it does so well. They are popularly known for their Brain Trust, a rotating group of their top directors and writers who periodically review each other’s films from formation to the final product. And their recipe appears to be both simple and incredibly difficult at the same time:

What makes Pixar special is that we acknowledge we will always have problems, many of them hidden from our view; that we work hard to uncover these problems, even if doing so means making ourselves uncomfortable; and that, when we come across a problem, we marshal all of our energies to solve it. – Loc. 56

Unlike most organizations, Pixar spends much of its effort recognizing its weaknesses and working to fix them. They devote themselves to uncovering problems, solving them, and then looking for new ones.

We start from the presumption that our people are talented and want to contribute. We accept that, without meaning to, our company is stifling that talent in myriad unseen ways. Finally, we try to identify those impediments and fix them. – Loc. 13

It’s hard work to constantly evaluate yourself and your work to find room for improvement, but it’s become part of the Pixar ethos. Instead of viewing feedback as something to be feared, they have turned it into a significant part of the creative process that needs to be embraced. If you are working on something that requires creativity, complexity, and long term thinking, Catmull argues that you are bound to get lost.

People who take on complicated creative projects become lost at some point in the process. It is the nature of things—in order to create, you must internalize and almost become the project for a while, and that near-fusing with the project is an essential part of its emergence. But it is also confusing. Where once a movie’s writer/ director had perspective, he or she loses it. Where once he or she could see a forest, now there are only trees. The details converge to obscure the whole, and that makes it difficult to move forward substantially in any one direction. The experience can be overwhelming. All directors, no matter how talented, organized, or clear of vision, become lost somewhere along the way. That creates a problem for those who seek to give helpful feedback. How do you get a director to address a problem he or she cannot see? – Loc. 1439

What seems to separate Pixar from the rest of the pack, and indeed other film studios outside of animation is that they embrace a deep commitment to personal feedback. It is not simply a one time deal. Their ideas are tested, refined, discarded, and exchanged. All of their movies begin as rough drafts full of bumps and flaws and only through empowering employees to speak up and make suggestions do they get better.

Essentially Pixar pursues a policy of honesty and mutual trust for one another, and in turn that allows their people to be open about whether a project is working or not working. The fear of offending someone who has worked hard on something is replaced by the fear of not making the best possible movie they can.

This principle eludes most people, but it is critical: You are not your idea, and if you identify too closely with your ideas, you will take offense when they are challenged. To set up a healthy feedback system, you must remove power dynamics from the equation—you must enable yourself, in other words, to focus on the problem, not the person. – Loc. 1485

It easy to forget that Pixar is not the only studio that gives notes. But whereas most studios give notes from on high, often mandatory, not even Disney executives are allowed to intervene in the Pixar process. The people who give feedback at Pixar are other creative personnel, directors, and writers with a mutual understanding of how great stories are made. They are equals, not competitors or more powerful members of a complex hierarchy. They are other storytellers.

Getting the right people in the room and encouraging them to speak up is an essential part of the feedback process. And this advice applies to many of the creative tasks we do every day. As Edmull expresses throughout the book, maintaining an environment of true candor and openess requires constantly fighting the forces of entropy and championing the need for constructive criticism. By being honest about each and every one of their films during the development process and being willing to go back and rework the elements that aren’t working, Pixar has created something altogether unique in the film industry: a studio with an unparalleled level of both creative and financial success. This ability to separate yourself from your work and repeatedly invite the feedback of smart talented people is often challenging for Pixar but for this particular company, it is the only way forward.

Top 15 Arcs of Star Wars: The Clone Wars

CLONESIn celebration of Star Wars: The Clone Wars coming to Netflix and its long awaited sixth season, it’s time to revisit the best arcs from this amazingly ambitious show.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars debuted in 2008 with an uneven and little seen movie. Set firmly between Episode 2 and 3, the ensuing series promised to show us Anakin and Obi-Wan’s adventures in the Clone Wars leading up to Anakin’s turn to the dark side.

Perhaps the greatest creative risk The Clone Wars took was the introduction of Anakin’s padawan. Over the course of five seasons, Asohka Tano’s gradual maturation from impatient sidekick to wisened warrior became the shows crowning achievement and most important legacy.

Peculiarly, episodes of The Clone Wars were loosely organized into largely standalone arcs. Often arranged in groups of two to four, episodes generally continue the story of either certain characters or battles interrupted by an occasional one-off episode not belonging to any wider arc. These plot lines are sometimes presented out of chronological order, creating an interesting puzzle for the viewer to sift through (I still can’t place the Senate episodes with Onocanda’s murder).

