Let’s play a little “Good News/Bad News” in the When Can I Watch column this week.
For instance, the good news is that Star Wars
returns to the big screen this weekend, with plans for all six episodes of George Lucas’ saga to be converted to 3D for your viewing pleasure. The bad news is that we have to start with The Phantom Menace
, the oft-maligned opening chapter to the Prequel Trilogy.
Having Star Wars
back in theaters, though, also gives parents yet another opportunity to introduce young Padawans to the sci-fi franchise that (likely) was so formative to their own adolescent years. And that’s good news. As we mentioned in the very first When Can I Watch column
, A New Hope
was a gateway drug, a door to endless cinematic realms that we continue opening with each new film.
The bad news is that kids who start this epic journey to a galaxy far, far away with Menace could quickly grow bored with talk of trade-route taxation and squabbles in the galactic Senate.
Ah, I bet you forgot – in the 13 years since you’ve seen it – how political Star Wars: Episode I can be. Let’s clear things up by rescuing young Anakin from slavery, twirling Darth Maul’s two-headed lightsaber and figuring out when you can watch The Phantom Menace with your kids.
Green Lights: “He is the chosen one. He will bring balance.”
A few weekends ago, 20th Century Fox and Lucasfilm invited a select group of movie-journalist parents and their kids to the legendary Skywalker Ranch outside of San Francisco for a day of interactive activities tied to the 3D re-release of Phantom Menace.
I brought my oldest son, P.J., who received lightsaber training from a Jedi Master named ObiShawn, learned how models were used to construct the pod race sequence, recorded droid voices for a Menace
scene, and basically soaked up the atmosphere of the Ranch. It was a truly special experience, one that opened my eyes to Star Wars
– and to Phantom Menace
, specifically – in a completely different way (watch the video interviews over at Fandango
How? Late in the day, after the official activities had wrapped, the kids – none of whom had met prior to the Ranch visit – formed impromptu lightsaber games in and around the Tech Building. They divided themselves up into Jedi and Sith, and they laughed, screamed, fought and cheered as if Star Wars had been an integral part of their lives since day one.
Probably because it has been.
I was sitting with HitFix scribe Drew McWeeny
, whose son Toshi was dueling with P.J., and asked him if, in light of these spontaneous activities, Lucas would argue that he has been right all along. Could he legitimately claim that his movies – which take a beating from reputed fans – are perfect for children who tap directly into the inherent spirit and adventure of the Star Wars
universe? Watching our sons leap deliriously from one “battle” to the next, it was nearly impossible to argue against Lucas’ wisdom.
I kept that newfound knowledge in mind when revisiting Phantom Menace for this week’s column, and it helped me find unique aspects to appreciate. The heavy use of CGI in the prequels makes them a closer relative to the animated Clone Wars series than they are to the original films, which rely on sets, costumes and props instead of impressive (and expensive) digital shortcuts.
The CG also allows Lucas and his team to fine-tune the look of their massive ships, their sprawling worlds, their savage creatures and their strange alien races, building on the imagination of the first three films but expanding the universe in ways Lucas could only dream of in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. You might not think Gungan outcast Jar Jar Binks is a welcome addition to the Star Wars galaxy, but young kids should be entertained by his broad comic relief.
They’ll also be enthralled by the film’s two coolest elements: Darth Maul, a horn-headed Sith apprentice whose two-sided lightsaber proves to be too much for Jedi warriors Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor); and the Tatooine pod race, which multiples the thrills of Return of the Jedi’s speeder bike sequence by 10.
It’s probably worth seeing Phantom Menace on the big screen just to see the few choice sequences in 3D. They are the true Green Lights of the Prequel Trilogy’s first chapter. But in order to enjoy them, you have to wade through some challenging material, and we’ll dig into that in the Red Flags section.
Red Flags: “The ability to speak does not make you intelligent.”
Furthering George Lucas’ belief that the Star Wars movies really are aimed at children, there is nothing objectionable in Phantom Menace. Even when key characters lose their lives – and I’ll avoid spoilers if, for some reason, you’ve read this far without having seen the film – the deaths are quick and bloodless.
It’s another reason why I associate Menace more with the animated Clone Wars shows than I do the original films. Not that Empire or Jedi were exercises in gore. But the violence and danger on screen in the original trilogy was realistic … if you can say a storyline set in the farthest reaches of outer space is realistic.
Yet Lucas, the screenwriter, tries to have his cake and eat it, too, with Phantom Menace, and the movie suffers as a result.
Select bits -- from slang-slinging Jar Jar Binks to young Anakin – certainly pander to pint-sized, toy-craving audience members. The film’s overly political plot, however, appeals to lifelong Star Wars fanatics who devoured books and fan fiction in the wake of Return of the Jedi. Lucas tries to fill in back-story gaps for important Star Wars characters, introducing Senator Palpatine of Naboo (Ian McDiarmid) and Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) so we can see how they’ll connect to Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia and Han Solo. But I dare your youngest kids to maintain focus as Neeson, Portman and others drone on about oppression by the trade federation or the importance of midichlorians.
Lucas couldn’t have been thinking too deeply about his alleged target demographic as he penned those dry passages for Phantom Menace. Because even this 37-year-old Star Wars fan had a difficult time caring deeply about Naboo politics as I patiently waited for Darth Maul’s next attack.
So, who will tolerate Phantom Menace? Let’s cut to the chase.
Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace is perfectly appropriate for kids age 7 and up.
Now, some will stay with it better than others. And really, there’s so much visual stimulation going on in Phantom Menace that even when the plot bogs down in stuffy exposition, young audience members should be fascinated by the gorgeous space backdrops and unique creatures. And, of course, the next lightsaber battle is only 15 minutes away … tops.
is widely criticized as the worst of the Star Wars
films, and that’s hard to argue against. Lucas seemed to be finding his feet again after a length layoff, and he tightened the slack in Attack of the Clones
and Revenge of the Sith
. But as David Cornelius of eFilmCritic summed up in his Menace review
, “What's important to remember is that the better moments don't merely balance out the weaker ones - they topple them.”
Well said. And for that reason, sample some Phantom Menace with your kids, and help foster the next generation of Star Wars fans.
If you’d like to read previous entries in the "When Can I Watch That With My Kids?" series, click right here. Some of the films covered: Star Wars, Back to the Future, The Goonies, Hugo, The Princess Bride, The Monster Squad and Elf, to name just a few.