Star Wars:Episode I- The Phantom Menace (SE) /C+,B-
Fox/1999/136/ANA 2.35

    Ever the movie optimist, I approached The Phantom Menace DVD with enthusiasm, hoping my initial theatrical impressions had been colored by bad projection, rude audience, or maybe just a bad day. The film is still stiff and stilted, dialogue is recited by actors in turn without any sense of interaction. Maybe they are all digitally created. Sure, there are enjoyable elements, but it's more like short-hand moviemaking, depending upon good will built up through the earlier, far more skillful Star Wars films.

Qui-Gon and Obi battle droids. ©Fox

    Truth be told, none of the Star Wars epics were long on story, but the characters lived in the universe created by George Lucas and company. There was a new found shared wonder about the films. The chemistry between the characters was finely balanced. None of this is present in The Phantom Menace
    Stepping back in time, the prequel delves into the conflict histories depicted in the first three films. Lucas clearly states that the Star Wars vision consists of six films and that it's necessary to see them all to understand and appreciate the subtleties and nuances that supposedly exist. In his mind that may be a pretty good excuse for delivering a film virtually devoid of interest and clearly serves only to move on to the next film, but asking audiences to wait three years or ten years for the next chapter in a six part Saturday morning serial is too much. Newsflash Mr. Lucas: Each film has to stand on it's own.
       Besides introducing the characters for future episodes, The Phantom Menace depicts the battle for control of Queen Amidala's Naboo. The Trade Federation, led by Darth Sidious, initiates plans for conquering the universe with an assault on her planet and an attempt to co-opt senate of the Galactic Republic. Jedi knights Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi get to exercise their light swords in a number of blandly choreographed battles. After a diplomatic mission fails, the Jedi escape capture on Naboo and pick a Gungan friend, Jar Jar. On planet Tatooine, the Jedi party and the fugitive Queen encounter Anakin, an indentured pre-pubescent pod-rodder who reeks of the force. There's a boring pod race and the youngster joins the Jedi in pursuit of preserving Naboo. Finally, the Jedi enlist the help of the Gungans to battle the droid forces of the Trade Federation. Before the final battle is mounted the Jedi must face off against a powerful dark knight, Darth Maul. It all plays out with staccato cutting and thin scripting. 
    Ewan McGregor plays the young Obi-Wan with cardboard rigidity. It's hard to believe that even years of Force manipulation could turn this character into the sophisticated vision of Alec Guinness in the first Star Wars effort. Liam Neeson is given little to work with in the role of senior Jedi Qui-Gon. In the dual roles of Queen Amidala and maid-servant Padmè, Natalie Portman expends most of her energy balancing an impossible hairdo. Maybe Jake Lloyd will grow up to be an actor; but not on the evidence of his ability portraying Anakin Skywalker. Reluctantly, my pick as the best character in this Star Wars adventure is Jar Jar Binks as voiced by Ahmed Best. He certainly is the most three-dimensional. 
     The 2 DVD special edition delivers everything you ever wanted to know about the making of The Phantom Menace. Audio commentary is a balance of George Lucas, Rick McCallum and others of the creative and technical team. Disc 2 includes a Deleted Scenes Documentary; The Beginning, a hour long documentary; multi-angle storyboard analysis; five short featurettes exploring different aspects of production; poster gallery and production photos; a twelve part Web documentary chronicling production; a music video; trailers; and Star Wars: Starfighter--The Making of a Game. 
     The DVD presentation is a disappointment. I expected nothing short of perfection in every department.  Dialogue channel was too soft for me at my normal reference setting. I had to raise it 3 dB for it to be comfortable. It was very difficult to understand some of the dialogue from Lucas’s charming creatures. Maybe I am hard of hearing. Other than that, surround information is beautifully placed. Video falls far short of acceptable. Many scenes are soft. Cut to cut sharpness within scenes is inconsistent. Early scenes exhibit a flatness of background almost as if the contrast ranged has been compressed. I even thought I detected some horizontal jitter in a couple of early pans. Many shots exhibit significant peak transition ringing creating halos around characters.  Color, at least, is lovely to look at. Beautiful depth of color without over- saturation is preserved with subtle variations. Some of creature CGI is splendid and is transferred with marvelous realism. The textures on Jar Jar's face provides a plethora of imagined emotions. 


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