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STAR WARS: EPISODE 1 THE PHANTOM MENACE
Movie: 3.0; Disc: 4.0

While the original Star Wars movies have aged well in one sense (their magical, mythical sense of childhood wonderment and space opera morality) and not well in another (the special effects aren't as special, not even with the Lucas Redux makeovers and the pacing is sometimes lethargic), lovers of the franchise were very critical of The Phantom Menace with all its overblown excesses, poor acting (credit Jake Lloyd here) and its trivialization of the mystical essence behind the Force. The movie made a fortune and for many fans of the series, the less than stellar production was good enough, while others more critical used this fourth entry to disparage the entire Star Wars series, both past and potential future.

Surprisingly, and, for no specific reason, The Phantom Menace works better on the home video screen than it did at the theaters. After only one viewing, it seems that Lucas may have "tweaked" the movie in subtle ways that even I haven't been able to put my finger on, at least not yet. Perhaps what we see and hear on DVD is exactly what we saw and heard in the theatrical version, but the film seems tightened up and all the annoying racially-influenced accents seem less obtrusive. Even Jar Jar Binks seems a tad less overpowering. Perhaps ones perceptions were not so high upon watching the DVD home release and the viewer can digest the movie without bias or high expectations. Ultimately, the film is never better than three stars, but the story seems better cemented, the various set-pieces better fused together and the pacing seems to move at a faster clip.

On the positive side, The Phantom Menace has been transferred to DVD with a pristine THX mastered print, letterboxed at 2:35:1, containing an awesome Dolby Digital 5.1 EX soundtrack that is state of the art. For instance, the film's centerpiece pod race has never looked nor sounded better, and the sequence would be a fine test for anyone considering purchasing a home theater system. The two disc set containing over six hours of additional material includes deleted scenes and a deleted scenes documentary; The Beginning, an hour-long documentary on the making of the movie; special effects sequences (multi-angle) from storyboard, to animatic, to film; five featurettes involving different aspects of the making of the movie; a 12-part web documentary; music video; poster and publicity campaign from around the world; theatrical trailers and TV spots; a DVD-ROM weblink to more Star Wars content; etc. In other words, for the most dedicated fan, this home video release is definitive and priced right.

Still, the film is very much flawed. The casting of Jake Lloyd as Anakin Skywalker was a terrible misstep, Evan McGregor as Obi-Wan vanishes far too long in the middle of the movie and is woefully underused and Ray Parks as Darth Maul becomes the MTV/video game Darth Vader bastardized clone that belongs in the movie only to demonstrate his combatic skills. The film lacks any of the surprises nor even the grandeur of the three earlier movies and substitutes a larger budget for lack of imagination and vision. Also, use of current slang and Rugrats-type potty humor helps to ruin the mythic feel of the original series. However, since The Phantom Menace did intend to introduce the nine-part serial (that plan has apparently fallen by the wayside and the series will stand with six films), perhaps some allowances should be granted allowing the dramatic cumbersome structure to snap into gear.

Natalie Portman as the Queen, both in disguise and in her actual queenly garb, becomes the dramatic centerpiece of the film, the focus of our attention and the only character to engage us emotionally. Lian Neeson as Qui-Gon is fine when playing the stoic Jedi master, but he is too aloof and misdirected (insisting that Anakin be trained as a Jedi even though the Jedi council detects a disturbance in the Force involving him) to make him a flesh and blood character that we care for continually throughout the screenplay. Even the usually brilliant Samuel Jackson seems to be sleepwalking through his part. The podrace, annoyingly long in the theaters, does improve with time as a technical marvel, but too many technical marvels simply are included to draw attention to themselves, instead of being an integral part to the development of story and character.

I am anxious to see the next installment in this new Star Wars trilogy (it will be especially pleasing to see Christopher Lee, just as it was to see Peter Cushing in the origianl), but unless the second installment, to be released in 2002, is a vast improvement over The Phantom Menace, George Lucas might be considered the latest wizard of movie magic who overstayed his welcome reducing a superb film franchise into expensive, superficial fodder. While The Phantom Menace is at best a good movie, such is not enough to be worthy to join the legendary status of the Star Wars classics.