‘The Phantom Menace’ at 25: A Lover, Hater and Newcomer Debate Jar Jar Binks, Podraces, Droids and Darth Maul

When “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace” debuted on May 19, 1999, few movies before (or since) were greeted with more fevered anticipation. Not only was the movie the first new “Star Wars” movie in a generation, but it was touted as the first of a prequel trilogy charting the tragedy of Anakin Skywalker, the Jedi Knight fated to turn to the dark side as Darth Vader.

Despite the breathless build up (or perhaps, in part, because of it), by the end of that summer, the near-universal consensus was that “The Phantom Menace” was, at best, a colossal disappointment and, at worst, a calamitous embarrassment. Some blamed the decision by George Lucas — directing for the first time since 1977’s “A New Hope” — to start the story with a precocious 9-year-old Anakin (Jake Lloyd). Others railed against the slapstick antics and pidgin English of Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best), hyped as the first-ever CG main character in a live-action movie.

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The film’s abysmal reputation, however, didn’t hurt its financial prospects — it grossed it grossed $431 million at the domestic box office and $924 million worldwide — and it seems the negativity didn’t last. Along with 2002’s “Attack of the Clones” and 2005’s “Revenge of the Sith,” “The Phantom Menace” has been reclaimed by a generation of fans who first saw the prequel trilogy as kids. The film has been rehabilitated so completely that, according to multiple sources, “The Phantom Menace” is now the most viewed “Star Wars” movie on the streamer worldwide.

“The Phantom Menace” begins with Anakin living as a slave on the desert planet of Tatooine. A few “Star Wars” icons fill out the cast: Ewan McGregor plays a young and eager Obi-Wan Kenobi, who eventually introduces Luke Skywalker to the ways of the force many decades later; Ian McDiarmid plays Senator Palpatine, who eventually becomes the Galactic Emperor and seduces an adult Anakin to the Dark Side; and the stalwart droids R2-D2 and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) begin their adventure a long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.

Otherwise, “The Phantom Menace” introduces several new characters played by movie stars: Liam Neeson as Qui-Gon Jinn, Obi-Wan’s Jedi Master; Natalie Portman as Padmé Amidala, the young queen of Naboo and Anakin’s future wife; and Samuel L. Jackson as Mace Windu, Jedi Master and prominent member of the Jedi Council.

And then there’s Jar Jar, who wound up exemplifying what some people despised about the movie — and much of what others loved about it.

To commemorate the film’s 25th anniversary, three Variety staffers with three different histories with “The Phantom Menace” gathered to watch the movie and share their thoughts on Gungans, podraces, lightsaber battles and what, if anything, has changed about the movie after a quarter century.

Adam B. Vary: To kick off our conversation, I should cop up front to my personal bias: I was in college when “The Phantom Menace” came out, and I was among the generation of fans who thought it was a galactic letdown. The original trilogy dominated my childhood in the 1980s, and I zealously attended the theatrical re-releases in the 1990s — the ones that George Lucas updated with CGI that ranged from fine to disgraceful. (I am team “Han shot first.”) So naturally, I obsessed over every scrap of news about “The Phantom Menace” and saw it on opening weekend — launching my lifelong loathe-affair with Jar Jar Binks.

Angelique Jackson: I, too, saw the movie on opening weekend, but unlike Adam, I was 8. My dad introduced me to the original trilogy before I went to kindergarten to ensure I’d be properly socialized, so I grew up idolizing Princess Leia, totally in love with Han Solo and a star student of Yoda’s teachings. For “The Phantom Menace,” my father and I queued up in a line that wrapped around movie theater, gabbing with another dad and his young daughter. The roar of the crowd when the opening scroll began — as a room full of people who, like my dad, never really imagined there’d be more “Star Wars” — is a core memory. Add on the fact that I was the same age as Anakin and Queen Amidala was essentially a badass older-sister figure — I’ve got a real soft spot for “Episode I.”

Katcy Stephan: I had never seen a “Star War” until 2024. I grew up watching tons of movies with my family, but this is one franchise that just never really came up in our home. My understanding of the series up to this point has purely come through osmosis as someone who’s been working in pop culture for almost a decade. Well, and some trips to Disneyland — C-3PO was a great Star Tours guide! I know the broad strokes (Anakin is Darth Vader, Han and Leia are the it couple, Kylo Ren is Ben Solo), some random trivia (the music the cantina band plays is, for some reason, called “jizz”) and that people generally aren’t too fond of the prequels, to put it mildly. All that’s to say, “The Phantom Menace” is my formal introduction to a galaxy far, far away.

Vary: So what did you think?

Stephan: Honestly, it was pretty fun! It definitely doesn’t align with my notion of what a “Star Wars” movie would be — it felt like an action-packed kids movie, almost like if Kevin McCallister from “Home Alone” was in space. The podracing, the focus on young Anakin — and of course, the Jar Jar Binks of it all — were much sillier than I expected.

