Film Nerd 2.0: We flashback to ‘The Phantom Menace’ as the ‘Star Wars’ series continues

“Allen, you’ve seen three ‘Star Wars’ movies now.”

Allen is three, keep in mind.  “Yes.”

“Can you tell me what they are?”

“I seen the one with Darth Vader, where they’re on the spaceship, and they blow it up, and I seen the one where Darth Vader cuts off Lukeskywalker’s arm, and I seen the one where he cut off Darth Maul’s body.”

“What’s your favorite one?”

“‘The Phantom Menace.'”

Damn.  I was afraid of this.

We started this series between film festivals, when I came home, found the “Star Wars” Blu-ray set waiting, and we watched the 1977 film.  Then, last weekend, after making the boys twist in the wind for ten full days, I came home and we sat down and watched “The Empire Strikes Back.”

Now we’ve got a full month of me at home ahead, and we’re going to do the next four films in the series in one week increments.  This weekend, we set aside Saturday for “The Phantom Menace,” and all week long, the boys had their questions, constantly trying to set their expectations for whatever was coming next.

Toshi has had several conversations with me now about Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader, and I’m careful not to tell him what he should think.  He’s pretty sure Vader was telling the truth in the scene in “Empire,” but the implications of that are very upsetting.  He’s fixated in particular on the damage that was visible to the back of Vader’s head in that one glimpse in “Empire.”  He wants to know how the Anakin Skywalker of “The Clone Wars” gets messed up.  He wants to understand, more than anything, how a good guy can be a bad guy.

In general, “The Clone Wars” creates an interesting narrative dilemma in terms of the way I’m showing the films to the boys.  We have not seen every episode of the first two seasons, but we’re chipping away at them.  They really love the details and the world and the clones and the Jedi.  They have no idea how bad things are about to get.  They don’t really understand that Alec Guiness and the puppet in “Empire” are the last two living Jedi everywhere.  They don’t understand how close things are to being snuffed out in “Empire.”  Because they’ve seen the scale of “The Clone Wars,” where Jedi are practically commonplace, and all powerful, they can’t imagine a world where they lost, and they’re hunted, and they’re largely extinct.

On Friday, I decided to show the boys the teaser trailer that we all saw in 1998 that was such a big cultural moment in its own right.  And they asked to see it again immediately, so I let them play it a few times.  Then I showed them the second trailer that came out before the film’s release.  And they watched that one a few times, and they were by this point freaking out about what they were going to see.  Now, I wish I could say I showed them the trailers on the Blu-ray box set, because they were such a big part of the build-up to the film’s release, but if they’re on the dsics, they’re hidden as easter eggs and I certainly haven’t figured out how to find them.  I used YouTube, and their responses were suitably outsized as they tried to process the images they were seeing from the film.  More than anything, it just meant they had new questions for me, questions I wasn’t going to answer out of context.

Something occurred to me after the “Empire” screening, though, and it worried me.  Just as I’m sharing these movies with my kids because of the recent Blu-ray release, there are other parents doing the same thing, and some of those kids who are seeing the films for the first time may be doing them in a different order, and they may have classes with my boys.  Thankfully, I have a secret weapon in the war on spoilers, so I went to Toshi’s school to talk to his teacher, Miss Karen.  She’s that grade school teacher we all remember fondly, adorable and younger than any of the other teachers and always in a good mood no matter what.  She also happens to be the biggest “Star Wars” nerd imaginable.  How big of a “Star Wars” nerd is she?

Her one year old’s name is Anakin.  Seriously.

So when I was at the school last week, I had a chat with Miss Karen about keeping the boys spoiler free for the next four weeks as we work our way through the series.  She’s already onboard with the order I’m showing them in, and she was delighted to be enlisted in the fight to keep the experience pure for the kids.  She made sure to keep the hype going all week, though, so even at school, they were being teased about the impending viewing, making it even harder for them to wait.

It was effective, because when Saturday morning rolled around, they were ready to go.  How ready?  Well, the first time they tried to wake me up, it was 6:15 AM.  Both of them were up and dressed and excited.  I told them to let me sleep a little longer, and they agreed to do so.  They promised the same thing when they woke me up at 6:45, 7:20, 8:00, and 8:30.  By the time I was actually up, showered, breakfasted, and ready to watch the movie, it was around 10:00, and they were almost rabid to get started.

From the moment the film began, each time someone was introduced, the boys both asked, “Is that Anakin?”  The anticipation was crazy.  Once Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan were introduced, though, they started to settle into the new world.  One thing that struck me this time around is how much more aggressively paced “The Phantom Menace” is than the two films the boys have already seen in the series.  There is so much more information to absorb, and the story is much busier in general, so there were more questions they needed to ask.  They quickly adapted to the idea of Qui-Gon and Anakin as master and student, and they loved watching the Jedi in action.

And what did they make of Jar Jar Binks?  The most notorious character in the entire saga was accepted pretty much wholesale by the boys.  “Daddy, the lizard-fish talks like he’s crazy!” was Allen’s observation after his first scene.  But while fandom seemed to hit a brick wall with Jar Jar that they’ve never recovered from, he was just one more thing in a parade of things the boys were trying to absorb and understand, and they didn’t mind him at all.

