Last month, George Lucas gave the world a new Star Wars movie, and for the first time in the 31-year history of the franchise, the Empire struck out. The Clone Wars a computer-animated action flick designed to launch a new series for Cartoon Network that premieres Oct. 3 has grossed only $33 million in three weeks despite an impressive show of marketing force. More withering were the reviews, which blasted the movie into tiny chunks of Alderaan. This magazine gave it an F. Roger Ebert gave it a star and a half and groaned: ''Has it come to this?'' And supergeek Harry Knowles said it reeked like so much bantha poodoo, it nearly stopped him from buying Hasbro's new $150 Millennium Falcon toy.
But the haters got it wrong about The Clone Wars, about Lucas (''Sellout''? What does that even mean these days?), and about the current state of Star Wars in general. Missing from much of the overheated bashing of The Clone Wars was the crucial point that it was made for kids, not the grown-ups for whom the original trilogy remains (ridiculously) sacred. Several reviews simply revisited and rehashed the bitter disdain many adult Star Wars fans have for the prequel trilogy. I get that bitterness. But my young Star Wars-loving children don't, nor do the kids who were raised on the prequels and (heresy!) actually liked them.
The Clone Wars is simply too well produced to justify virulent disdain and too insignificant to prosecute the Lucas-legacy argument. The movie is a small pleasure, which is only a problem when you expect huge things from a Star Wars film. Today's kids have no such expectations. For them, Star Wars is a stream of content books, comic books, toys, micro-cartoons, videogames, DVDs, and, soon, a TV series. This new generation sees no distinction between movies and their merchandise, and that's just fine with them. Expect to see more of it. After all, the biggest movie franchise (Harry Potter) and the most-talked-about youth TV show (Gossip Girl) are literary franchise accessories. In Hollywood, the buzz phrase is ''transmedia properties,'' where movies are but one of many separate conduits for a story. It's a tricky, in-process idea, one that, if executed creatively and with integrity, portends an inventive new form of storytelling in its own right and Star Wars is leading the way. The Clone Wars will not be remembered as a great animated movie or an awful one, for that matter. But it might be remembered as part of a larger pop moment that is wiring the future of entertainment.