Out of these somewhat self-contained story arcs emerge some of the better Star Wars tales in the entire franchise. A potent mixture of inventive characters, detailed worlds, and an ever deepening mythology all work together to flesh out a vivid picture of the last years of the Jedi Order. For those disappointed by the prequel trilogy, this show breathes new life into the series and offers a surprisingly authentic Star Wars experience.

Here are my picks for the top 15 story arcs of The Clone Wars. Spoilers for the first five seasons abound!
 
Malevolence Trilogy

15) The Malevolence Trilogy

1.02 – Rising Malevolence
1.03 – Shadow of Malevolence
1.04 – Destroy Malevolence

Ah, the arc that proved that The Clone Wars had a right to exist. I would rank this arc higher but it feels like the best place to start in discussing this show’s unique approach to storytelling. Although Obi-Wan, Anakin, and Ahsoka (and perhaps Captain Rex) are the apparent main characters of this series, the show doesn’t mind ignoring them for large stretches or pushing them to the background of individual episodes. As war rages across the galaxy, The Clone Wars makes an effort to zoom in and highlight different little pockets of action and continually introduce new and unexpected characters.

The Malevolence Trilogy reveals the Separatist’s incredibly massive and destructive new battleship. Although not quite on par with the Death Star, the Malevolence is so huge it takes a whole episode just to finish blowing it up. Beginning with Plo Koon and his stranded clone soldiers, the storyline moves on to display Anakin’s tactical ingenuity and his un-Jedi-like attachment to Padmé.

If you were unsure of this show before, the Malevolence trilogy proved that this show could handle a multi-part storyline, balancing multiple main characters and villains, all while giving a strong emotional punchline to each episode. This arc holds up among the one of the best even after five full seasons of fine storytelling.

Obi-Wan Undercover

14) Obi-Wan Undercover

4.15 – Deception
4.16 – Friends and Enemies
4.17 – The Box
4.18 – Crisis on Naboo

Obi-Wan fakes his own death and disguises himself as the notorious bounty hunter Rako Hardeen. Initially I wasn’t excited about this premise and only upon repeat viewings was I able to appreciate the creativity the Clone Wars team put into this arc. The first episode shows us Anakin and Ahsoka’s reaction to their beloved master’s death. Anakin’s grief immediately dissolves into anger and his inability to control himself almost compromises Obi-Wan’s cover. It’s an apt reminder of his imminent descent toward the Dark Side. In one of my favorite moments, Ahsoka guards Anakin’s unconscious body with twin lightsabers drawn. The bounty hunters wisely back down. Here Ahsoka proves she is clearly powerful in her own right.

Another gem in this arc is the return of everybody’s favorite wide-brimmed bounty hunter, Cad Bane. He puts ROTJ Boba Fett to shame. The stand out episode of this arc has to be The Box, a devious test designed for the sole purpose of outing Jedi spies. Count Dooku’s brilliant introduction of each bounty hunter is superb. Unfortunately Moralo Eval, architect and mastermind of the whole assassination plot, is more grating than scary.

The final episode has a great twist that sheds an important light on Darth Sidious’ wooing of Anakin to the Dark Side. By subtly arranging for Anakin to face off against Count Dooku, Sidious is both testing his current apprentice Dooku and holding tryouts in case a new one should prove worthy. While Anakin fails to finish off the current Sith Lord, how fascinating to see his future master at work pulling the strings.

13) Domino Squad

3.01 – Clone Cadets
1.05 – Rookies
3.02 – ARC Troopers

For a show about warring clones, there are relatively few clone-centric episodes. The Domino Squad trilogy gives us a break from the heavily Jedi dominated episodes and shows us the life of the everyday clone soldier. In any other cartoon these clones would be undifferentiated masses but in this arc we really see the the distinct personalities of Fives, Hevy, Echo, Droidbait, and Cutup. In retrospect, it makes their deaths in Rookies all the more tragic knowing their history together.

Rookies is often mentioned as the definitive clone episode, but personally I fancy ARC Troopers in which the clones battle for the closest thing they have to a home. Although the Jedi and Sith steal some of the clones’ thunder, it’s satisfying to see Echo and Fives promoted to the prestigious rank of ARC trooper. The fact that this later leads to them join the rescue attempt of master Even Piell from the Citadel is a nice touch.

