I have been known to express my… dissatisfaction in the Star Wars prequel trilogy. And at the top of the pile sits Episode I – The Phantom Menace.
It’s certainly not a controversial or unusual opinion. Ask any Star Wars fan what their least favorite film from the franchise is, and I guarantee Phantom Menace is somewhere near the top of the list.
A big reason why it saw such bad reception initially was because it just didn’t live up to the hype. After more than fifteen years since a Star Wars film hit the big screen, fans had pretty high hopes.
Not all the hype came directly from original trilogy fans. This movie was marketed out the wazoo. The prequel trilogy had already been announced years before Phantom Menace ever hit theaters, and Star Wars action figures were already flooding store shelves. Then the original trilogy was re-released in theaters and fast-food chains were falling all over themselves for promotional tie-ins. The very first major Star Wars convention happened in anticipation of Phantom Menace, complete with demonstrations, premieres, behind-the-scenes footage, and actor panels.
Of course, we all know what happened next. Fans flocked to movie theaters with stars in their eyes and left disappointed. But why?
Well, we can place some of the blame on Jar Jar Binks alone. If you like Jar Jar, full offense! Sorry, not sorry. However, there were plenty of other reasons why fans and critics alike called it a letdown.
It’s been a long time since Episode I – The Phantom Menace hit theaters, and time can sometimes be kind. Some people have been able to watch it with rose-tinted glasses, so to speak – I just had someone tell me the other day that it “wasn’t that bad.” But even still, I could think of a few things that would have made it a much better movie.
Can we get a redo?
Less Jar Jar Binks – Or None, If We’re Being Honest
Okay, we’re starting with the obvious solution, here. I have a really hard time watching Episode I because Jar Jar Binks is so awful. In terms of screentime, he’s only beaten by massive players Obi-Wan Kenobi, Padme Amidala, Anakin Skywalker, and Qui-Gon Jinn. He has nearly 18 minutes of screentime in this film, and that’s 18 minutes too long.
Jar Jar was supposedly introduced as a humorous element to provide a little comic relief. But instead of being the likable doofus he was intended to be, he was hard to understand, unfunny, and super annoying.
The movie would have been infinitely better with less of this character, or if he had been toned down a lot. I know George Lucas was just really excited at the ability to make a completely CGI character, but he definitely went overboard.
More Darth Maul
Leading up to the release of The Phantom Menace, fans were intrigued by the sinister-looking guy in red and black. Who was this mysterious, dark character? He had red eyes and horns! And, he had a red double-bladed lightsaber, the first of its kind we had ever seen!
Darth Maul had all the potential to be really, really awesome. On top of his menacing appearance and unique lightsaber, he was portrayed by Ray Park, an actor and martial artist that lent his amazing physical abilities to the Sith Lord.
I’m pretty sure that fans were under the impression that Maul would be a central villain of the prequel trilogy. I mean, why on earth would you spend so much time and energy creating such a cool character and not have him play a big part? He could have at least had more time in Phantom Menace. We needed a slick villain in the prequel trilogy until Anakin’s inevitable transformation into Darth Vader. Count Dooku just didn’t really do it, no matter how important he is to the prequel trilogy–no offense to Christopher Lee.
Instead, the guy is barely in this film and hardly speaks for those few minutes he does appear. He’s around for just six minutes total, in case you were wondering. There’s a visually striking battle, and then he’s killed off by Obi-Wan Kenobi.
I guess George Lucas figured out (much later) that he made a big mistake there, but the damage was already done. Even though Maul magically reappeared from the dead for some of the animated series, not killing him off in the first place – and giving him more attention during Phantom Menace – would have been the better move.
They Shouldn’t Have Changed Yoda So Much
In the original trilogy, Yoda was a puppet. In Episode I – The Phantom Menace, Yoda was a puppet. And while I understand why it might not have been ideal (or maybe even possible) to use the same exact puppet, they could have modeled the new Yoda puppet to not look so… different. Apparently, they were trying to “update” him.
“They built a puppet for Episode I: The Phantom Menace but made the mistake of trying to update Yoda. They re-sculptured him and made him out of a different material which was heavier. Then, because he was transparent instead of opaque, it meant light didn’t hit him the same way so his color wasn’t the same,” said Nick Maley, a puppeteer from The Empire Strikes Back, while speaking at a convention.
“They also needed to put a stronger mechanism in so the result was a Yoda that looked quite different and generated a lot of criticism. Ultimately you can’t redesign grandma: grandma is grandma. She might be old-fashioned but that’s grandma. You need to save your new stuff for your new characters.”
I think it’s worth mentioning that the little Jedi Master was already 900 years old in the original trilogy. I can’t imagine that he would have looked a lot younger during the time period of the prequels. He didn’t need “updating” to begin with.
We Could Have Done Without Anakin and Padme’s Age Gap
Look, I know that Padme is supposed to be a few years older than Anakin when they first meet. And they do not start a romantic relationship until they reunite a decade later, when Ani is like 19 years old. That isn’t the issue here.
The events of Phantom Menace take place in 32 BBY, making Queen Padme Amidala 14 years old, and Anakin Skywalker is 9 years old. But when they filmed Phantom Menace, Jake Lloyd was an 8-year-old kid playing Anakin. Meanwhile, Natalie Portman, who played Padme, was already 16 years old.
It’s not uncommon for older actors to play younger ones or anything, but it’s easy to tell that these two are way too far apart in age. You can’t put an 8-year-old next to a 16-year-old and think that’s going to work.
They Should Have Cast an Older Actor for Anakin Skywalker
The last quibble leads directly to my next point: perhaps they should have chosen an older actor to fill Anakin’s shoes. And no, it’s not just because I love Natalie Portman as Padme. (But I do, and I don’t think she was the problem.)
They cast a slightly older actress to play Padme, and they should have done the same for Ani. It would have solved the very unbelievable (and kind of uncomfortable) age gap on screen. And, perhaps they would have ended up with a less whiny and immature actor.
It seems silly, but actually casting an age-appropriate kid for a role can sometimes make them feel less believable when it comes to a blockbuster movie. Here, Ani’s immaturity kind of smashed Darth Vader’s infamous villainy. We all know that Vader was once a kid, but there was an air of mystique that disappeared with this young, innocent kid on screen.
To be clear, I think Jake Lloyd did exactly what he was told to do, and he did it well. I just think that Lucas made a mistake starting the prequel trilogy with such a young kid. It was never fair or right that grown adults harassed him like they did for his role in Phantom Menace. If you did that, you should be ashamed of bullying a kid. Y’all send your hate mail to Lucas.
The Trade Federation Stuff Was Boring
Everything concerning politics and the Trade Federation was a snooze-fest. I know that all of it is really important to the overarching story; it was just handled in the wrong way.
Perhaps if the movie wasn’t marketed so heavily toward kids, I wouldn’t have such a problem. It was made very clear that this film was intended to bring a new generation into the Star Wars universe, not to placate old-school original trilogy fans.
Let’s say they made Episode I for adults who fell in love with the originals. Leaning heavily into the political aspects of the story could have made it much more interesting. But with Lucas trying to market the film toward younger audiences – as evidenced by Jar Jar’s presence – anything that would have made a political story interesting wouldn’t have been interesting or appropriate for kids.