For Star Wars people of a certain age, emotional memories of seeing Episode I: The Phantom Menace on opening night are probably all over the place. While it’s popular to say that the movie was the greatest disappointment of all time, it’s also equally possible that many of us loved it, and still think it’s a great movie to this day. Hating Jar Jar Binks was cool in 1999, but not so cool in 2019. (Turns out the guy who played Jar Jar, Ahmed Best, is a great dad and a good dude.) The point is when it comes to Star Wars, and Episode I in specific, it’s nearly impossible to find a consensus. Except of course, in one very specific arena: the toys. The toys for Star Wars: Episode I- The Phantom Menace were — and are — fantastic. And the legacy of the goofiest Star Wars of them all should be the joyful play the movie’s toys created; well outside the confines of the movie theater.
Twenty years ago, it was unthinkable that Toys R Us wouldn’t be around forever, and that’s because in the months leading up to May 19, 1999, most toy stores were basically just Star Wars stores. Aggressively, nearly all the Star Wars toy merchandise adopted a red-orange color scheme, like the suns of Tatooine, were burning the Star Wars brand into your brain. This kind of mass marketing probably makes everyone yawn now, but two decades ago it was a huge deal. Months before Episode I hit theaters, the toys from the film were creating their own kind of narrative, one that suggested the galaxy far, far away was actually bigger and more interesting than it really was.
Toy nerds will tell you that Kenner changed the action figure game in the late seventies and early eighties with the various versions of Star Wars toys based on the original trilogy. This remains largely true, but what people tend to forget is that Star Wars toys in the early and mid-nineties (prior to 1999) were straight-up terrible. For some bizarre reason, Kenner released versions of Luke, Leia, and Han that literally looked like they were on steroids. Luke’s muscles seemed to ripple under his tunic in a way that referenced art about Star Wars more than it actually referenced Star Wars itself.
So, the line of Phantom Menace action figures was like a rebuttal to this. Not only were the likenesses of all the characters naturalistic and accurate but as an added bonus, each figure came with a “CommTech” chip which stored audio clips of dialogue spoken by each character in the film. Basically, these CommTech chips were like shitty flash drives with very limited audiotracks. To use them, you had to wave the chips in front of a separate toy, styled to look like the Jedi communicators, and your action figures would “talk.”
Now, I know this makes The Phantom Menace action figures sound lame and hopelessly anachronistic, but this feature is actually what makes these toys so wonderful. First of all, Hasbro and Lucasfilm were trying something different and innovative with action figures, without making them suck. Second, Darth Maul almost certainly speaks more on your CommTech chip than he does in the entire movie. Again, the toys were creating an alternate dimension; a better, more playful version of Episode I than the one we ended up seeing in movie theaters.
It’s almost like the toys for Episode I took on a life of their own outside of what Star Wars was actually doing at the time. Consider this: One advanced action figure for Episode I was Samuel L. Jackson’s Mace Windu, complete with a blue lightsaber. In the film, Samuel L. Jackson never takes his lightsaber out, and when he does, in 2002’s Attack of the Clones, that lightsaber was purple, not blue. There are a lot of nerdy retroactive explanations for this, but for most people, it was just another example of a weird alternate cut of Episode I; a cut of the film that only existed in plastic.
While some fans contend the best lightsaber toys exist right now in this day and age, at the time, you couldn’t do much better than the Electronic Qui-Gon Jinn Lightsaber. Fun fact: everyone I knew in 1999 called this the KWE-Gone Gin lightsaber, not the KWHY-Gone Gin lightsaber. We had no idea how to pronounce Liam Neeson’s character’s name, which, wasn’t the point. The lightsaber toy was just the lightsaber toy. I can’t prove this, but in my mind, this green-bladed lightsaber toy was more durable, longer and just generally better than any lightsaber toy I’ve held since.
Supposedly the new super-expensive ones at Disneyland will become the definitive lightsaber for kids of the 21st century, but my muscle memory still thinks the green Qui-Gon Jinn one was the best lightsaber. Some of my friends bitched about that red button smack in the center of the hilt, but I think that’s just because they didn’t know how to hold the thing. To me, this saber was perfect and when I flick my wrist a certain way, I can still imagine myself holding it. The day I lost this saber during one of my many apartment moves in New York City is a tragic day. I just wish I could remember when that was. I would be lying if I didn’t often fantasize about someone arriving on my doorstep in Portland, offering my old Episode I lightsaber to me the same way Rey does to Luke in The Force Awakens. But, the reality is, I’m probably just going to have to cough up the $50 bucks on eBay or Etsy.
In fairness, there’s one Phantom Menace toy that’s hard to defend: That candy where you licked Jar Jar’s tongue to eat it. But, I’m going to go ahead and say this “toy” was great because there’s absolutely no way you can imagine the tightly controlled Disney/Star Wars Empire making this kind of obvious marketing blunder now. I mean, you just can’t picture an officially marketed Kylo Ren candy where the candy is Adam Driver’s tongue. This would never happen now.
Which might be the greatest reason to embrace your nostalgia of all the weird shit that came out in 1999 to promote Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. This was a rowdy-ass time for Star Wars, full of untested ideas, talking plastic, and lightsabers that you’d never forget. For those of us who lived through it, it turns out we were spoiled. The newer Star Wars movies might be better, but because toys just don’t matter as much now as they did then, the only version of Star Wars now is the one we see on screens. The Star Wars we played with belongs to history.