By Rob Siebert
Editor, Fanboy Wonder

This piece marks the first time I’m going out of my way to soften my words a bit. That’s not to say I’m regularly in the habit of offending people, or being “edgy.” But as far as Star Wars fanboys are concerned, this topic tends to be a bit heated at times. And as I’ve learned in the past, passionate fans can occasionally turn into rabid ones. *sigh* Okay, here we go…

Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace returns to theaters this month, this time in 3D. Because even though George Lucas is tired of being ridiculed about the quality of his newer films, he certainly isn’t opposed to making additional money off them. I’m interested to see how much the movie pulls in during it’s stay, as The Phantom Menace was unquestionably the least well received of the Star Wars films. Even Lucas himself has talked about that.

It’s been well documented that the majority of die-hard Star Wars fans harbor negative feelings toward Menace that range from simple dislike to pure loathing. Hell, there’ve been entire films dedicated to just how bad people think this movie is. Red Letter Media did a video review of the film that’s nearly as  long as the movie itself. Yeesh…

By now, you’ve likely heard the common complaints: 1. Jar Jar Binks is an annoying cartoon character placed in the movie solely to appeal to kids. 2. Jake Lloyd’s acting is as bad as it is cheesy. 3. Darth Maul is the coolest character in the movie, but doesn’t get enough screen time. 4. The Force should be a spiritual gift, as opposed to biological one, which we learn about in this movie. And those are just a few.

But here’s the thing, and this is where it might get messy…I really don’t have much of a problem with The Phantom Menace. In terms of it’s execution, I think a lot of the dialogue (specifically the lines coming from Anakin and Jar Jar) is corny. But for my money it’s not half as bad as some of the stuff we got in Attack of the Clones, and especially Revenge of the Sith.

It took me years to break out of my state of denial about the prequels, and the fact that they are indeed of questionable quality. For the longest time I had this blind loyalty to George Lucas and the Star Wars universe because of how much the original films meant to me. But enough time has passed and I’ve grown up enough that I can finally be honest with myself about this. Not bitter or cynical, as a lot of fans are, but honest. And this is my honest opinion of The Phantom Menace.

1. A Kid’s Movie
Many moviegoers, perhaps understandably, questioned why we even needed to see Darth Vader as a young child. I remember when Attack of the Clones came out, some fans were saying that movie should have been Episode I, so that Lucas and his cohorts could have more time to explore Anakin’s turn to the dark side, the Clone Wars, etc. Menace takes place about 32 years before the events of the original film. Did we really need to go back that far? In the past, George Lucas has said things to the effect of: “The story simply is what it is.” Well, not necessarily. You wrote the story, you can change the story. Lucas certainly knows a thing or two about changing his creations

Hindsight is always 20/20, of course. But if the story you’re going to go with is that at 8-years-old, this slave boy was discovered by warriors, taken from his mother and thrust into this intergalactic conflict, thus beginning his descent into darkness, it makes sense for us to actually see that separation. That way, we’re sitting next to Anakin during his entire journey, as opposed to entering in the middle. By doing that, we’re seeing that Anakin wasn’t born as this unstable individual on the path to bloody murder. At one point, he was a good person. That’s important to establish.

How well our look into Anakin’s childhood was executed? That’s another story. It wasn’t perfect. Anakin’s big “yipee!” after discovering that he’s leaving this barren desert world of child labor and slavery is a bit…awkward. Some fans also had a problem with the fact that he got in the starfighter and blew up the big ship at the end. That never bothered me, personally. We had established that this kid had Jedi talents, and he was already a skilled pilot. Plus, he didn’t even blow the ship up intentionally! His ship was shot down, and he ended up crashing INSIDE the damn thing. Far fetched? Maybe. But it’s a movie. Give it a break.

