Liam Neeson as Qui-Gon Jinn
Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan Kenobi
Natalie Portman as Queen Amidala
Ahmed Best as Jar Jar Binks
Jake Lloyd as Anakin Skywalker
Ian McDiarmid as Senator Palpatine/Darth Sidious
Ray Park as Darth Maul
Kenny Baker as R2-D2
Andy Secombe as Watto
Pernilla August as Shmi Skywalker
Frank Oz as Yoda
Samuel L. Jackson as Mace Windu
Hugh Quarshie as Captain Panaka
Oliver Ford Davies as Sio Bibble
Lewis MacLeod as Sebulba
Few movies inspire the kind of hatred in geeks the way Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace does.Yet its incredible box office numbers, along with those of the entire prequel trilogy, indicate a geek-vs.-mainstream division similar to that of the Twilight series. Sure, part of that is the brand that sells automatic tickets. Its harshest critics even argue that this was so true that the worst movie ever would’ve been one of the most successful ever if “star” and “war” appeared in the title. But this is more grasping for straws than realistic explanation. If Batman–inspired movies could bomb at the box office, then at some point these prequels should have started struggling to turn a profit.
Basically, the criticism of Phantom Menace boils down to three arguments:
1.) It’s too kiddie-friendly.
2.) There’s not enough interesting going on.
3.) Jar Jar Binks is an asshole!
I fully accept the third premise — and will eventually get into what Jar Jar does to this movie — but I can certainly argue with the first two.
While it’s technically true that this is a very family-friendly movie, since when has that not been true of Star Wars as a whole. The comic relief duo that is C-3PO and R2-D2. The ewoks. The Muppets’ fingerprints (see Yoda, Jabba’s gang) on the series. I’m not saying that the originals were just for kids, but the apparent belief of some that this is somehow a totally dark and mature series is simply wrong, and points to fans wanting Star Wars to be something it’s not, was never intended to be.
As far as the lack of interesting stuff, we’re in a different time period, with a different cast. A more lighthearted film before we get into the big stuff makes sense. Besides, there is big stuff going down, though it wasn’t as easy to know before we knew everything that Lucas and co. were building up to. We’re told that the planet Naboo is being taken over by the Trade Federation over a tax dispute. Doesn’t sound very interesting, except that the Trade Federation is being manipulated by greed and a sith lord named Darth Sidious and his apprentice, Darth Maul. As we discover in the next two episodes, Sidious is secretly a Naboo Senator named Palpatine, who is orchestrating all this to demonstrate a nonfunctional Republic and because of sympathy for Palpatine’s people, he becomes Chancellor of the Republic. Although Queen Amidala*, aided by jedi knights Qui-gon Jinn, Obi-Wan Kenobi, their new apprentice Anakin Skywalker, and a gungan named Jar Jar Binks eventually liberate Naboo, they have no idea that the traitorous new Chancellor that they have put in power was their ultimate enemy all along! See how all this ends up being quite meaningful?
*Not all this political gamesmanship is perfectly executed. For instance (and this might be nitpicking, I admit), “Queen” Amidala isn’t a queen at all. She says she was elected and doesn’t seem to be able to order Naboo’s senator around. Amidala’s more like a governor.
Character development works as well. Qui-Gon is a rebel who often defies the wishes of the jedi council. This surprising attitude for a jedi proves quite interesting. Another surprise to those who watched the originals first is that Obi-Wan turns out to not be a seasoned jedi but instead someone just now getting ready to become a full-fledged jedi. That helps explain why he screws up with Anakin: Obi-Wan isn’t ready to have his own pupil. Amidala is a politician thrown into a world she’s not ready for but determined to save her people regardless.
And it’s at this point where I have to talk about Jar Jar and the young Anakin. Jake Lloyd, to be frank, can’t act. He’s constantly over the top and his timing is weak. I’ve seen child actors who showed some degree of competence, but Lloyd certainly wasn’t among them. Besides, he’s actually not as annoying as the teen Anakin in Attack of the Clones, so it can’t just be that Lloyd was a child.
Then there’s Jar Jar. If you know three people who were disappointed that he barely exists in the next two films, I’ll be amazed by your detective skills. His high-pitched voice and ridiculous stupidity/clumsiness make for an extremely unlikable character. I think what hurts him the most is the exaggerated nature of his idiocy. Scenes like Jar Jar not noticing that a vehicle isn’t running are bad comedy of the worst kind.
To end on a positive note, there’s some nice bits that reveal things that we know that the cast does not. For instance, the Jedi Council refuses to train Anakin because of the potential for the Dark Side in him, though Qui-Gon trains him anyway. This puts a very clever twist on the prophecy cliche. Anakin is supposed to bring balance to The Force. But since there are lots of jedi and just two sith, Sidious and Maul, what’s the real way to create balance?
A couple of annoying characters is not enough to ruin a movie. While Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace isn’t a great movie, it’s good enough.
Overall: 7 out of 10