Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace

“Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace,” like the three “Star Wars” films before it, has a feeling of child-like wonder and fantasy, grounded in a strong sense of right and wrong, that makes for a fantastic cinematic experience. It’s a treat for the eyes and a pick-me-up for the soul, coming in only a half-step behind its predecessors.

But enough film-critic talk. “The Phantom Menace” is freakin’ awesome.

Director/writer George Lucas has not gone out on too many limbs here. He knows that with the well-deserved success of his first three “Star Wars” films (actually parts IV, V and VI in the story), there’s no reason to change starships mid-stream.

Which isn’t to say “The Phantom Menace” is just a re-hash of stuff we’ve already seen, because it’s not. There are familiar ideas and scenarios — light-saber duels, wacky alien creatures, etc. — but to say Lucas is merely stealing from himself would be to disregard all the imagination and sheer creativity that are apparent in this film.

As we join the story, the Galactic Republic is on the verge of war with the greedy Trade Federation, which is about to invade the small planet of Naboo. Two Jedi Knights — Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) — are sent to negotiate with the Federation, but when that fails, they head down to Naboo to warn young Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman).

After meeting the buffoonish Jar-Jar (Ahmed Best), the three get the queen and head for the planet of Coruscant, where the Republic Senate can hopefully do something about the Federation. But first they stop on Tatooine, where they meet Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), a slave boy whom Qui-Gon realizes has potential to be a Jedi Knight, and whom “Star Wars” fans already know will one day grow up to be Darth Vader.

This foreknowledge makes his story a poignant one. Lloyd, whose acting is fairly good for a 9-year-old (and not as bad as had been rumored), is wise beyond his years, but still child-like in his innocence. Knowing his dark future provides an interesting ironic contrast.

From a technical standpoint, the film is outstanding. The special effects are seamless, the music is triumphant, and the entire movie seems to have been filmed somewhere other than on Earth.

But the movie is not perfect. Qui-Gon is technically the main character, but we never get very attached to him. The same is true, even moreso, for Obi-Wan. In fact, the characters generally are not as immediately likeable as their “Star Wars” counterparts. Han Solo, Chewbacca, even the whining Luke Skywalker made for memorable figures. Many of the supporting characters in “The Phantom Menace” are delightful, but the ones at center stage seem like they’re just getting warmed up — like the NEXT movie will be where things really get going.

Jar-Jar is a mistake. He is meant to provide comic relief, which he occasionally does. More often, though, he grates on the nerves. His dialect is almost unintelligible at times (think Mush Mouth on “Fat Albert”), and he comes across as a flat sitcom character. (He even has a sitcom-like catchphrase — “How rude!” — which, as I recall, was also young Stephanie’s catchphrase on ABC’s “Full House.”) He doesn’t ruin the movie, but he sure tries.

One last thing this film lacks is a solid villain. Darth Maul — already a favorite among people who have only seen the previews — is menacing and creepy-looking, but his screen time is limited to little more than one slam-bang duel with the Jedi Knights (though that scene IS fantastic). Furthermore, he’s only a pawn anyway. The true villain here is the Federation — but a faceless organization is no match for “Star Wars'” truly fearsome Darth Vader.

Small quibbles aside, this review could be summed up in one sentence: “The Phantom Menace” is a “Star Wars” movie. Nearly everything that was good about the Trilogy is in place here. You have light sabers, the Force (with its most spiritual overtones yet), battles in space and on land, and good guys and bad guys. Jabba the Hutt, R2D2, the Emperor (watch that guy!) — they’re all here. If you ever enjoyed a “Star Wars” movie, you’ll enjoy this one. It is truly a magical, wonderful flight of fancy that reminds us that ultimately, Good will overcome Evil. It’s a simple message, sure, but it’s that simplicity that makes the film work.

A- (2 hrs., 16 min.; PG, sci-fi action/violence.)