The Profoundly Flawed 'The Phantom Menace' Created A New Generation Of 'Star Wars' Fans – And I Was One Of Them

I was five when my father dragged me to the first installment of the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy: The Phantom Menacein 1999. Five-year-old me had no understanding that Star Wars was a long-established galaxy, that other stories existed, that those stories existed chronologically ahead of this Phantom Menace movie. George Lucas's Episode I: The Phantom Menace served as a new realm, yet five-year-old me felt that this cosmic world seemed familiar to everyone else around us in the theatre.The Phantom Menace was a terrifying experience for me. What a bizarre visual concoction that transpired before my five-year-old eyes. My five-year-old brain did not have a conscious criteria of what made a good quality film. Five-year-old me didn't have the visual literacy of judging the quality of the computer-generated landscapes and characters themselves. Five-year-old me could not follow the story, the mission of the Jedi, and the politics plaguing the proceedings. What five-year-old me did know was that so much moved on the screen.Those that did not look human transfixed my five-year-old eyes, more so than the outrageous apparel donned by the queen or those glowy swords called lightsabers. My five-year-old eyes were intrigued by this little bot called R2-D2 with its dome-head and wanted more of this bot. When this giant talking slug slithered out to the fanfare, five-year-old me was disgusted by this bulgy-eyed slug yet he provoked a reaction around the audience. Why did Daddy seem happy to see that slug? Why did he go "That's Jabba"? Why did Daddy and the theater seem to react to the waking human-shaped droid named C-3PO?Jar Jar Binks engrossed my five-year-old eyes every minute he was on screen. He was a fascinating creature to my five-year-old eyes in the way he moved, the amphibian-humanoid nature, the flaps from his head, and the oddly pitched voice. This was before I learned Jar Jar was widely reviled, before I realized there was an unfortunate racial-coding that would be disingenuous to ignore, before I knew Jar Jar's actor Ahmed Best suffered backlash and racist comments that would nearly drive him to suicide, before I knew Best was putting his best physical performance he could into the character and the then-new motion capture technology, before I saw the surge of love and a standing ovation for Best at the 20th Phantom Menace event at the Star Wars Celebration fan gathering.Darth Maul became my boogeyman the moment my five-year-old eyes saw him. This yellow-eyed human-shaped creature with a red and black visage and yellowed teeth was my nightmare. He had the red glowy swords and five-year-old me knew red was bad news. For nights after the screening, my five-year-old brain imagined him as the monster waiting in my bedroom closet.Five-year-old me was also thinking, why was that little boy, Anakin, driving the ship into the laser fire in space? Wouldn't he get hurt? Wasn't he going get killed in the gunfire? Would he ever go back to the mommy he had to leave behind? Five-year-old me worried that the child might die. It would be years before the boy I didn't want to see die would grow up into an iconic caped villain known as Darth Vader.Years later, the Prequel Trilogy reached a point where it appealed to me more for its mythical world-building rather than the quality of the storytelling. Later, I was able to put into words, "Yeah, that and the other prequels films were a mess, but they were what introduced me to Star Wars in the first place."25-year-old me sat in "The Phantom Menace 20th Anniversary" panel at Star Wars Celebration. I saw a crowd of people cheering for the behind-the-scenes crew: From visual effects supervisor John Knoll, viewpaint supervisor Jean Bolte, design director Doug Chiang, to supervising sound editor Matthew Wood. I saw the crowd cheering for Ray Park, the man I now know was and is Maul, that boogeyman. I saw the crowd cheering for Best. That crowd understood and loved those who were behind the magic.The way my 25-year-old brain processes The Phantom Menace now: This George Lucas-ian experiment didn't always mesh together well, yet it had a magic for many others, a magic that was there even when my five-year-old self had yet to know the galaxy.