Throwback Thursday: The Phantom Menace's 20th Anniversary

by Todd King, contributing writer

MousePlanet exclusive articles from within Galaxy's Edge

Wow! I'm so excited (maybe slightly jealous) that Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix and Alan S. Dalinka have had sneak peaks into Batuu. It's true... all of it! And you can read about those details in the following articles listed below. I can hardly believe it's so close to the opening of the first Black Spire Outpost to Disney guests. Check out their detailed observations (though they were not allowed to take photos or video inside) just to add more incredible hype that's already incredible.

Throwback Thursday: Before the beginning

Twenty years ago on this day, May 16, 1999, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace opened in Los Angeles (with its wide release on May 19). It probably took the title of "most-anticipated movie of all time" up to that point, toppling the previous title-holder, Return of the Jedi. But Jedi was under anticipation for (what seemed like, at the time of being a child, a long) three years. The thought of seeing the actual "Episode I" of Star Wars was something that eluded us fans for 16 years and even then, we had already been pondering the ideas of the first episode, since the films became numbered. We had a long time to think about this during what has come to be affectionately known as "the dark times" when there was pretty much zero Star Wars to be found anywhere outside of the VHS release of the original trilogy. That, we watched again and again and built up the pre-history of the saga in our minds… for decades. Because of this long-simmering hype, there was never a chance the movie could have lived up to those deep-rooted expectations. Anticipation, in life, wins out too many times.

The result was a movie that set out to do a lot:

  • Establish the beginning of the saga
  • Introduce Star Wars to a new generation
  • Set the stage for the remaining two movies in this new trilogy
  • Fit in with the overall lore of the galaxy
  • Put in motion the actions that had yet to be fulfilled in the following stories
  • Meet expectations to advance special effects like the first film did
  • Entertain audiences whether they're fans or not

George Lucas embarked on one of the most ambitious cinematic projects ever; one that nobody felt they could direct. Lucas asked Ron Howard and Stephen Speilberg to direct it—both said the only person who could do it was Lucas himself. Undaunted, Lucas took the reins with his main goal of creating an entertaining movie that was different from what he'd done before. The final product has given us a lot to talk about over the years, which is a testament to the movie (the highest-grossing of the prequels) itself.

Living up to the convention's name, Star Wars Celebration held a panel last month to honor the 20th anniversary of The Phantom Menace with special guests from the production as well as stars Ian McDiarmid, Ray Park, Anthony Daniels, and Ahmed Best. It was a nice and almost affectionate look back at the movie that over time has seen a weird history with critics and fans, ranging from being maligned, to being appreciated, to being loved.

After all this time, the generation that was young when the movie came out has grown up and, if the reaction at Celebration was any indication, it has embraced the film as part of its childhood as much as older fans did so with the original films. I'm one of the older fans and over the years, I did struggle with this film because it felt so different from what I had seen before. In my even older times I've come to appreciate it. While some of it doesn't appeal to me, I still get so much out of it. Sure there may be some silliness (which I'll touch on) but I still get things I like such as more depth in the lore of the Jedi, a forming of relationships through shared struggles, space battles, and a memorable score. No matter what harsh critics may say, it's Star Wars, and I will always love it.

For a look back from those involved in the movie itself, here's the panel, hosted by Warwick Davis, from last month's Celebration.

Star Wars: Phantom Menace 20th Anniversary Celebration live panel. Official Star Wars YouTube Channel.

Continuing with my "Throwback Thursday" series (see A New Hope, Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi), let's take a look at the humor in The Phantom Menace, which won't necessarily be a difficult task. Episode I is arguably the funniest film in the saga—whether you agree with that or not—to me, it's certainly the film that tries the hardest to be funny.

When a movie, or play or TV show or anything tries too hard to be funny, it often has the reverse effect. That's not to say that none of the jokes and gags in the film work—it's to say that it is often a bit obvious when we are supposed to laugh and that often makes us not laugh at all; we've been led this way by countless movies before. Jar Jar Binks accidentally stepping in poop is an example of the easy joke. Not unfunny, just a bit… common. It doesn't help that a few scenes later sees Jar Jar saying, "Pew" when a four-legged creature farts in his face. At that point it's just a bit… cheap. What I have found upon re-watches, however, is that there are plenty moments of subtle humor that gives me genuine laughs! Allow me to share some with you.

