As probably the most widely anticipated movie ever made, The Phantom Menace faces the impossible task of fulfilling the tremendous expectations of a huge audience that seems equally willing to crucify it or deify it. Clouded in hype and secrecy, George Lucas' first prequel to his original Star Wars trilogy—and, it should be noted, his first stab at directing since the original Star Wars film—can only disappoint all but the most loyal members of the Star Wars cult, which, in the days leading up to its release, seemed to include almost everyone. Its inevitable failure to do so, then, will be something of a shame; it is, after all, only a movie, and a pretty good one at that. More to the point, it's a Star Wars movie, so it brings with it all the strengths and weaknesses of its predecessors, only more of both. Most of the latter stem from Lucas' tendency to indulge in juvenile humor, frequently embodied by the unfortunate character of Jar Jar Binks, who is somehow actually worse than the doomsayers' speculations. Clumsily fitted into a plot that doesn't really require him, Binks, irritatingly voiced by Ahmed Best and unappealingly rendered in a way that gives him the look of a flatulent toddler, is meant to provide comic relief, but instead kills nearly every scene in which he opens his mouth. It's as if Lucas decided to court younger audience members by patterning a character after a Ritalin-jonesing five-year-old with a speech impediment. Almost as distracting is Jake Lloyd's hollow performance as the boy-who-will-be-Darth Vader, although, because he's really no worse than Mark Hamill, his stilted delivery and limited emotional range might actually be something of an homage. Fart jokes and a two-headed sportscaster help make The Phantom Menace a tad more terrestrial than it probably ought to be, a cartoony underwater adventure early on doesn't really work, two villains speak in accents straight out of Charlie Chan movie puzzles, and the lack of time spent developing Ewan MacGregor and Liam Neeson's characters speaks to a certain amount of laziness. On the other hand, just about everything else here is terrific. Lucas nicely expands the mythology of the Star Wars universe and cleverly plots the installment to effectively set up Menace's sequels. The frequently groundbreaking special effects and action setpieces don't disappoint, either, although many vary only slightly from scenes in the original movies. Despite a shaky start and the presence of questionable elements throughout, by the time it arrives at its finale—which copies Return Of The Jedi's triple-climax structure—The Phantom Menace has won its place alongside the original Star Wars trilogy. Which, in case everyone has forgotten or been afflicted with nostalgia-blinded eyes, were ultimately only movies, if pretty good movies, too.
More from The A.V. Club