Twenty years ago next month, Lucasfilm released the teaser trailer for the first, new Star Wars film in a decade and a half. Episode I: The Phantom Menace would usher in a glorious new Star Wars era with a prequel trilogy of films. At least that’s what we all anticipated upon seeing the trailer. In hindsight the film was (until The Last Jedi, some will say), the Star Wars franchise’s biggest debacle and missed its mark considerably. A “making of” documentary proves just how big a catastrophe The Phantom Menace and its film-making process was in truth.
Lucasfilm first released the documentary, entitled “The Beginning: Making Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace”, back in 2014. It’s come back to light now as we approach the film’s twentieth anniversary next year. I’m sure Jon Shenk, the documentary’s director, meant mostly to illustrate the creative process behind Episode I. A side effect of the documentary, however, puts all of the film’s, and George Lucas’s faults on full display.
Documentary Proves The Phantom Menace a Disaster
Frankly, the documentary doesn’t tell us much beyond what we already know about the film. Poor writing, poor acting, and too heavy a reliance on CGI, as Ranker notes, doomed the film from the get-go. However, it’s the way in which the documentary illustrates these faults that is truly eye opening. For instance, we get to see the production team casting furtive glances at the camera as George Lucas reveals the extent to which he wants to use CGI over practical effects. Utilizing as much CGI as he did forever cast a pall over the prequel trilogy for those growing up with the practical effects of the original. (And one of the practical effects he did choose didn’t work out so well, either.)
Perhaps more shocking was that we got to see young actors other than Jake Lloyd screen testing for the role of Anakin Skywalker. Even Lucas himself acknowledges that one of the runners-up was a better actor than Lloyd. Then, inexplicably, he chooses Lloyd for the role to the obvious dismay of the crew. The frustration on a young Natalie Portman’s face as Lloyd continuously flubs lines and misses cues is readily evident.
George Lucas and the The Phantom Menace Delusion
Fans will watch The Beginning with head-shaking disbelief when it comes to Jar Jar Binks. Lucas, on multiple occasions during the documentary, espouses the idea that Jar Jar is central to the film. He truly believes the character will make fans love The Phantom Menace. What began with the Ewoks in Episode VI spiraled downward to a racially-stereotyped, CGI buffoon intent on appealing to children.
For many, The Phantom Menace itself is painful to watch. Watching The Beginning, similarly, is equally if not more painful. Lucas almost reminds the viewer of Don Quixote, chasing windmills with delusions of grandeur. In Lucas’s case, he’s chasing a new Star Wars ideal that, in his mind, will solidify the franchise. Twenty years later though, Star Wars, even in light of some recent missteps, arguably remains the strong franchise it is despite The Phantom Menace, not because of it.