It’s hard to think of a man who is so passionately loved and hated by the same group of people as George Lucas. But it is impossible to decry the failure of Lucas’ Star Wars prequels without giving him credit for the greatness of the original trilogy. We couldn’t hate the prequels if we didn’t love the original films. As Disney works to get a new film off the ground, the company would be wise to consider what the prequels seemed to get so wrong, and remember what went right the first time around.
Jar-Jar Binks is Exhibit A on most fans’ lists of prequel sins. But as irritating and distracting as the CGI sidekick is, he is representative of a bigger problem: Star Wars didn’t need slapstick comedy. C-3PO and R2-D2 already provided the understated comic relief for the first trilogy, and since they were used in the prequels, too, Jar-Jar was completely unnecessary.
A number of characters in the Star Wars prequels were accused of portraying negative racist stereotypes, from the Trade Association aliens with the bad Asian accents to the aforementioned Jar-Jar Binks and his pidgin English. You don’t have to be a champion of political correctness to think some of these characters took things a little too far.
In the original trilogy, Han Solo was the cool, good-looking wise guy that everyone wanted to be. My second-grade Halloween costume proves it. But his role was more than that. While everyone around him was moving rocks with their minds, touting regal idealistic virtues or just trying to eat lunch with one of their tentacles, Solo was the grounded realist. No character offered that same relatability in the prequels.
In an effort to tie the trilogies together, Lucas often referenced the original trilogy in the prequels. But while a visit to Chewbacca’s home planet or a musical cue from Yoda’s theme offered continuity, showing Boba Fett as a kid undermined the mystery that made him such a compelling character in the first place. Introducing Anakin Skywalker as a child had the same effect.
The story of Anakin Skywalker’s relationship with Luke and Leia’s mother was an opportunity to amplify the heartbreak of his fall into darkness. But setting up that connection between characters so different in age and maturity, as Natalie Portman and Jake Lloyd were in “Phantom Menace,” was a miscalculation.
Good CGI can effectively blend a virtual object into a real-life background (see the Lord of the Rings trilogy). But more often than not, blending real-life actors into a CGI environment results in something that just looks like really, really good animation. To put it another way, advanced technology took away Lucas’ limitations. And we often forget that our limitations are what force us to be truly creative.
Lucas has acknowledged that part of the inspiration for the original trilogy was the struggle between primitive and superior technology during the Vietnam War. Likewise, there are enough allusions in the prequels to suggest Lucas was using his new films to comment on the U.S. invasion of Iraq. But regardless of your politics, it’s easy to see that where the first trilogy made its point implicitly, the vast exposition and lumbering plot of the prequels muddled any message that may have been intended.
It’s hard to believe that the wise Yoda of the original trilogy was the same cloudy minded Jedi who let the Galactic Emperor take over the universe under his little green nose. Incidentally, there’s an obscure bit of folklore out there that claims the guy who designed the Yoda puppet made him look like President Spencer W. Kimball, former president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, because he was told to make the character look like the wisest man he knew. It’s an amusing if untrue story. A blog post on netorama.com suggests that Yoda was actually inspired by the creator's own face and Albert Einstein.
Critics like Roger Ebert derided the lousy acting of Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman, but a look at their non-Star Wars work suggests the problem had more to do with writing and directing. When Irving Kirshner and Lawrence Kasdan took over the directing and writing roles for “Empire Strikes Back,” the results suggested Lucas was a better visionary than a writer/director.
Sixteen years passed between the release of “Return of the Jedi” and the release of “Phantom Menace.” I waited in line for both of them. But in between, like many Star Wars fans, I grew up. I started to look at the world through more mature eyes, and my childhood memories became rose-colored and nostalgic. In a way, producing the prequels was a no-win situation for Lucas. It was certainly a no-win situation for anyone expecting the new films to be as good as the originals.