If there's one way to affirm or have your own private thoughts on any family film denied, it's to show them to your kids, who have had no background noise, no hype and no understanding of the apparent cultural significance of any 'old' films that you adore.
I have written in the past about how much they both loved the Errol Flynn Robin Hood film within a couple of minutes of the speculative viewing being on screen ("Don't turn it off!!!"). They're not so hot on Laurel and Hardy talkies, which turn out, now I look at them, to have a hell of alot of Tom and Jerry-esque cartoon violence in, which I would have simply accepted at the time, given that Tom and Jerry were children's TV staples. In these C-Beebies driven days, where you have to pay extra to get cartoon channels (so we don't), there is no concept of cartoon violence. So it jars.
After Errol Flynn came Harry Potter. The two of them gorged themselves on the first film, which I have to admit, with all the clunky acting from the kids, which I can forgive, there's n'ere a note wrong in the whole enterprise. It's a delight. Harry Potter 2 ie: the Chamber of Secrets... now that's proper scary. They're both a lot more wary of it. Regardless of Nor having read on until she has reached her own natural stopping point at about half way through the Half Blood Prince (Nora! it's < muffled voice >!). A huge bloody great snake pursuing Harry and the SPIDERS! Good God.
But something else entered our world in between the two films: "Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope".
Having to sit through those three films with the kids has been fantastic. They really *were* great. Exciting, timeless, emotional, epic, legendary. There is so much wrong with them but on a basic level, the simplicity of the stories in each film keep the children gripped. It is clear who is good, who is evil. There is no doubt, no confusion. Darth Vader wears an insane shiny PVC black suit; Luke and Leia wear white tunics. It is that simple. I already feel slightly jealous of friends whose kids aren't old enough yet for the lovely excitement of watching the films with their kids for the first time. For every clunky line there's a shot like the stunning long shot of Vader's head as he wrestles with his thoughts, watching his son being killed. It's a crazy shot. The man's wearing a complete head mask, and yet, with that brilliant music, the angst really is visible. Nor was devastated that Vader died after his redemption, and cried hard empathetic tears at his ritual funeral. Heady stuff.
The kids being seven and four watching "Return of the Jedi" has helped me come to terms with it. It makes so much more sense, seen in quick succession after the first two. "The Empire Strikes Back" had Nor in bits, and I'm not surprised. My recollection of Jedi was of a slightly embarrassing, twee film with a bunch of cute furry toys in, which didn't work and was all a bit daft. Well, yes, there are cute furry toys in, but it holds together pretty well with the action parts of the film, which are suitably epic.
...and so, having watched the three films - and by that, I mean the films that Lucas revisited with CGI and made some agonisingly dreadful changes to, the fact that the first three films exist in the world - that it's possible to find out who this Annakin Skywalker was, plus the fact that today's Star Wars is all about the clone wars, man, we had to watch "The Phantom Menace".
Yesterday, I showed the children the original trailer and I remembered, wistfully, the desperate downloading of two versions of that original trailer: one, the official one but the other, a rough and ready video from a cinema recorded by some guy. The *incredible* hairs on the back of the neck excitement at the gorgeous reworking of the Lucasfilm logo, all sparkling and precious and that roar from the cinema audience... I can still remember watching it, with some other folk, all clustered around a work desk, wanting to clutch each other, grinning like mad people... and here were Nora and James watching the same trailer saying "Who's that, is that Annakin? Is that Padme? Wow, that's fast... oh, is that the Emperor?" all excited questions which I refused to answer. I watched their wide eyed faces. "Again! Can we see it again?" Oh yes. And the debates we had at the time it was released sprang to mind. We'd forgotten, this was a film for kids, just like the originals. We were expecting too much. Well maybe watched through the lenses of childhood, it might not be quite the disjointed, terrible disaster area that I remembered?
Here is a measure of how good Episode 1 is: Nora has almost no idea what went on in the film, beyond the extreme basics of the Annakin journey. James nearly fell to sleep and was bored mindless. It was only sleepy inertia that kept him from leaving the room to come and read a book. They *loved* that C3PO and R2 were in it, and they seemed to desperately cling to any scene they were in. Particularly C3PO, who even with the limited script he was given, still had enormous warmth of character through Anthony Daniels' fantastic work. They blanked Ja Ja Binks completely. They just didn't care. The whole Padme/Amidala confused mess was totally lost on them, and they had no idea what the hell was going on there.
