In 1999, Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace actively lied to millions and millions of young children. The film presented an uplifting story of a scrappy nine-year-old Dickensian urchin, his awesome laser sword-wielding uncles, plus a 14-year-old badass queen, who is actually a very savvy and progressive politician. This film is nothing like any of the rest of the Star Wars movies that follow, which, from a certain point of view, is deceptive, and also, tragic. Twenty years after its release in 1999, we shouldn’t view The Phantom Menace as the worst Star Wars movie ever. Instead, it’s actually the best one for small children.
Here’s something olds like me don’t want to admit: a lot of kids like Jar Jar Binks. My 21-month-year-old daughter, who has never seen a Star Wars movie and has only held a Jar Jar Binks plush doll, really likes Jar Jar Binks. I have never told anyone I like Jar Jar Binks, and, like my most Star Wars fans my age, I think Jar Jar is one of the worst decisions in The Phantom Menace. And yet, in 1999, when I was 18-years-old, I bought a plush Jar Jar from the bookstore where I worked. Years later, I put that Jar Jar in my office in New York City, where I wrote for a science fiction blog. My office mates and I had Jar Jar dangling by his feet on the mini-blinds, a surefire sign of our age and bad attitudes about The Phantom Menace. (I’m not alone either, J.J. Abrams joked about putting Jar Jars bones in The Force Awakens.) But, when one of those old co-workers mailed me the plush Jar Jar about three months ago, and I saw my daughter’s instant love of the creature, my feelings about The Phantom Menace started to change. I mean, I bought the thing in the first place. On some level, I must like Jar Jar and by extension, I must like The Phantom Menace, right?
Anecdotally, I know there’s a good portion of contemporary young kids who would claim The Phantom Menace as their favorite Star Wars. I’ve found this particularly true among my friends who have daughters about ten years older than my little toddler. For those little girls, Natalie Portman’s Queen Amidala is a fantastic role model and the moment when she says “I will NOT defer” in the Senate scene brings down the house. I’m not making this up. I know a 12-year-old girl who says this is her favorite part in Star Wars. Which, if we’re all being honest, is fucking amazing. Yes, the contemporary Star Wars films have given little girls a larger range of female heroes, but The Phantom Menace is the only one that shows one of those women doing something other than shooting a blaster or wielding a lightsaber. True, Amidala ends the movie blowing away a bunch of battle droids with her blaster, but only after the legal, democratic methods failed.
The Phantom Menace is also a safe film for children in a way that none of the other Star Wars movies are, with, perhaps, the exception of the original 1977 movie. Yes, Qui-Gon Jinn is brutally stabbed by Darth Maul, but in terms of body count, most of the homicide in this Star Wars is connected to the death of comical battle droids. This fact obviously makes the film somewhat toothless relative to its peers, but for parents, you don’t really have to worry about the violence or destruction in this one the same way you do with literally all the other films in the series.
This doesn’t make it a better movie artistically, of course. But, it’s hard to argue The Force Awakens or The Empire Strikes Back are better movies for small children than The Phantom Menace. In this Star Wars romp, no one’s father is a secret space Nazi, beloved friends are not tortured, and heroes are not discovered in seedy bars. There’s also zero scenes in which a son contemplates killing one, or both of his parents. Nor does this film have a scene like the one in its sequel — Attack of the Clones — in which a son sees a parent killed, and then becomes an instant mass murderer as a result.
When you think about The Phantom Menace in isolation, because it’s so cheerful, it basically isn’t a Star Wars movie. Here’s what it’s’ actually about: two kind, well-meaning people run out of gas while rescuing a Queen, and after landing their spaceship, discovery an Oliver Twist in space who has magical powers. If you read that synopsis again, you’ll find yourself wondering why anyone hates The Phantom Menace. It’s a movie about hope, friendship, and optimism. You could argue the other Star Wars movies are also about optimism, but only because those films have the heroes battling genocide and patricide in literally every installment. The fact that the “menace” in The Phantom Menace is a little more ghostly and abstract is nice for kids. It lets the heroes shine a little more brightly.
For people who were born in the ‘80s, it’s very hard to talk about The Phantom Menace without talking about the baggage of having seen the classic trilogy first. But, consider this: someone who was five-years-old in 1999 is 25 years old now. The generation of Star Wars fans who are Phantom Menace-first fans is getting older, and soon they will displace the 30 and 40 somethings like me, and become the true dominant power in the galaxy. All over the internet, you see signs that people want Ewan McGregor to play Obi-Wan Kenobi again in a spinoff film. This is true because people like the prequels and they like The Phantom Menace, a lot.
In ten years, when The Phantom Menace has its 30th anniversary, making fun of the film will no longer be the easy sport it has been for the past two decades. Instead, like the classic trilogy before it, it will be given newfound respect and critical attention. The children who loved the classic Star Wars films, all grew up and kept the stuff they loved sacred. And the same will happen with The Phantom Menace kids. In fact, it’s probably happened already.