If this movie was not related to Star Wars I would never probably had even watched it. And that probably goes for everyone else too. The fourth installment in the Star Wars saga (but the first one on the actual timeline of the series), was met with cheers and applause from die-hard fans of the series on release. It took until much later for the rose-colored glasses to come off and see it as the film it actually is. The bland performances, the odd juxtaposition of Jar-Jar Binks with the main cast for comic relief, and Jake Lloyd. That didn’t matter though, it was the sixteen year return of possibly the most famous and most profitable franchise of all time. In other words, there was little to no way that it would not be loved by hard-core fans on release.
This Complete Saga marathon that I started two years ago, with the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) has made me realize that with every re-watch, Phantom Menace gets worse. I get more and more bored with the world that George Lucas creates and the story he tells in this picture. You can only take so much of the podracing scene before it becomes just ugly computer-generated effects and tonally more similar to the go-kart race in Little Rascals (1994) rather than anything resembling Star Wars. Or, the way that everyone in this movie acts so lifeless and monotone which isn’t necessarily their fault more of the workings of Lucas’ directing. In fact, the only character who even shows any sign of life in them is Jake Lloyd’s tiresome portrayal of young Anakin Skywalker. Lloyd’s performance was so notoriously disliked in fact, that he claimed that his role “ruined his childhood”. Nonetheless, his performance is quite grating. Although, Lloyd’s delivery of lines such as “Now this is podracing!” and “My name is Anakin and I’m a person!” can only be so much his fault rather than Lucas’ poor dialogue. It just makes it a little hard to believe that the same person delivering all those lines is also the same individual that will slaughter innocent children. Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best) was included into the story to provide that comedic edge to the stories, the way that C-3PO was in the Original Trilogy. Except, 3PO was a sidekick to R2-D2 which is what made him work for comedic purposes. The bickering between the two characters helped keep the comedy from being too in-your-face. Both characters were also isolated in the background many times which helped separate the two tones of those films (A New Hope, Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi.) . Binks on the other hand, is not a sidekick, but just a lone bumbling idiot who shouts catchphrases and my have been planned to be a sith lord in subsequent films him doing all this while the on many times the main cast does not acknowledge him many times. Nonetheless, Lucas understood his mistake it seems and dialed back his character in Attack of the Clones (2002) and The Revenge of the Sith (2005).
For all of The Phantom Menace’s shortcomings, one of the things that at least makes watching this movie not entirely a dull experience is John William’s score. “Duel of the Fates” may just be my favorite song from any Star Wars movie. The lightsaber battles are also much better than the prequels thanks to the new special effects that are utilized. In the final battle, Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) battle Sith Lord Darth Maul (Ray Park) and it is a spectacular sequence that almost makes you forget about how long it took to lead up to that scene. Some of the character design in this movie (and all the prequels in fact) is pretty awesome. As a child, Darth Maul was my favorite character because of his imposing design and his double-bladed lightsaber. Before the prequels, there were no other Jedi introduced in the films other than, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Yoda (Frank Oz), and Obi Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness). One of the positives of these movies were the introduction of new and interesting Jedi such as Ki-Adi-Mundi (Silas Carson) and Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson). There were many interesting set pieces and characters set up to be later explored in the subsequent movies, books, and video games.
When I was in elementary school, I loved Star Wars above anything else. Funny enough, The Phantom Menace was my favorite movie out of the five that I had seen (my parents didn’t allow me to watch Revenge of the Sith due to its PG-13 rating). I think it was because of that I wanted to become a Jedi like Anakin. Me being a child, felt like I could relate to his character. I was also fine with Jar Jar Binks and he never seemed to annoy me, but I never remember laughing at anything he did unironically. I also thought the overuse of CGI was pretty awesome and always kept me interested because it resembled video games so closely. All of these points leads me to believe that The Phantom Menace was made with mainly children in mind. The merchandising for this movie was insane and helped add to the grandiose marketing campaign that this movie had. For all it’s shortcomings, The Phantom Menace will always be remembered in cinematic history for the massive cultural event that it was, and the massive disappointment that followed it.
Note: This short 15 minute documentary explains the whole Phantom Menace phenomenon better than even my words can describe