Wednesday, 22 February 2012

The Watcher Junior - Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace 3D

Do you remember the summer of 1999? After sixteen years of waiting, Star Wars fans finally got to see the first movie episode of their beloved saga. The reaction was almost universal derision. George Lucas hit back at the criticism many times, saying that the naysayers were no longer the target audience.

"The movies are for children but they don't want to admit that." Lucas told the BBC back in July 1999. "In the first film they absolutely hated R2 and C-3PO. In the second film they didn't like Yoda and in the third one they hated the Ewoks... and now Jar Jar is getting accused of the same thing."

I've always wonder if this was the case? Did we just grow up with Star Wars, excusing any faults because we were simply too young to have an objective reaction?

This year, Lucasfilm begins another campaign to part Star Wars fans and their money. Not content with the original theatrical releases, the Special Editions, spin-off animated shows, numerous DVD releases and last year's Blu-Rays, we will now be subjected to the entire saga with post-production 3D conversion, once again shown at your local cinema. Thankfully these are scheduled to be spaced out at one a year, starting this year with The Phantom Menace.

Over the course of the past six months, my personal life has dramatically improved. One interesting development is a new role as a parent of sorts to a six-year-old. For the sake of internet anonymity, let's call him simply Kiddo. Now if the Star Wars movies are "for children", Kiddo is the perfect age for Jar Jar Binks, etc. Also, if we take him to see a Star Wars film a year, he'll be ten when he gets to see my personal favourite, The Empire Strikes Back. This seemed too perfect to ignore.

So, earlier this month the three of us wrapped up warm and set off to our local Cineworld here in Cheltenham. There in the darkness, two adults waited for that familiar fanfare to kick things off and one child sat waiting to be entertained, patiently munching on a small bag of Milky Way Stars.

The opening crawl of text and the first shot of Episode IV: A New Hope is something quite magical. The words are evocative and concise talking of hidden Rebels, an evil Empire and a first victory. We learn of a powerful armoured Death Star long before we see it and learn the name of a Princess who is on an important mission. The camera then pans down to two moons and the curve of a planet's surface before a smaller ship races into view as laser blasts erupt all around it. Finally a massive spaceship appears, one that just keeps going over our heads - dominating the screen. Our first Imperial Star Destroyer. It's an incredible opening shot that captivated me straight away.

This time, I was struck by how dull the opening of The Phantom Menace is. As the opening crawl spoke of tedious things such as taxation, trade routes, blockades and debates, I glanced over at Kiddo. Despite only being in Year One, his reading level is significantly improving and we're very encouraged by his progress. But this initial onslaught of frankly boring exposition was not something I'd consider him to be capable of reading and completely understanding. Not a great start for a movie allegedly aimed at kids. The first proper shots we see in the movie is of a small ship flying past the camera and up to a blue planet with a bunch of different ships parked in front of it. To all intents and purposes, it looks like an interplanetary car park.

For Kiddo, this is how the Star Wars saga begins. Not with a breathtaking model shot, but uninspiring visuals. It simply is not for kids. He had little interest in Jar Jar or the Gungans thankfully. As the Jedi and the Queen's party made it to Tatooine, Kiddo turned over in his chair and told his Mum that he was bored. Out of the mouth of babes. We were able to placate our little Cars 2 fan by telling him there was a race coming up and sure enough, the Pod Race did hold his attention.

In a film I found myself loathing all over again, I was surprised to note how impressed I was with the sound design. There is of course the wonderful Duel Of The Fates music by John Williams, but more on that sequence later. Here during the Pod Race, I was struck by how interesting Sebulba's pod sounds. It's every bit the fearsome powerhouse the dialogue suggests it is and it's a credit to the people who worked on this section.

Returning to the fight between Darth Maul and the Jedi, the music really helps to elevate this barely adequately choreographed scene into something that almost rivals the lightsaber duels in the original trilogy. We moved Kiddo on to his Mum's lap in anticipation of the moment when Qui-Gon is stabbed through the chest, but he was mostly fine for that. Then after the Sith Lord is defeated and Obi-Wan cradles his dying Jedi Master, Kiddo buried his face in his mother's neck. "It's a sad bit," he told us quietly. "Because he's died."

After that, he started wanting to fall asleep, although he did perk up at the final battle and was impressed by the huge beasts carrying the Gungan shield generators. His favourite bit came when Anakin got to fly the yellow Naboo starfighter. I suspect after the Pod Race, "the boy" became his favourite character so seeing him flying in space and saving the day was great fun.

We could certainly see something of Kiddo in Anakin's mannerisms, particularly when he ran back to say goodbye to his Mum before leaving to travel to the Jedi Temple. I found myself reassessing Jake Lloyd's performance and being quite surprised by how good it often was, especially when compared to Hayden Christensen's successive take on the same character. Lloyd's face is often obscured by flight goggles, yet he was able to convey his emotions during both the Pod Race and the space battle with effective results. Not something I expected to find myself thinking.

Ultimately, Kiddo told us he did enjoy the movie and would watch it again, but I don't think it has replaced the various Pixar offerings that have thus far dominated his young life. Time will tell if a new Star Wars movie a year sees him develop the same love for the saga that many of us have within fandom.

Ben Fardon was not expecting to have to do this today.

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