The Phantom Menace (1999) was the return of the Star Wars franchise, presented as a prequel to the original trilogy. Directed once again by creator George Lucas, this film has a fresh cast list including Ewan McGregor, Liam Neeson, Natalie Portman and Jake Lloyd. Two Jedi Knights go on a hunt to search for somebody who can restore peace to the Force, when they come across a young boy known as Anakin Skywalker (Lloyd).
As a prequel, I appreciate that one of the major tasks it achieves is explaining the background of one of the most iconic characters in movie history with Anakin Skywalker. What was also refreshing here is how Anakin is presented as not the villainous monster we know him as, but as a young boy with what appears to be a bright future. It is hard to believe that we could cheer him on knowing what is going to occur in the future, yet I ended up wanting him to succeed throughout.
The performances here from the main cast are superb, particularly from Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor. I have been a fan of McGregor’s works, but I can understand why many people cherish his role here in particular and why so many are excited for the Kenobi show coming to Disney+. Neeson though steals the show here, not only with the most screen time but with the most development of all of the characters here.
The change in technology from Return to the Jedi to here is drastic and the crew here really experimented with the amount of freedom they could have from this franchise now. The underwater sequences actually look solid for a film made before 2000 and the creature designs were allowed to be more ambitious and bolder. The fight sequences were also elevated here, with better choreography and use of cinematography to heighten the stunts and sequences here.
This film, however, has many flaws as people like to point out with the prequels. This film takes incredibly long to get into, with the set-up not really being enthralling or captivating to me. It is not until Anakin appears on screen that I actually started to care about the storyline or the film overall. For a film that is over two hours, I could have seen it shortened a little bit to create a better flow and tighten up the narrative.
Not knowing what audience to target this film at seemed to be a big problem, as there was a completely messy balance of tones here. There are emotional beats that really work for me, however they are usually overshadowed by sequences that try to be humourous and instead come off as childish. The biggest offender of this, as to no shock from anyone, is the inclusion of Jar Jar Binks. It took me exactly one minute of him being on-screen for me to utterly hate the character and his purpose of being in the franchise. It feels completely childish and off tonally of what the Star Wars franchise is about.
If we were to theoretically shorten the runtime of the film or add scenes to make the narrative stronger, I would suggest shortening the pod racing sequence by at least half. For a concept that sounds cool on paper, this sequence is incredibly boring and repetitive, with the interesting aspects of the pod racing actually occurring before and after the actual race. The race itself does not have exciting action, the tension of the race itself or strong visual impact to keep the audience entertained for what is a ten to fifteen-minute sequence. It just takes too long and drags the film down with it.
There are some great ideas that are used in The Phantom Menace, and overall the film can be quite enjoyable at times. However, it is very slow to build up from the start, the pod racing sequences went on way longer than necessary and I cannot forgive how frustrating it is to be forced to try and care about a character such as Jar Jar Binks. The humour and tones are unbalanced and it is a shame, because when this movie hits the emotional notes they actually tend to work for me. There are moments worth watching in here though and I would still say to check it out if you have not yet.
What are your thoughts on The Phantom Menace? Are you someone that completely dislikes the prequels, or do you get enjoyment out of them? Let me know in the comments section and let’s have a discussion.