Obi-Wan, Jedi Master of the side joke

We don't usually think of Obi-Wan Kenobi as "the funny one" in Star Wars but in Phantom Menace he provides a few laugh-out-loud moments on the sly/if you catch them. Not only is he the first Jedi to speak (in the canon timeline of movies), his first line is a popular Star Wars line.

"I have a bad feeling about this," says Obi-Wan. It's one of the repeated iconic lines from Star Wars and here it comes early bringing us familiarity from the start of the first episode. © Lucasfilm.

When first seeing this in the theater, there was a collective laugh at this—not so much at how funny it is (it really isn't) but at the knowledge of how the line appeared in Star Wars before. The feeling was, "We've arrived back at Star Wars, here we are again." Once this happened in Episode I, we now expected the same line to appear in all following films… which it has (with a variation in Solo). We laughed out of joy for this moment.

Ewan McGregor was a sheer delight in all three prequel films even though his involvement in Episode I was sparce. However, every frame of his was fantastic. Qui-Gon Jinn, played by Liam Neeson, promised his apprentice that these trade negotiations at the beginning of the movie would be short. After they both were nearly murdered in the proceedings, I experienced the first genuine laugh when Obi-Wan said, "You were right about one thing master; the negotiations were short."

Obi-Wan Kenobi points out to his teacher that their peace negotiations were short—they were almost killed. © Lucasfilm.

Not only is the line a great conclusion to the sequence, it also made me believe in the character. I instantly resigned to the fact, in that moment, that Ewan McGregor was Obi-Wan Kenobi.

In another moment that often gets overlooked, Obi-Wan speaks for the audience when the Gungan Leader, Boss Nass, lets the two Jedis go and allows them to take a bongo. Okay. And before we can ask it…

Another quick line from Obi-Wan where he side-talks Qui-Gon asking, "What's a bongo?" Jedi don't know everything. © Lucasfilm.

Finally, Obi-Wan shows his quick wit when he speaks with his master, Qui-Gon, about how to obtain legitimate funds for the illegitimate junk traders on Tatooine.

In a funny throwaway line, Obi-Wan mentions that their only possible source of bartering could be Queen Amidala's wardrobe, which as we later see, is pretty extensive and seemingly quite valuable. © Lucasfilm.

There are a couple of moments I find funny, where Obi-Wan does his talking with his boots:

This double-split-kick by Obi-Wan isn't funny just itself, just pretty cool. But… © Lucasfilm.

…when Kenobi does it again a few minutes later, it now becomes his signature move for taking out battle droids. It's like he's bored of just slicing them with a lightsaber. © Lucasfilm.

Qui-Gon Jinn, not so stoic as I remember

I truly enjoyed Liam Neeson's take on the calm and contemplative side of a Jedi character, but that passive and uncomplaining disposition made you sometimes miss his cunning manipulations of situations. When he was talking to the aforementioned Boss Nass, he made sure these negotiations work would in their favor.

We first saw Obi-Wan in Episode IV use a Jedi mind trick to hilarious success. Qui-Gon uses it at every opportunity and Boss Nass's weak-mind is no match for it. © Lucasfilm.

Qui-Gon goes to this well one too many times, though.

Mind tricks don't work on everyone. Case in point: Watto is immune to them in a funny exchange with Qui Gon where the Toydarian gives us another quotable line: "Mind tricks don't work on me, only money!" © Lucasfilm.

Apparently, Watto saw Episode IV as well saying, "What? You think you're some kind of Jedi waving your hand around like that?" It's another moment (like when Kenobit says, "I have a bad feeling about this") where Star Wars is a bit self-aware and since we've seen the other films, too, these moments are fun to spot.

Qui-Gon gets the best of Watto in the end by using Watto's greed against him. I think Qui-Gon enjoyed the challenges Watto gave him to be crafty without interfering too much. At the same time, I believe Qui-Gon wasn't going to take any risks when it came to trying to "win" the boy Anakin's freedom. He needed the boy. And when the opportunity arose for a roll of the dice, the Jedi Master was sure to not rely on luck.