Speaking as the adult interpreter, having now seen this film for the second time only (that's how much I loathed it first time round), more than ten years ago I was gaping at how dreadful the film was. Sitting with the kids laid bare the horrors that awaited and made me cringe. The beginning of the film, you're thrown in to a confused, distancing trade dispute which could only mean absolutely nothing to the kids. Who were these things that looked a bit like sea creatures, that hadn't been in any of the first three films? Who, even worse, spoke with totally featureless faces in really heavy accents? Ah, here's the Emperor... and it's not explained that he isn't. Liam Neeson is magnificent. All heart. A real actor trying his best to make his character real. Ewan MacGregor is so wrapped up in getting his terrible, awful accent right that he seems almost entirely distant from his part. It's like watching a cardboard cut out. The kids really didn't like his character at all, and what a dreadful thing, for the film to do that to the legend that is the wonderful, all-heart decency of Alec Guinness's older man? For a short while, when the film moves to Tatooine, it makes sense. It makes sense because the film suddenly becomes small, no huge vistas and complicated business. Just the story of a little boy (and Annakin is played really well. Very sweetly). Both Nora and James were totally engaged throughout this sequence, including the pod race - my lord, they loved the pod race. They loved the Padme character's smiley loveliness and slightly awkward spikeyness. I realise now, one of the reasons these sequences work is that Ewan MacGregor isn't in them!
On Tatooine, the overdoses of cgi weren't in fact, as much of a problem. The characterisation of the slave owner isn't too bad, and the nasty pod racer guy... a lot of thought went in to their physical shapes. Nora and James 'got' these two completely. After the characters leave this planet though, a whole mess of blank faces for quite a while. Ultimately, complete non-interest until the big showdown with Darth Maul. But even in that, I was left thinking in astonishment - what the hell was the business with the red force field doors? Never explained, they simply let it happen as a shambolic answer to the question: How do we separate Obi Wan from Qui-Gon Jinn? (why the complicated name with such short screen time? If I asked the kids, they would have no idea what Neeson's name was). No exposition, no desperate droid led fight to take the shield doors down... *anything* would have been better than the stupidity of the half solution. And yes, Maul does look fantastic, pacing up and down, waiting. And yes, the fight is *fantastic*. So, the film claws back a little something and the kids are re-engaged, albeit briefly. Only for that engagement to be squandered at the badly handled Annakin-in-space-accidentally-blows-up-the-big-ship episode. Sigh. They really didn't understand what the hell was going on.
I haven't really mentioned the horror that is Jar Jar Binks and his race, have I? I can remember the jaw dropping mortification in the cinema, in Streatham in a majority black audience, cringing in my seat at the Rasta accent debacle. But, there's a much more important point to make (although it's very contributory). Binks is not played by a decent actor, and his character fails through a combo of Uncanny Valley-ness but also simply bad scripting, and bad story. He's all over the main characters like a bad rash, gumming up the works with dialogue so superfluous you desperately wish him off the screen. Face it, if the entire underwater race were expunged from the film, would you miss them? The Naboo could easily have been the opposing army in the big fight. Why do we even need these creatures that do nothing but expose the limitations of cgi? Was he supposed to be the main comedy character? Nothing he says is funny. Nothing. His most supposedly amusing scene, where his tongue is numbed and he can't speak? The kids didn't even smile briefly. I'm not simply projecting my adult view, he really does not work. On any level. ask yourself, why does Yoda stand out so fantastically, despite being a model? Why does C3PO? Because they are read by excellent character actors who give them heart. The only impression we're left with for Binks is a garbled accent which must have taken weeks to perfect.
Phew. So. If you look at the difference between the original film and this, the evidence is stark. Lucas ballsed it up. It doesn't work as an adult film; it doesn't work as a kids film. If you sliced back all the tedious trade cobblers and made the film concentrate around the story of Annakin, then yes. A tight hour and a half of an action film that at least might live up to the originals part of the way. You'll notice I haven't even mentioned the explanation of The Force. What. Were. They. Thinking. Blank faces all round at home. Symbionts? What? And the question I ask myself - if we had started watching the films in the 'right' order, ie: started with this film, would the kids have even been interested in watching episode 2? It trades so heavily on the future action, watching these films second is the only thing that makes sense and certainly, it would be the only reason to keep watching, rather than consign this misconceived space opera to the dustbin of time.
I'm quite sad, that it turns out it's really Not Good, still. Somehow, I hoped that in the years since its release it might have somehow matured in to an 'alright' film, from the mess I remembered. I hope the kids don't want to re-watch it but of course they will, because the Annakin story and Neeson somehow hold the creaking ship together. We have the miserable prospect of Parts 2 and 3 to come. 2 was so bad, I have never even seen part 3. Imagine that: Lucas did so much damage to his own vision, I couldn't bear to put myself through the very film in which Annakin turned to the dark side?