Plot: The peaceful planet of Naboo is under pressure from the Trade Federation, which has chosen to bypass the laws and target the lush planet. The planet is divided between residents on the surface and those which live below, but because of their differences, the two sides never seem to be able to combine forces. In an effort to calm the situation, Naboo’s Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) sends two Jedi warriors to speak with the leaders of the Trade Federation. Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his pupil Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) are the chosen men and they venture to the ship, but end up under attack and manage a narrow escape. After a wild chain of events, these two Jedis band together with a Gungan outcast Jar Jar Binks, a gifted young boy Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), and one of Amidala’s servants, Padme to challenge the dark forces, headed by Darth Sidious, an unknown and unseen evil presence. As Darth Sidious’ right hand man Darth Maul closes in on the band of rebels, will he able to end their quest before it begins? This kind of adventure is never easy, but with a team like they have, perhaps Naboo can be saved, but of course, they’ll need some help from unexpected places.
Entertainment Value: After the original Star Wars movies became pop culture icons and amassed countless millions of fans, a return to that realm seemed inevitable, but it took George Lucas a good while. The Phantom Menace would kick off another trilogy in the Star Wars universe, this time serving as a prequel narrative that shed light on how Darth Vader rose to power and was turned to the dark side. Of course, this movie would be lambasted by both critics and audiences, who felt it lacked the magic found in the classic films. I would never argue that The Phantom Menace is in the same class as those movies, but I think a lot of viewers forget that much like the originals, this was designed with a young audience in mind. If you watch the classic trilogy with a critical eye, none of them hold up that well, so that The Phantom Menace was geared to be kid friendly should have surprised no one. I do think the emphasis leaned too much toward humor, as even the battle scenes are more about zaniness than tension, while stakes seem minimal at best. The senate scenes remain serious and dramatic, but aside from those sequences, this is a light, brisk sci/fi action flick.
While The Phantom Menace is a steep drop off from the original movies, it does have some fantastic sequences and memorable moments. The pod race scene has some excellent sound design and offers an effective atmosphere, a true set piece that helps elevate the film’s overall appeal. I also really like the lightsaber fights in this one, as they are similar in tone to the more dramatic battles from the originals, though I know some dislike how rehearsed they seem. I like the stylized duels more than slick, kinetic action, as you can find that approach in most movies, but this more elegant, old school style is quite fun. I also think Darth Maul is a fun character, even if he wasted here, while Ewan McGregor is a more than capable young Obi-Wan. At the same time, the movie is filled with terrible performances, laughable dramatic dialogue, and of course, some dismal visual effects. The CGI here often has minimal texture depth, so everything looks slick or made of plastic. Given how many organic beings are represented by the visual effects, that is bad news. Jake Lloyd is awful, Natalie Portman is hilariously bad, and Liam Neeson seems embarrassed by his lines, but to me, these hokey efforts add some much needed entertainment value, even if it is unintentional. This might not be the Star Wars movie I wanted, but I can see the camp appeal and if you can embrace the cheese, there’s some fun to be had here.