Watto's reaction to his chance cube roll, which Qui Gon pushed to his advantage with his powers, is priceless. © Lucasfilm.

I love Watto's reaction. He just knows something was up but can't prove it. Qui-Gon, though quite still, seems to be relishing the moment under his outer placid appearance. We already knew he was not above using his powers to improve his situations. He also uses his powers to "help" others, somewhat, in a way… He takes Jar Jar Binks with him and Obi-Wan, probably out of pity. And so Qui-Gon already knows he must keep the clumsy gungan from escalating a stressful situation.

Qui-Gon calms the frightened Jar Jar with a touch of the shoulder and some Jedi mind power reminiscent of a Vulcan nerve pinch. © Lucasfilm.

Qui-Gon knew from their first meeting that Jar Jar was to be treated with care.

One of (more than) a few quotable lines from Phantom Menace as Qui-Gon says, "The ability to speak does not make you intelligent." © Lucasfilm.

My favorite action sequence of Qui-Gon is when he and Obi-Wan go to rescue Queen Amidala and her court from the battle droids and escape the planet. It goes like this…

Qui-Gon makes easy work of the battle droids with an effortless Force push. He's just so casual about it. © Lucasfilm.

The battle droids basically become toothpicks to Jedi and a mere hand-wave sends them to spine-breaking concrete. © Lucasfilm.

Another oft-repeated line in Star Wars movies is, "There's too many of them," said here by Panaka, the Queen's guard. This sets up the next line… © Lucasfilm.

"Won't be a problem," replies Qui-Gon to Panaka's concern and indeed, in the next scene we see it wasn't a problem at all. © Lucasfilm.

I must say I love the battle droids. From their cool design, to their funny cliché voices, to their ability to crumple like tinfoil, they always make me smile.

Battle droid to Qui-Gon: "Does not compute. You're under arrest!" © Lucasfilm.

Qui-Gon to battle droid: Vvwwoooop! © Lucasfilm.

Qui-Gon isn't all Jedi tricks and chops, he has many moments of wisdom, even when just delivering what seems to be a silly one-liner…

"There's always a bigger fish." A quotable line that speaks to the evil throughout the entire Star Wars saga. © Lucasfilm.

I always tie this line to one at the end of the movie when Yoda and Mace Windu wonder if the dead Sith (Darth Maul) was a master or an apprentice. We knew in that moment, even without the gatuitous close-up, that Palpatine is the "bigger fish" in the bigger story.

The race is on, in pod form

The middle of the movie, and quite possibly the literal centerpiece of the movie, is the podrace. Anakin Skywalker, on the cusp of learning to control his Force powers, volunteers to compete in the Boonta Eve Classic to win prize money for the intrepid band of Padmé and the Jedi; they need funds to buy parts to fix their ship so they can get to Coruscant and… the plot. It is a raucous white-knuckle sequence that is still thoroughly enjoyable. You can easily see how much George Lucas loved this sequence by its amount of detail and quantity of speed. It offers many exciting moments, but also offers some funny moments, too.

Lucas often pieces together great build-up and anticipation for his movie's bigger sequences. In A New Hope there was discussion of plans, pilots running to stations, and ships taking off before the start of the Battle of Yavin. Before the pod race, Qui-Gon sets up a bet with Watto while Anakin finishes building his racer. There's a comedic moment that follows a classic formula: someone says to not do something and some hapless fool does that very thing.

After a specific warning from Anakin, Jar Jar still gets caught between the energy binders. The joke might have worked better if the shot ended then. © Lucasfilm.

There is a moment even before this (since we're on the subject of Jar Jar and the pod race) when we meet Sebulba, who will figure into the pod race later, and his first action is to try and shut up Jar Jar. It's a quick line expertly delivered by Ahmed Best who gets cut off (not literally) by Sebulba's choke hold. It reminds me of when everybody would interrupt C-3PO in the original trilogy to shut him up, too.

In a quickly timed comedic moment, Sebulba asks if this edible delight belongs to the gungan. Jar Jar manages to say, "Who meesa—" before being choked. © Lucasfilm.

During the race, the sheer danger of it made audiences have nervous giggles, but these were often relieved by the best part of a race: the crashes. There aren't just random explosions either. Like any good jest, there is a setup and a knockdown, tension and release. A good example of this comes at the expense of poor racer, Ratts Tyrell.