However the breakout character of this arc is the crippled clone with a heart of gold, 99. Acting as an unofficial mentor to the squad, his death is one of the saddest on the entire show. There’s probably no other clone who so perfectly epitomizes the selfless valor of the clone army.

12) The Younglings

5.6 – The Gathering
5.7 – A Test of Strength
5.8 – Bound for Rescue
5.9 – A Necessary Bond

In contrast to some of the darker arcs of season 5, the Younglings arc took a playful turn. Exploring the adventures of a group of Jedi initiates hoping to become padawans, one of the  highlights of this arc is its explanation of how Jedi are able to create their lightsabers. However what really makes this arc work is the characters.

Each youngling has their own strengths and weaknesses and thankfully none of them are annoying. Gungi the kid Wookie, in particular, is just delightful. Throughout these episodes Ahsoka takes on a mentoring role, expanding her character even further and demonstrating just how much she has matured over these short few years. David Tennant’s excellent turn as the sagely droid Huyang is another standout role. As always, the endearing Hondo proves to be a worthy adversary as well as a useful ally. A surprise cameo from Slave I is also well received.

It may not be the most probing story in the show’s history, but Younglings is a nice side adventure that takes us to some unexpected places and features the same quality of characters that makes the rest of the Star Wars universe so entertaining. While there’s plenty of fun to be had, it’s also a sobering reality that these younglings face uncertain days ahead as the Sith draw closer to victory.

11) Young Boba Fett

2.20 “Death Trap”
2.21 “R2 Come Home”
2.22 “Lethal Trackdown”

Boba Fett is a character who has never really got his due. Unceremonious killed off in the Original Trilogy and reduced to whiny brat in the Prequels, he finally gets a chance to shine in this fun little arc. Hunting down Mace Windu, Boba really shines as an aspiring bounty hunter with a lot to learn placed under the harsh tutelage of Aurra Sing.

However lest we forget, Boba and his bounty hunter allies are really just the background threat. The true focus of this arc are the Republic personnel hunting them down after the initial bombing. In the second episode, R2D2 craftily outmaneuvers the bounty hunters coming to the aide of the wounded Anakin and Mace Windu. The third episode delves deeper into the relationship between Ahsoka and her paternal guide, Plo Koon.

Without revealing too much about how Boba Fett became the feared bounty hunter, this arc manages to both develop him as an unexpected foe as well as build in some nice character moments among the main cast. It sure doesn’t hurt that animation is starting to hit its stride as evidenced by the massive explosions and ship wreckage.

10) The Nightsisters Trilogy

3.12 – Nightsisters
3.13 – Monster
3.14 – Witches of the Mist

The Nightsisters trilogy is the storyline that divides the entire show into two halves: before and after. Before Nightsisters, the show played it relatively safe with self-contained arcs and standard good vs. evil story plots. Afterwards, everything changes. The events on Dathomir really mess with the status quo, setting things into motion that will pay off much later in the series.

Perhaps nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the transformation of Ventress from a one-note villain to a nuanced anti-hero with an unlucky backstory. Count Dooku’s betrayal of his apprentice triggers a wave of tremors that will affect millions across the galaxy, beginning with two unsuspecting brothers: Savage and Feral Oppress.

This trilogy isn’t afraid to introduce unfamiliar elements to Star Wars, including the strange witchcraft of Mother Talzin. It’s all very weird but it leads to greater things like the Nightsisters’ covert assault on Dooku and a fascinating look at how the Sith train their apprentices. This was the arc that really proved that the Clone Wars was willing to take big risks, and as evidenced by the latter two seasons, I think we can agree it was the right decision.

9) Holocron Heist

2.01 – Holocron Heist
2.02 – Cargo of Doom
2.03 – Children of the Force

We all expect the powerful Sith to thwart Jedi, but what we don’t expect is for mere mortals to pose a threat. The Holocron arc demonstrated who exactly might beat a Jedi: bounty hunter Cad Bane. We see over these episodes his ruthless infiltration of the temple, his vicious manipulation of Anakin, and his subsequent kidnapping of force sensitive children. It’s a brutal reminder that the Jedi aren’t the only skilled warriors in the galaxy.

Of course, behind it all is the puppet master Darth Sidious, again advancing his plot to exterminate the Jedi, this time by targeting their future younglings. It’s a chilling reminder that this “kid show” is absolutely willing to grapple with mature themes when needed. Knowing the future of the Jedi Order, by the end you almost wish that nobody ends up with the Holocron.

