ANIMATION WORLD MAGAZINE - ISSUE 4.3 - JUNE 1999
Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace
by Andy Klein
Obi-Wan Kenobi, Darth Maul (Ray Park), and Qui-Gon Jinn battle it out. All images courtesy of and © LucasFilm Ltd.
"Every generation has a legend. Every journey has a first step. Every saga has a beginning."
Sure, but the problem is: What are you going to do for surprises or suspense if 90% of the world already knows where your saga is heading? There aren't going to be a lot of people out there watching George Lucas' latest Star Wars installment, The Phantom Menace, and musing, "Gee! I wonder whatever will become of that adorable Anakin Skywalker kid?"
The Rabid and the Regular
In theory, getting there should be half the fun, but, sadly, in this case it isn't. There are other built-in problems with a Star Wars prequel: most notably, how do you keep it interesting for the rabid fans -- who know more about the struggles between the Empire and the Jedi knights than they do about the Civil War, World War I, and World War II put together -- without absolutely excluding those of us who have managed over these past two decades to cultivate a few other little interests (for example, music, literature, the rest of cinema, and other human beings) at the expense of our LucasFilm expertise? How do you make sure that the plot is comprehensible to the rest of us -- not to mention to the dozen or so sentient beings on this planet who have somehow missed the first three films -- without boring the fanatics to tears?
It's a tough assignment, and one at which -- it can be said with certainty -- Lucas has failed utterly. Once we get past the opening weeks, when the theaters will be dominated by the True Believers, it is reasonable to assume that half the audience will be wondering just what those sinister shots of Senator Palpatine are suggesting, while the other half will be yawning at the sledgehammer obviousness of it all.
To give you perspective on where I fit in that spectrum, I really liked the first Star Wars; I thought Empire Strikes Back was more interesting, but less fun; and Return of the Jedi would be passable if Lucas used his new, fancy-assed CGI technology to erase the Ewoks permanently and blot out the nauseatingly sentimental fireside reunion scene at the end.
But even the first film.... Let's just say: It was no Buckaroo Banzai.
The Phantom Menace in many ways continues the trends initiated in Return: dumbing down the content for younger and younger kids; avoiding any irony or adult point of view; slathering on the pseudo-religious mystical gibberish; and replacing actual humans with an assortment of adorable and/or sinister muppets.
Anakin Skywalker meets his mentor-to-be Obi-Wan.
The plot is simplicity itself: this is the first Star Wars episode for which one can do a detailed synopsis without spoiling any surprises, since there are no surprises. The story revolves around a struggle to control the planet of Naboo: evil ambassadors of the Trade Federation, under the direction of Darth Sidious, are seizing control away from the fourteen-year-old Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman). Jedi knights Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) are sent to assess the situation, but quickly find their lives in danger. They team up with a goofy computer-generated "Gungan" named Jar Jar Binks (voice by Ahmed Best) and escape with the Queen and her retinue to head back to the Republic capital of Coruscant.
On the way, they have to land on the desert planet of Tatooine for repairs, where they encounter a clever, towheaded nine-year-old lad named Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), who seems to be positively awash in the Force. Despite the misgivings of the Jedi Council, Qui-Gon insists on training the boy as a Jedi. Good confronts evil: good wins, but the film ends with the stage set for Anakin to hook up with Amidala, sire Luke and Leia, and transform into Darth Vader -- to be shown in Episodes II and III.
Queen Amidala and the wacky, CGI gungan, Jar Jar Binks.
Never has a film been so widely reviewed prior to its release, and rarely have the reviews been so uniform in both their general disdain and their specific complaints. It's no wonder: The Phantom Menace's problems are obvious to almost anyone not devoted to the series. That no one bothered to point them out to Lucas beforehand is a sign of what happens when you become The Most Successful Filmmaker of All Time. Who's going to have the gonads to tell you you're screwing up?
Creatures for Kids
For many viewers, the central complaint will be the extent to which this is a kiddie film. There's nothing wrong with kids' pictures, but the first two Star Wars pics managed to stay interesting for adults as well. What's worse is that, despite having children as its primary target, Phantom Menace has long slow stretches. Its perfect viewers are eight-year-olds who don't mind a lot of talky exposition.