This is the face of a life form questioning his life's choices as Ratts Tyerell gives up trying to dodge a cave formation at 500 miles per hour. © Lucasfilm.

He just takes his hands off the controls and gives up! I'm pretty sure he had a wife and kids, too. But the setup in this moment is his alien/frog-sounding scream. We know what is immediately next: a crash and an explosion. We are not let down.

Another funny moment from the pods' circuit across Tatooine is that those strange sand people use the racers as target practice.

So many details went into making the Pod Race a standout sequence in Phantom Menace and one such detail is adding sharpshooting Sand People trying to take out racers. Perhaps the track is on some Tusken Raider burial ground. © Lucasfilm.

The audiences, along with me, in the theaters always laughed at that moment. It's just so sudden, silly, random, and totally in-character for the Sand People at this point (they become a bit more malevolent in the next episode).

There are a few squatty "pit droids" helping out during the race and when a team of them come to assist an Er'Kit racer, there is a blink-and-you'll-miss-it gag where two pit droids are joined by a clumsy third (on the far right in the picture below) that bumps into the middle one, that then adminishes it. Try and catch this on your next viewing. Following this is another clueless droid who gets sucked into the jet turbine of the pod, destroying the turbine and the racer's chances. I must say, someone at Lucasfilm had a lot of fun with these pit droids and I'm so glad they did.

Pod Racer Ody Mandrell has a team of pit droids that are about as helpful as the Three Stooges. © Lucasfilm.

Jabba's appearance here at least gives us a couple funny moments instead of just a quick cameo.

Jabba the Hutt is so bored at the pod race that he flicks his lunch off the ledge. When the race concludes, he's asleep. © Lucasfilm.

At the end of the race, Sebulba is finally outclassed by Anakin and is left humiliated with a smashed-up pod. Here, he drops a p-bomb.

Sebulba's cheating failed, he lost the race, and his pod crashed. The space swear he utters gives the race its closing punctuation: "Poo doo!" © Lucasfilm.

After the race, Anakin is cheered by many, and thanked graciously by his new friends… and his proud mother. As a side note, Jake Lloyd did an admirable job in the role of a very young Anakin, showing his innocense as well as subtle hints of his potential for villainy.

Shmi, Anakin's mother, kisses him after the race and the boy is embarrassed, especially in front of Padmé. The dirt on his face is a nice touch to show his "growing up." © Lucasfilm.

Miscellaneous moments

Protocol droids—like C-3PO, and here, TC-14—are usually seen as expendable. No exception is shown here when the cowardly Neimoidians won't even talk to the Jedi and instead, "Send the droid." The look on the droid's face though… © Lucasfilm.

The tension builds, the door opens, the music swells and out comes… a droid. Comedic misdirection. © Lucasfilm.

This moment is where Qui-Gon goes from father figure to "Dad" and gruffly tells Anakin to, "Stay in the cockpit!" It's funny because we know exactly what Anakin will do by staying in the cockpit. © Lucasfilm.

Darth Maul opens the door by Force pushing some object to press the button. This moment combines awesomeness with corniness both in a badass presentation. So cool Maul! Remember this for another cool Jedi-opening-door moment next month! © Lucasfilm.

Forgive me but I think this moment is funny when Jar Jar can only run the wrong way to avoid the giant rolling boomas. This run of desperation always makes me laugh. © Lucasfilm.

I also think this shot brings me the most sympathy for Jar Jar. I mean, you can't be in bigger trouble than this: hanging from a cannon moving toward the enemy. © Lucasfilm.

Overall, The Phantom Menace may not be what I expected and it isn't perfect, but I can't help but love it. It's bright and humorous, but also energetic and nimble. For every silly joke, we also get Jedi at their golden age (an age on the brink of collapse, however). We knew it at the time and it still stands: this film is the setup for the chapters to come. A rough start maybe, but one that feeds into the stories of corruption, downfall, and betrayal that lay ahead for our beloved characters.

Join me next month for a look at the humor of Attack of the Clones. For those entering Galaxy's Edge this month in Disneyland—I jealously salute you! May the Force be with you, and patience for the rest of us.