This arc keeps up a brisk pace and features a diverse slice of planets as well as battle environments ranging from zero gravity to a collapsing station on Mustafar. It’s pure fun watching the Jedi traverse the galaxy in pursuit of an enemy equal to them in every way. You can definitely feel the Clone Wars team going all out to create a genuine Star Wars experience here.

8) Slaves of Kadavo

4.11 – Kidnapped
4.12 – Slaves of the Republic
4.13 – Escape from Kadavo-

Adapted from the comic book, the Kadavo slave arc is a brutal look at the evil Anakin suffered in childhood. The Zygerrians are a fresh new enemy and provide an interesting counterpoint to all those episodes that argue that the Separatists aren’t so bad after all. The first episode is a tense race against the clock despite the fact that town is empty. It’s worth it to see the solid droid battles and Obi-Wan stalling for time.

Of course the real meat of the arc happens when the team arrive on Kadavo. The unsettling Zygerrian Queen, ridiculous cover identities, a failed escape attempt, and the brutal execution of Togrutan slaves give us plenty to chew on in this arc. Keeping noble Jedi prisoner by coercing them into protecting the innocent is something bad guys should do more often.

It’s not often that this show traps its four main characters in hostile enemy territory with no way out. The results speak for themselves. Did I mention the Zygerrians have electric whips?

7) Battle for Ryloth

3.03 – Supply Lines
1.19 – Storm Over Ryloth
1.20 – Innocents of Ryloth
1.21 – Liberty on Ryloth

The Ryloth arc answers the question of what occupation is like for the various planets caught up in the Clone Wars. This arc begins with a prequel episode Supply Lines that shows the Republic losing its grip on the planet while the remaining three episodes deal with their attempt to take it back.

Each episode in this arc has a different main character: Jar Jar Binks, Ahsoka, Obi-Wan, and Mace Windu. It’s highly creative way to showcase the different aspects of battle including from political negotiations off-planet, a blockade in orbit, an underground militia, and heavily fortified occupied cities.

Of course along the way many clones, droids, Jedi and even innocents meet their fate. Ahsoka loses her entire squadron in a fatal miscalculation. Master Ima-Gun-Di makes his last stand to save the Twi’lek rebels. An entire Twi’lek village is carpet bombed in front of our eyes. The cost of war is stunningly real.

6) Stranded on Maridun

1.13 – Jedi Crash
1.14 – Defenders of the Peace

Who said arcs have to be three or four episodes long? The Maridun episodes are one of my favorite arcs in the whole series and for good reason. The first episode opens with an immense space battle that results in Anakin being totally incapacitated. It is followed immediately by a gritty crash landing. As Aayla Secura and Ahsoka search for help, the Twi’lek master teaches the worried padawan about letting go of attachments.

Featuring some excellent adventure music, the grassy plains and giant trees of Maridun create a wonderful world shielded from the violence of the Clone Wars. Things heat up in the second episode with the arrival of the villainous General Lok Durd (played by the estimable George Takei) who plans to sacrifice the entire Lurmen village as his test subjects.

If not very likeable, the Lurmen are at least different enough from the other species to stand out a bit. Curling up into balls to roll and lassoing their enemies, the Lurmen are quite unique. It may be a simple set up, but this arc epitomizes the best of what Star Wars has to offer: action, stakes, and inspiring lessons about the Force.

5) Bounty Hunter Ventress

4.19 – Massacre
4.20 – Bounty

These two loosely connected episodes are bound together by the ever evolving character of Ventress. Seeing what happens to her after the events of the Nightsister trilogy is a real treat and not something that most shows would even offer us. Leaving the Jedi far behind, the first episode pits evil against evil. A savage assault by General Grievious turns into a frenetic battle between droids and zombies. It’s a bloody end for the Nightsister clan.

The second episode brings us to the aftermath as Ventress attempts to rebuild her life after losing her biological family. Her particular set of skills leads her to partner with a ragtag group of bounty hunters including Boba Fett clad in some unfamiliar armor. This results in an insane mission involving protecting a subterranean train under attack from ninjas.

It’s wild fun and totally tangential to the rest of the show but placing Ventress at the center of a few episodes really makes for an interesting ride. The Ventress story is the gift that keeps on giving as her character continues to pull her weight in future episodes. Dooku should have cut her out sooner.

