Because The Phantom Menace is a Star Wars movie, it is, by definition, loud, fast, overbearing, thrilling, mystical, confusing, occasionally funny, plotted around three fairly predictable action sequences, crawling with strange aliens in bad outfits, and cooler-looking than any movie that has come before it. These things are given, these things are the ingredients of the "feeling," and they apply to Episode I as much as the original. The new film glows with that hard-to-nail Star Wars vibe, the fairy-tale sensation that hooked so many people the first time around, and there's no doubt that this is the real thing, worth the wait, worth the trouble, worth all the noise. But for reasons large and small, the "feeling" is a bit dim and diffused, split through a lens of '90s crispness and detachment, overworked and undernourished, similar to the tinkering Lucas did to the original trilogy as 1997's Special Edition.
Now Episode I is a very strange film. It's nothing close to mainstream action or sci-fi fare, thank God, and neither were the first three installments. It's a hard-core adventure, a complete and total fantasy world with its own religion and legends and landscapes, something few filmmakers have the balls (or money) to put on the screen. But Lucas is so hypercreative and whimsical that many people simply don't get him, and the popularity of his franchise disguises the unorthodox and often uncomfortable intensity of the films, which Episode I takes to a higher, more frantic level.
In covering the complex back-story alluded to throughout the original trilogy, Episode I has the difficult task of explaining history, of making political intrigue exciting, of setting up a peaceful galaxy of order and commerce where democracy works and the Jedi fight for justice. The story revolves around the fate of young Anakin Skywalker, who, as everyone knows, will grow up to become the evil Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker's father. He's nine years old here, played with surprising dexterity by Jake Lloyd (Jingle All the Way), and like it or not, this is his movie. Lucas has recast his now-familiar universe through the eyes of a young boy, building an elaborate playhouse where the fate of the galaxy hangs on the things that a kid might think are cool: fast cars, monsters, robots, video games, adventure. With this young mindset, Lucas has managed to make his galaxy richer, more dangerous, faster-paced, and (sadly) much, much goofier.
Anakin is a slave, along with his mother, traded as a gambling debt between lowlifes on the desert planet of Tatooine. He's also a technical prodigy and spends his free time building a 'droid (C-3P0) and running superfast Podracer cars against dangerous desert dragsters. Across the galaxy the story follows Jedi master Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his apprentice, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor, doing a perfect Alec Guinness impersonation), basically galactic police officers who travel in comfortable brown robes and kick ass with a brand of mystical martial arts we all know as "using the Force." They've been sent to settle a trade dispute involving the teenage Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman), whose planet is being invaded by a federation of traders and its army of scrawny robots. (Ah, but something more must be going on!) Using this tiff as an entry point, Lucas launches the Jedi into a relentless caper across a Republic beginning to unravel amid a rising dark force. Every move they make becomes an excuse for another elaborate action showstopper, an underwater chase or a masterfully staged lightsaber duel. The inertia never eases as Lucas' heroes, whether they're Princess Leia or Indiana Jones, can't even take a piss without running into trouble. By the time the Jedi meet Anakin and "sense" something important about him, they're involved in a high-stakes bet and a frenetic Pod race across the desert, easily the film's best sequence. With speeding cockpits trailing behind giant floating engines, with Harley-like handlebars and dogfight helmets, with lots of switches and controls and an eclectic cast of racers, this sequence comes close to capturing the thrill and mood of a great video game, a clear sign that Lucas truly understands the mind of a nine-year-old boy living on the edge of 21st-century Earth.
One problem with this relentless questing is the overextended fantasy, the attempt to draw in and please everyone, to create a portal for any demographic. Portman's teenage queen gets to wear a great new outfit in every scene, McGregor's twentysomething Obi-Wan throws an awful lot of style into his Jedi arts, slinging his lightsaber and flipping across bridges, and then... there's Jar Jar Binks. Carrying the weight of "comic relief," this wacky biped banished from his underwater kingdom would be bad enough even if his computer-generated head didn't flop around through nearly every scene. Voiced by Ahmed Best (from the stage show Stomp), Jar Jar is more Roger Rabbit than Chewbacca, and his constant, incoherent blathering sounds like a desperate attempt to get kids' attention. But no matter how hard he tries, he can't ruin the movie.