“Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace” had a difficult task ahead of it from the beginning. As the prequel to the beloved original trilogy of Star Wars, it was one of the most hyped movies of all time. It didn’t need to just live up to fans’ expectations, it needed to live up to their nostalgic memories of those previous movies, and that’s where it fell short.
There’s quite a bit that Phantom Menace does right. Although George Lucas would overuse CGI effects at times throughout the prequels, there are plenty of moments where the visuals are spectacular. While the movie has its familiarities with A New Hope, it tells its own story and isn’t simply a retelling of that. The casting choices were excellent, particularly the three leads, as Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor and Natalie Portman are all talented actors.
Unfortunately, those talented actors don’t have much to work with. The writing in Phantom Menace is poor, as the dialogue sounds unnatural and it’s obvious that even the best actors can only do so much with this sort of script. Harrison Ford famously criticized Lucas’s writing with the original trilogy, and nothing has changed here.
Undoubtedly the most polarizing character in the movie is the Gungan, Jar Jar Binks. Many of the criticisms leveled at him are accurate. He is a blatant attempt to appeal to a younger audience, he takes screen time away from more interesting characters and his humor isn’t appealing to most adults. That being said, the fans who criticized him so much may want to look back at the original trilogy they loved so much.
Lucas always made the Star Wars movies with kids in mind. Watching the original trilogy now, R2D2 and C3P0 fill the exact same role as Jar Jar. The problem wasn’t that the Phantom Menace had childish elements. It was that a large portion of its audience were older children and adults who watched the original trilogy as kids. Those childish elements that they enjoyed when they were younger were now an annoyance, but that isn’t Lucas’s fault. He made the same type of movie he had made three times already. The problem was with the audience members who suddenly expected a Star Wars movie to fulfill what they wanted as adults.
One area where Phantom Menace does well is its villainous characters. The battle droids may not be as memorable as the Storm Troopers were, but the droidekas have a unique design. Watto has some fun scenes of his own, particularly when he shows that he’s no average sap who can be fooled by a Jedi mind trick.
Emperor Palpatine doesn’t get much development and seems only there to move the story forward. While Darth Maul gets essentially no development, he still manages to be one of the better villains in the Star Wars Universe. Since he has very few lines, what he does say is far more menacing. The double-bladed lightsaber was a brilliant addition and the movie’s best reveal. The final lightsaber duel between Obi-Wan Kenobi, Qui-Gon Jinn and Darth Maul is the best the series has had to date. It’s very well-choreographed, and the way the two Jedi become separated and must fight Darth Maul alone ups the stakes.
And what about young Anakin Skywalker, the boy who would become Darth Vader? He serves his role in the story and is a little like Jar Jar Binks in that he annoys the adult audience more than the younger audience.
Phantom Menace certainly has its fair share of flaws. It has too many characters, so it’s difficult to connect with any of them, although this is also due to the writing. The pace slows to a crawl at several points, especially the dreadful political scenes. Lucas adds to the backstory of the Jedi, but he does so in a way that ruins their mystique. The concept of midichlorians was ridiculous, and the Jedi Council makes this once mysterious group boring and generic. This prequel and the original trilogy demonstrate the concept of “less is more.” The Jedi were so much more exciting when they were a rarely seen legend. While the Phantom Menace couldn’t follow this same approach because it occurs before the Sith wiped out most of the Jedi, the number of Jedi it throws at you makes them less special.
As a kids’ movie and a Star Wars movie, the Phantom Menace is decent. It has too many issues to be great or even good, but it’s also not as terrible as some have suggested. Its biggest problem is that it feels like a weird mix of a movie for adults and kids, with the end result being a movie that isn’t great for either audience.