You may have thought that Lucas' taste for Teletubbie-level cutesy-poo creatures reached its peak with the Ewoks, but you'd be wrong. Here he trumps that dubious achievement with the cloying Jar Jar Binks. There are already complaints springing up that Jar Jar is a racist stereotype -- a Stepin Fetchit for the new millennium. He's servile and cowardly, and his accent is generally being taken as Jamaican. These complaints are
The Jedi masters: Yoda, voiced by Frank Oz, and Mace Windu.
wrongheaded: there is nothing to connect Jar Jar with old black stereotypes. Jamaican? Jar Jar's thick accent sounds more like Fozzie Bear than Bob Marley; if I hadn't already seen his name spelled out, I would have thought it was Zsa Zsa. In fact, all the alien accents in The Phantom Menace sound like either familiar Jim Henson creatures -- not surprising, given the participation of Frank Oz -- or like John Cleese's deranged Frenchman in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Not only does Jar Jar not resemble old offensive stereotypes, but, even if he did, the movie makes abundantly clear that he is a fluke among his otherwise perfectly competent race -- such an accident-prone goofball that he's an outcast among his own. Unfortunately, Jar Jar is the film's main source of humor; and, for anyone over about twelve, he quickly grows irritating. He's a less likable version of Big Bird.
The human characters, unfortunately, display no humor and no interesting traits. Qui-Gon is a somber stiff, and McGregor, despite his appealing twinkle, is straitjacketed and underused as Obi-Wan. Portman, usually an excellent actress, likewise seems ill-at-ease, as though she couldn't find a natural voice in which to intone Lucas' portentous dialogue. As Mace Windu, Samuel L. Jackson, a great actor, also seems baffled as to just what he's doing there.
Even though the absence of Harrison Ford is a huge problem in all films that Ford isn't in, there are other actors, McGregor among them, who could have brought a modicum of charm to the proceedings. But charm is altogether missing.
The Beauty of It
Without an ingenious plot or engaging characters, all you're really left with are the film's technical achievements. And, on that front, The Phantom Menace succeeds spectacularly. Lucas' people, always in the forefront of CGI, have outdone themselves here. Having avoided as much of the hype as I could, I didn't know in advance that Jar Jar was completely computer-generated...and the illusion is so perfect that it never occurred to me while watching that, of course, he had to be.
The production design is the film's most inspired area: all of the landscapes, seascapes, and skylines are gorgeous. As a wall calendar, Phantom Menace is a brilliant movie.
The Tatooine pod-racing sequence keeps the audience on the edge of their seats.
Understanding the Action
The action scenes are likewise perfectly realized. But, as with most of the picture, they are far less well conceived...and realization isn't worth much without conception. The high-speed pod race between Anakin and the nasty Sebulba is certainly the standout. (If Ernie Fosselius, the genius behind Hardware Wars, is still around, he'll have a field day with Suburbia, Zsa Zsa, Cal-Gon, Queen I'm-a-Doll, Macy's Window, and Anacin.) The race is so viscerally exciting that you can't help being on the edge of your seat. At the same time, it's not a tenth as exciting as it could have been if Lucas had written an interesting race. It's a retread of the chariot race in Ben Hur, but without the earlier film's clarity.
Clarity in action sequences has always been a problem for Lucas, even in the first Star Wars' climactic battle. He doesn't seem to have even a novice's grasp of clever exposition. So, in Phantom Menace, we see Sebulba do...something...to Anakin's pod before the race. Unfortunately, whatever it is, and what effect it will have, and how Anakin overcomes it, is never clear. Nor are the contestants' respective strong points and weak points. We need to know the process by which the race plays out. Otherwise the "good guy" wins for random reasons, not through admirable skill or cleverness. (The textbook example of the sort of exposition this scene needs is the compressed-air tank shtick in Jaws: we know, the moment Brody looks over at the tanks, what he's thinking and what he's going to attempt.)
These flaws will neither deter the Legions of the Faithful nor keep the film's opening weekend gross from breaking $100 million. The only thing that's likely to bother the real fans is the new information the movie reveals about the Force: Lucas has inexplicably reduced the mystical center of his epic to a simple medical issue. After twenty years, now he decides that the force isn't any more mysterious than a blood cholesterol level.
It's no longer a matter of belief. Now it's a matter of platelets.
Andy Klein is a film critic for the New Times newspaper chain. He is head of the animation committee for the Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA).
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