Originally printed May 24 1999

Paul Wong
Sixteen-year-old Portman. Yeah, 16. (Courtesy of Lucasfilm)

A long time a ago, in a galaxy not so far away (Brooklyn, NY, actually) my pregnant mother accompanied my father to a new movie called “Star Wars.” That was the beginning of a long love affair with a special trilogy of films that has a unique place in American culture and the hearts of many people of all ages.

So, it’s with great anticipation that the newest film from legend George Lucas, “Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace,” hyperdrives into theaters. And it doesn’t disappoint.

There are few films that are as special as the original “Star Wars” – a blend of science fiction, mythology and religion.

It’s remembered by many as a movie that brings pure joy while instilling a sense of adventure and pride. The rebel forces battling the evil empire, embarking on a journey to free the galaxy from those who would terrorize it.

Not many people will shy away from the first in the new trilogy of “Star Wars” movies because of a bad review. So despite critical attacks on the film, it will break the bank. And that’s a good thing.

“The Phantom Menace” leaves you with the feeling of bubbly excitement that the first three left you with, while deftly telling the story that kicked off the original trilogy.

Centering on a conflict between the Trade Federation and the peaceful planet Naboo, “The Phantom Menace” plants the seeds for the destruction of the Republic and the genesis of the evil Empire.

Audiences are launched into the story when two Jedi – Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson, “Michael Collins”) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor, “Trainspotting”) – are dispatched to settle the dispute. But there is something sinister afoot and the pair end up fighting for their lives.

Beyond that, there is no point in revealing the plot. It would just ruin a perfectly enjoyably movie going experience. You should go into the theater as I did – free of spoilers and critical derision.

For fans of the original three films, “The Phantom Menace,” holds many special moments: Obi-Wan meeting Anakin Skywalker, the introduction of C3-PO and R2-D2 and many other treats.

But those not familiar with the trilogy can also enjoy the film that works as any myth or legend does, with the film’s fantastic creatures and majestically enacted battles.

There are a few scenes that stand out from the rest of the film. The pod race scene on Tatooine is an intense marvel that will have your heart thundering from beginning to end. And to get your blood racing just a little faster, the final lightsaber battle is simply unbelievable.

It’s evident that the choreography of “The Phantom Menace” is light years ahead of where it was in “Return of the Jedi.”

Ray Parks as Darth Maul embodies pure terror. It’s possible that as “The Phantom Menace”‘s villain, Darth Maul is even more frightening than Darth Vader.

Additionally, there is a terrific scene in the Republic Senate Chamber that rewards close viewing. Keep an eye out for cameo appearances by a group of Wookies and a group of E.T.s.

Though the film is a joy, it isn’t without problems. In fact, there are two glaring problems that at times interfere with your enjoyment of the film.

Jar Jar Binks (voice of Ahmed Best) is a computer generated character and an annoyance. Though you might stare in wonder at what a technical marvel the character is, from the get-go it’s hard to bear him on the screen.

I’m sure Lucas intended him as some sort of comic relief, but the whole time you’re hoping he will be the victim of stray blaster fire. On the annoyance scale, he definitely beats the Ewoks hands down.

This is compounded by just how bad Jake Lloyd (“Jingle All the Way”) is as Anakin Skywalker. The kid just can’t act and brings less range to the part than Mark Hamill brought to Luke. It’s just good that Anakin will grow up and Lloyd hopefully won’t make a repeat appearance in “Episode II.”

With the exception of Lloyd, though, the cast is wonderful. Unlike in the original “Star Wars,” Lucas actually hired real actors for “The Phantom Menace.”

Both Neeson and McGregor give solid performances as calm and collected Jedi. It will be a pleasure to see McGregor really develop the role in “Episode II” when he gets more screen time and a chance to take more risks with the character.

As Queen Amidala, Natalie Portman (“Mars Attacks!”) proves that she’s an actress to keep your eye on. She can play regal and vulnerable without missing a beat and is frequently a scene stealer, giving the film’s best performance.

Other respectable performances are turned in by Ian McDiarmid as Senator Palpatine, picking up his role from “Return of the Jedi,” and Ingmar Bergman favorite Pernilla August as Shmi Skywalker, Anakin’s mother.

With only a few more minor problems, “The Phantom Menace” is terrific. Though it’s impossible not to come into the film without expectations, try to imagine the mindframe in which you saw “Star Wars – A New Hope” “The Phantom Menace” is better than “Return of the Jedi,” but not quite as good as “Star Wars” and “The Empire Strikes Back.” It’s with the purity that you saw “Star Wars” that you will best appreciate “The Phantom Menace.”

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