I would also take issue with people who’ve said Lloyd was a bad actor. He wasn’t Haley Joel Osment, but he wasn’t supposed to be. This 8 or 9-year-old kid was saying the lines that had been written for him, and doing the things he was directed to do. Who wrote those lines? Who was sitting in the director’s chair? George Lucas. When the buck stops with you, as it does with Lucas on almost all things Star Wars, inevitably so does all the criticism. If I’m not mistaken, The Phantom Menace was the first movie Lucas had done the actual screenplay for since Return of the Jedi in ’80s (and even then he had help from Lawrence Kasdan), and the first film he’d directed since the ORIGINAL Star Wars film in the ’70s! If I had to pick one factor to point to as the major cause of the prequels being inferior to the original films, it would be Lucas hogging both the pen and the director’s chair. For whatever reason, it worked in A New Hope, but the prequels suffered for it. So if you want to gripe about Jake Lloyd’s scenes in this movie, which really aren’t that bad to begin with, gripe about the man in the flannel shirt sitting in the director’s chair.

2. “Meesa Called Jar Jar Binks”
Even as a kid, I remember being amazed at how much grief this film got over Jar Jar Binks. Is he a bit over the top sometimes? Absolutely. When he does the big dive into the water during the first half of the movie? Too much. Also too far: When he shouts at Qui-Gon about “When’a yousa thinkin’ weesa in trouble?” But I never thought he was even remotely as annoying as other people thought he was. Maybe it’s the fact that I was fairly young when I saw this movie. Maybe I was just more tolerant of this kind of thing. Either way, I was mostly fine with the character.

The common thread running through the majority of the complaints is that he was too clowny and too childish. I can understand that complaint. The original films managed to get their humor across without having characters that were in the film specifically for that reason. And I suppose on some level Jar Jar’s humor feels a bit forced. At the very least, Jar Jar was something never seen before in a Star Wars film.

In defending his use of Jar Jar, Lucas at one point told BBC News: ”There is a group of fans for the films that doesn’t like comic sidekicks. They want the films to be tough like Terminator, and they get very upset and opinionated about anything that has anything to do with being childlike. The movies are for children but they don’t want to admit that. In the first film they absolutely hated R2 and C-3PO. In the second film they didn’t like Yoda and in the third one they hated the Ewoks… and now Jar Jar is getting accused of the same thing.”

I can’t say for sure whether the droids and Yoda actually felt a backlash. The Ewoks definitely had one. But none of them even felt a portion of the wrath that Jar Jar has felt. The main thing I can say in defense of this character is that I saw this movie in the theater three times. Each time, the kids loved Jar Jar. For that young demographic, he was one of the best parts of the movie. I suppose what I would say to avid Jar Jar haters is to remember when you first fell in love with Star Wars. For most fans, it was when they were children. So, think about how your younger self have reacted to this character, and be honest

Heesa not great, but heesa not so bad.

3. Jedi, Sith and Lip-Syncing
I’ve always enjoyed Liam Neeson’s presence in this movie. He always plays mentor characters rather well, and as we’ve learned in the last few years with movies like Taken and The Grey, he makes a great bad ass. In The Phantom Menace we get both.

Darth Maul obviously played a huge role in the marketing of this movie, which to an extent was not a good thing, as he gets considerably less screen time than you’d expect for a character advertised so heavily. Still, he’s become one of the most recognizable characters in the entire series, and most fans agree that the fight between Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan and Darth Maul is great.

One thing I’ve always complained about is that the lip syncing for Nute Gunray and Rune Haako sucks. If I could change anything in this movie in terms of the special effects, it would be that. Thankfully we don’t see them enough for it to be a hugely memorable problem.

Also, during the scene near the beginning of the movie where the Jedi are being shot at by the destroyer droids, there’s a brief moment where Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan do a Force-induced dash away from the blaster fire. But when they do it we only see them from a distance, and initially I actually wondered if it was an editing error. I’d have clarified that moment a bit.

Will I see The Phantom Menace in 3D? Probably not, but that’s not because I have anything against the movie. It’s because I think, as Roger Ebert once said, “It’s a waste of a dimension” and “it adds nothing to the experience.” But George can always hear that money train coming, and when it comes to Star Wars, it’s never too late to jump on. In all honesty, I hope it does well. It may be a marketing slogan, but there’s really nothing like seeing Star Wars on the big screen.

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