Vary: That’s one way to put it!

Stephan: Let me be clear: “fun” and “bad” aren’t mutually exclusive.

Vary: Well, for me in this case, “bad” was very much “not fun.” You’re absolutely right, Katcy, that “The Phantom Menace” is not like other “Star Wars” movies — it’s so much more stolid than even I remembered it, especially in the first half. It’s overrun with airless, declarative dialogue, with so little of the zip and joy that feels at the core of what’s made “Star Wars” so enduring. But I’m a cranky Old.

Jackson: I wouldn’t say you’re a cranky Old, Adam, but I don’t know if this movie will ever work for you based on the fact that you’d already intellectualized “Star Wars” lore as an adult by the time you saw it.

I had the same realization as Katcy upon our re-watch. This is the “Star Wars” kids movie, full of silly creatures, stupid humor and very well-choreographed action sequences, with a bunch of unintelligible political wheeling and dealing in the background. There are plenty of elements that never quite gel, but I had more fun than I remembered.

Vary: The thing is, all the “Star Wars” movies are kids movies, I feel? This one is just only for kids. Plus, there are the unfortunate, uh, accents throughout, which evoke Earthbound stereotypes that feel terribly misguided.

Is this a good time to ask what you both think of Jar Jar?

STAR WARS: EPISODE I - THE PHANTOM MENACE, Liam Neeson, Jar Jar Binks, 1999
STAR WARS: EPISODE I - THE PHANTOM MENACE, Liam Neeson, Jar Jar Binks, 1999

Stephan: I really wanted to love him — I always gravitate towards a joke-cracking sidekick! I was hopeful at the beginning: He’s endearing and good-hearted. Unfortunately, it was distracting to have him interject with jokes that fell flat during serious moments. It didn’t feel like he served much purpose narratively. That said, I was very happy when he got his promotion to general.

Jackson: So was I! You could never make me hate Jar Jar. But the character hits differently now. As a kid, I was vaguely aware of the controversy around his accent, but as an adult it’s far more glaring, and, as you said, Adam, unfortunate. (And there are a few more characters that made me wince…)

That said, there’s something about Jar Jar that always makes me laugh — even though the larger themes of him going from bumbling buffoon/social pariah to hero aren’t explored enough to really work.

Vary: It’s also hard for me to watch knowing that Ahmed Best bore the brunt of the Jar Jar backlash even though his only sin was delivering exactly what Lucas wanted with that character. He’s talked about the desperate places the hatred for Jar Jar took him, so I’m happy that he was able to come back to “Star Wars” to play a Jedi knight in “The Mandalorian.”

Best wasn’t the only actor whose life was effectively ruined by “The Phantom Menace,” either. Jake Lloyd not only swore off acting but destroyed all of his “Star Wars” memorabilia. That kid got such a raw deal. I remember how cruel fans could be about his performance at the time the movie first came out, but I have to say, the biggest revelation for me in this rewatch was how much better he was than I’d remembered. Maybe it’s because this is the first time I’ve seen the movie since becoming a parent, but I thought Lloyd was really affecting as wee Ani.

Stephan: People didn’t like him as Anakin? That’s actually shocking to me. Not only was he stinking adorable, but I thought he did a pretty good job handling some of the tougher emotional beats, like parting with his mother and his disappointment over being rejected as a Jedi.

What I can’t get past (and this is no fault of Lloyd’s), is the absolutely bonkers way they set up a future relationship between Anakin and Padmé. Natalie Portman is a whole teenager, but her character is weirdly flirting with this little kid? I felt so much secondhand embarrassment during scenes they shared.

Jackson: As a kid, I read this as Anakin having a crush on the babysitter and her being nice. There’s just a believability to the way he delivers a line like, “Are you an angel?” that always cracks my heart wide open. I, like Qui-Gon Jinn (R.I.P.), would fight to the death to protect this little guy. His backstory — born of immaculate conception and growing up a slave — is also super bleak, but there’s a lightness to Lloyd’s performance that both captures the reality of the situation and his childlike belief that one day his circumstances might change.

Of course, all those hopes and dreams come down to young Skywalker’s ability to fix anything and being the only human capable of podracing. I remember being absolutely blown away by those scenes (and Lloyd in that adorable little helmet).

STAR WARS: EPISODE 1-THE PHANTOM MENACE, Jake Lloyd, 1999. TM and Copyright © 20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved./courtesy Everett Collection
STAR WARS: EPISODE 1-THE PHANTOM MENACE, Jake Lloyd, 1999. TM and Copyright © 20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved./courtesy Everett Collection

Stephan: Is this a safe space to say that the podracing scene went on for way too long? I was rooting for little Anakin and excited for the competition, but it just wouldn’t end. I couldn’t believe what a large chunk of the movie was dedicated to it! It felt so obvious that he would win, and the stakes just weren’t there to sustain the length of that sequence for me.