4) Trandoshan Hunters

3.21 – Padawan Lost
3.22 – Wookiee Hunt

This short two-part arc is where I first was taken aback by sheer beauty of the Clone Wars’ animation team. The jungle planet where the padawans are held hostage is absolutely amazing in detail and lighting. Separating Ahsoka from her master and putting her in the crosshairs of the animalistic Trandoshans makes for great drama. When Kalifa dies in Ahsoka’s arms, the despair and hopelessness of the situation is suffocating.

The second episode surprises with the always illustrious Chewbacca to aide Ahsoka in her escape. As she unites the leaderless padawans, it really shows how Anakin’s padawan is leaps and bounds above the average Jedi apprentice and what a huge loss the Jedi Order suffers at her ultimate departure. Thoroughly vile, the Trandoshans are quite sinister as villains. When the Wookies descend on them, they receive no mercy. It’s a powerful arc and one that I will rewatch many times before the end.

3) Second Battle of Geonosis

2.05 – Landing at Point Rain
2.06 – Weapons Factory
2.07 – Legacy of Terror
2.08 – Brain Invaders

Harkening back to Episode II and the dusty planet where the Clone Wars all began, the Geonosis arc is terrific stuff. For the first time the Republic is fighting not only droids but a sentient alien species. The winged enemies are especially vicious with their energy weapons and the way they carry off poor clone soldiers to their death. The opening episode Landing at Point Rain is surely the best battle episode in the entire 100+ episode run. The showrunners wanted to recreate a Star Wars version of D-Day and they succeeded in an incrediblely relentless powerhouse of an episode.

The latter episodes, while not as ambitious, don’t fail to disappoint introducing Barriss Offee as the diligent and dutiful counterpoint to Ahsoka’s reckless confidence. Once Geonosis is taken, the Republic must deal with the disturbing rise of the Geonosian queen whose corrupting influence follows Ahsoka and Barriss into space.

This is a varied arc with stirring action and significant character growth moments for Ahsoka in particular. Whenever I introduce people to this show, this four part Geonosis arc is always where I begin.

2) Darth Maul Returns

4.21 – Monster
4.22 – Revenge
5.1 – Revival
5.14 – Eminence
5.15 – Shades of Reason
5.16 – The Lawless

Whether or not it’s fair to lump these six episodes together into one arc, I’m doing it anyway. The unexpected return of Darth Maul puts every major character of this show into overdrive. Maul’s second coming has huge ramifications for Obi-Wan, Ventress, Savage Oppress, Dutchess Satine, Pre Viszla, Hondo, Darth Sidious, and the entire criminal underworld. With top notch animation, voice acting, and storytelling, this is the arc that people will point to as the high point of the entire series.

The reinvented Maul is no ordinary foe. As a former Sith, he is trained not just in combat but political scheming and empire building. Through a patient but deliberate acquisition of power and resources, Maul uses the distraction of the Clone Wars to extend his absolute will across the underworld. We really get a sense that this is his gamble to become the most powerful being in the entire galaxy.

Smartly tying Darth Maul into the Death Watch storyline, this arc really ends with an explosive conclusion that we never would have suspected at back in the first Mandalore arc. The fact that so many characters either meet their fate or have their world rocked on account of Maul show just how significant his ugly resurgence truly is.

1) Darkness on Umbara

4.07 – Darkness On Umbara
4.08 – The General
4.09 – Plan of Dissent
4.10 – Carnage of Krell

At last we arrive at the crowning achievement in an already impressive list of story lines. The Umbara arc features none of the Jedi we know and love and instead focuses solely on a contingent of beleaguered clones on a strange planet veiled in darkness. The battles in these episodes rival any other in the show’s history and the fact that the clones fight devoid of any Jedi support only raises the stakes.

General Krell provides a new kind of antagonist for this series: a Jedi general who sees clones as disposable ammunition. Antithetical to the nurturing mentoring of Yoda or Plo Koon, this Jedi values victory above lives lost. Trapped between the impossible choice of going to a likely death or disobeying orders, the clones’ bravery and resolve holds true despite the darkness swirling around them.

You can’t help but sympathize with the tragedy of the clones’ situation, fighting a technologically superior enemy on the battlefield while simultaneously dealing with an unfair and punishing commander back at home. It’s the worst of both worlds and the resolution magnifies the absolute horror of this cruel war that is secretly being waged by the despotic Sith. These clones are unlucky pawns but over the course of these four episodes they become the heroes they were born to be.

Although Star Wars: The Clone Wars is coming to end next month with the final 13 episodes of Season Six, you can bet that there are plenty more Star Wars tales to be told in the upcoming Star Wars Rebels.