I have written before about the disconnect I feel from fandom because I don’t get rabidly angry over the prequels and because I don’t feel the burning desire to rant about George Lucas at the drop of a hat, and every time I talk about this, I get the same strident angry e-mails from people who demand that I have to feel the same way they do.  It’s almost scary how much venom some people are still able to muster about these films at any mention of them, especially when you watch them with an audience like the boys, where there’s no sense of hype or the larger state of fandom.  They love the world of “Star Wars” so much that they are happy just to spend time watching people fly around in spaceships and encounter weird aliens and fight with lightsabers.  In just two movies, they’ve already fallen in love enough that they’re happy simply to know they get to spend more time around “Star Wars.”  I haven’t seen the prequels in six years, so watching them now, with some distance, I think the overreaction to “Phantom Menace” has to be one of the low points of modern fandom.  It is an imperfect film, certainly, but it remains one of the most preposterously scaled works of imagination I can name, a movie that casually introduces whole worlds and races of creatures, throwing out new ideas and images at a gallop.  And the flaws that have been beaten to death by Mr. Plunkett and his devotees are far less outsized than they insist.  When someone says “The film doesn’t make any sense,” that’s simply not true.  You may not like the movie, but the film makes both narrative and thematic sense, and there are some nice things Lucas does that he gets no credit for.  I like the way the storyline about the Queen and her decoys serves as a mirror for the notion that Darth Sidious might be hiding in plain view, and I like the lesson the film sets up about the relationship between the Naboo and the Gungans.

There is one thing wrong with the film that I can’t imagine anyone would argue with, and that’s the performance by Jake Lloyd, something I have trouble holding against him.  It’s a casting mistake, and it should have been clear to Lucas as soon as they started shooting that whatever he liked about the kid wasn’t coming through clearly in his work onscreen.  Even Allen made fun of the “Yippee!” that Lloyd lets loose in a few scenes.  They both were quite involved with the idea of a boy that age having to make a decision about leaving his mother and starting a new life on his own, and they were intrigued by the way the Jedi Council dealt with him.  When they refused to train him, it was a big deal to the boys, and not at all what they expected.  We talked about how that made Anakin feel and how scary it must have been for him, and I saw that they were identifying with him and with the choices they were making.  I’m still not sure I like the notion of starting with Anakin as a little boy, but it was obvious that the choice was one that pulled the kids in, and it made the film that much more immediate for them, emotionally-speaking.

The biggest hit in the movie for them?  Darth Maul.  Duh.  A crazy-looking guy with a double-edge lightsaber that can fight two Jedi at once?  Awesome.  And they loved the way the film introduced some familiar faces along the way, like the unfinished C-3PO and Jabba The Hutt.  R2-D2 continues to be the star of the films as far as they’re concerned, and they cheered his first appearance in the film.  They also flipped out for the pod racing, and I was surprised how invested they were in the outcome of the race.  Again, when you’ve seen a bazillion movies, you’re used to narrative convention and formula, but when you’re a kid, you don’t know that there are ways films “always” turn out, and so each race is genuinely up for grabs.  Each victory is a genuine surprise.  And when Qui-Gon died, it shook them.  They didn’t think Jedi could lose a fight like that, so even when Darth Maul was cut in half (something Allen can’t stop talking about because he loved it so much), they were left wondering what’s ahead for Anakin and Obi-Wan.

Their questions about the next movie have already begun, and it’s fun lording my knowledge over them.  I won’t show them the trailers for “Attack Of The Clones” until Thursday, which should be just enough to whet their appetite.  What I find most interesting is how Toshi is already starting to be sad about the fact that there are only three movies left.

“Daddy, why can’t they make more ‘Star Wars’ movies?”

“They could if they wanted to.  It’s up to George Lucas.”

“Can you tell him to make them so we can watch them?  I want to see them.”

“I don’t think he’d listen to me, Tosh.”

“But can you try?  Because that would be cool.”

For the record, Toshi still likes the first film the best, but he certainly dug “The Phantom Menace” for the wonders it had to offer, and he’s told me several times now that “Attack Of The Clones” is the best one because it has all the clones, logic I find hard to argue with.

We’ll have more next Monday.  In the meantime, I have to try to keep Allen from cutting his big brother in half with a plastic lightsaber.  This may be a losing battle.

“Star Wars: The Complete Saga” is now available on Blu-Ray.

Here’s the moment the series was born, at the tail end of the series of “Star Trek” reviews with Toshi. (9.2.09).

“The Last Starfighter” on Blu-ray (9.7.09)

“Popeye,” empathy, and David Bowie’s codpiece (9.21.09)

Talking Heads, ‘Astro Boy,’ and “Willy Wonka” on Blu-ray (10.26.09)

“The Dark Crystal,” featuring a guest appearance by Toshi’s little brother (12.2.09)

“Help!”, in which Toshi discovers the Beatles, especially Ringo (1.4.10)

‘Last Action Hero” introduces Toshi to Armer Shirtzganoma (1.18.10)

A Tale Of Two Zorros (2.23.10)

“Clash Of The Titans” on Blu-ray (4.2.10)

“Jason And The Argonauts” on Blu-ray and Harryhausen at AMPAS (8.9.10)

“Time Bandits,” “Mars Attacks,” and letting go (9.7.10)

“Toshi and Allen encounter high adventure with ‘The Goonies'” (3.6.11)

“‘Tron’ vs ‘Babe’ on Blu-ray” (4.19.11)

“Toshi and Allen head to Asgard for ‘Thor'” (5.4.11)

“Tim Burton exhibit at LACMA dazzles and disturbs” (6.6.11)

“We kick off a special series with a first viewing of ‘Star Wars’ on Blu-ray” (9.22.11)

“We finally reach The Moment with ‘Empire Strikes Back’ on Blu-ray” (10.3.11)