Vary: It’s hard to overstate how much the podracing sequence was hyped in the run up to “The Phantom Menace” as a showcase for how CGI would revolutionize cinema. Unlike the land-speeder sequence from “Return of the Jedi,” there probably isn’t a way Industrial Light & Magic could’ve done the podracing scenes without digital effects — at least with the scope Lucas renders here. Between that imperative and Lucas’ lifelong love of drag racing, I guess it’s inevitable that it lasted so long.

At least there’s a visual dynamism to the podracing, which is more than I can say for the four parallel action sequences in the movie’s final act, which were as turgid and tedious as I remembered them. Except for Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan’s lightsaber battle with Darth Maul (Ray Park) — that still slaps, in no small part due to John Williams’ god tier score.

Jackson: I think you can tell by the way I physically reacted to the reveal of Darth Maul’s dual lightsaber that I’m a huge fan of the Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan face off. (It’s in my top 3 “Star Wars” battles of all time — No. 1 being Darth Vader vs. Luke Skywalker, obviously, and No. 2 being the Rey and Kylo Ren fight at the end of “The Last Jedi.”)

There’s a reason that Darth Maul is one of the greatest “Star Wars” villains: His makeup and horned face are fearsome. His aerial gymnastics are spectacular. He made being a Sith look cool. He even made getting sliced in half iconic. Also, I’d sort of forgotten that Qui-Gon gets first crack at Darth Maul in the desert, so I was happy to see that Liam Neeson gets some good lightsaber dueling beyond this scene, since it has a tragic end.

Stephan: The lightsaber battle with Darth Maul was the best part of the film. I actually had no idea that Qui-Gon died, so I genuinely gasped when he was impaled. Obi-Wan’s rage-filled revenge kill had me ready to roar in my seat, and that score is just untouchable.

I did have a question throughout the film in regards to the droids. In an early scene, droids are sent in place of humans for a fight deemed too dangerous, and they get mowed down at a pretty hefty pace throughout the film. That said, there are lovable, personified droids like C-3PO and R2-D2, which left me wondering what the role of robotkind is in this franchise. Are they seen as lesser than people, and disposable?

Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace lightsaber Darth Maul
Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace lightsaber Darth Maul

Vary: Er, yeah. Think house elves, but robots, and you’re pretty close to how droids work within the “Star Wars” cosmology: a race of artificial lifeforms of varying levels of intelligence and sentience who are (almost) uniformly fine with being a perpetual servant class. (The only time this dynamic has been really interrogated on the big screen is in 2018’s “Solo: A Star Wars Story.”)

By the way, Lucas doubles down on the idea of a disposable army in the next movie, “Attack of the Clones,” and that’s a feature, not a bug: One of his inspirations for the very first “Star Wars” was the Vietnam War, which would make the United States the Empire. Taken as a whole, the prequels are a shrewd exploration of how a democracy can be undermined from within into authoritarianism — that crafty Palpatine and his corrupting machinations! While I take issue with how Lucas goes about telling that story, I can’t deny that it’s depressingly more relevant in 2024 than it was in 1999.

On that cheery note, Katcy, has “The Phantom Menace” enticed you to continue your Star Wars journey?

Stephan: Weirdly enough, “The Phantom Menace” gave me the “Star Wars” bug. After we screened it, I came home and finally started playing the video game “Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order” for the first time, since I felt excited about the franchise! Even though I know this isn’t most people’s favorite film in the series, it definitely made me understand the appeal and got me curious for what’s next. It feels like I should just move on in episode order from here? Is that a good plan?

Jackson: My favorite order is: the original trilogy, the prequels, “Solo: A Star Wars Story” (which I mostly enjoyed!), “Rogue One” (which is even better!), maybe the original trilogy again and then the sequel trilogy starting with “The Force Awakens.” It’s worth getting the foundation of the lore from the originals before diving deeper into the prequels, because Lucas makes parallels between them that are confusing otherwise.

Vary: Angelique is right: If you see the first six movies as Darth Vader’s story, then you should next watch 1977’s “Star Wars” (which was re-titled “Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope” only after that movie became a sensation). Then watch “The Empire Strikes Back,” which ends with a twist involving Luke and Darth Vader that I’m certain you’ve never heard about, Katcy, and will come as a genuine surprise. That twist sends you back into a two-movie flashback of “Attack of the Clones” and “Revenge of the Sith,” covering Darth Vader’s origins and the rise of Emperor Palpatine, followed by “Return of the Jedi” to see how it all ends. And then you can finish with the sequel trilogy, a perfectly conceived series of movies that, um, have zero creative problems and totally hang together as a single, cohesive narrative.

That is just one of several suggested viewing orders, so it’s really up to you.

Stephan: This is really helpful! I think what I’m going to do is ignore you both and watch in episode order, because I thrive on chaos.

Vary: Are you gonna say it, Angelique, or should I?

Jackson: May the Force be with you.

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