Like most "Star Wars" fans, I do not look kindly upon the "Prequel Trilogy". Like many, the Prequels led to a long period of disappointment and embarrassment for anyone who identified themselves as a "Star Wars" fan. The film that kicked off these feelings was the first of the Prequels; "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace". No other film in the "Prequel Trilogy" has received as much hate as "The Phantom Menace". The massive disappointing reception from both critics and fans led to an almost constant feeling of cynicism and bitterness that still surrounds the release of "Star Wars" movies to this day (trust me, I've seen these fans hate a "Star Wars" product before they've even seen it). It is clear that "The Phantom Menace" is a film that lives in pure infamy, but does it deserve to?
Make no mistake, this is not going to be one of those self-righteous contrarian articles saying "'The Phantom Menace' is actually a good movie". In all honesty, "The Phantom Menace" is not a good movie and it isn't good for all of the reasons that several people like Mr. Plinkett have pointed out; It has sloppy story structure, poorly written dialog, wooden acting, Jar-Jar, reliance of style over substance, Jar-Jar, poor child actors, overused CGI that's aged poorly, too many boring political meetings, Jar-Jar, and did I mention Jar-Jar Binks.
However, my biggest issue with the Prequels was how they managed to suck all of the mystery and fantasy elements that made me interested in the series as a child (for example, why was it necessary for us to know about midichlorians, Lucas? The Force is supposed to be mysterious and spiritual in nature). But, looking back on it, I can't bring myself to hate this film like most "Star Wars" fans do and that's because I was able to find elements within the film that are of genuine quality.
For instance, I really enjoyed the lightsaber fight between Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon, and Darth Maul. I know the fight isn't as emotionally engaging as the fights in the "Original Trilogy" due to us not knowing the heroes well and not knowing the villain at all (seriously! he's only in the film for almost fifteen minutes and he only has two or three lines). But the fight is well choreographed and paced to one of the best pieces of "Star Wars" music ever written; "Duel of the Fates". In fact, I can say that this is the best lightsaber duel in the "Prequel Trilogy" because it is mostly grounded and doesn't go over-the-top with ridiculous flips and moves (like the lightsaber fights in "Attack of the Clones" and "Revenge of the Sith" did).
I can also say that the production design for "The Phantom Menace" was very spot on. The effects actually look really good. Yes, a lot of the CGI hasn't held up well over time *cough* Jar-Jar *cough*, but a lot of the practical effects still do. I also like how this was one of the last "Star Wars" films to use a lot of practical effects; like model ships and locations, practical sets, location shooting, and aliens made with makeup and masks (things we wouldn't see again until "The Force Awakens").
The film also includes great sound design, as well as the previously mentioned quality of the score (but when it's John Williams scoring your movie are you that surprised). While you can argue that this is a textbook case of style over substance (and you'd be right), at least the style is of a high enough quality to be fun to look at.
This brings me to one of the best things to have come from not only "The Phantom Menace", but the Prequels in general; the worlds. The worlds presented in "The Phantom Menace" are unique and some of the most creative in the "Star Wars" universe. From the Mediterranean architecture and underwater bubble cities of Naboo to the city-planet that is Coruscant, these planets display a vast universe with various cultures and alien species.
It ultimately helps the galaxy feel larger and varied. While the Originals were limited by the budget and technology of their time, the worlds in the Prequels feel truly alien. While there are some fans who didn't like the clean and shiny worlds (mostly because "Star Wars" had always visually distinguished itself from most sci-fi films through a "used universe" that was grimy, dirty, gritty, and felt lived in and somewhat real), I don't mind this change. I always thought it did a good job of visually emphasizing a prettier and happier era before the Empire took over.
Even after everything I just said I still don't consider "The Phantom Menace" a good film, but I don't feel like it's the terrible disaster that most "Star Wars" fans make it out to be. I don't even think it's the worst "Star Wars" film ever made. That title still belongs to "Attack of the Clone" (mostly because, even as a kid, I thought the story and characters were bad... like... why doesn't Uncle Owen recognize C-3PO if he owned 3PO for years in the past!). If you want to know more about my opinions on "Attack of the Clones" go here.
So why do so many people hate "The Phantom Menace" more than "Attack of the Clones"? It mostly has to do with hype and disappointment. While I don't consider "The Phantom Menace" the worst "Star Wars" film, it is the most disappointing.
Fans had been waiting almost twenty years for a new "Star Wars" movie and the hype surrounding the "return of Star Wars" was so massive that it, in retrospect, had almost no chance to live up to the hype. Take that and mix it with the overall mediocre quality of the film and it led to a disappointment so large that it has still left traces of unhealthy cynicism and hyperbolic hate within the fandom to this day. I'm not asking that everyone start liking this massively flawed film.
I'm just sick of the hyperbolic hate that continues to emanate from a film that is below average at worst, which has led to the creation of a massive toxicity problem within the "Star Wars" fandom (but that's a topic for another day). I hope that this article has shown that even films as flawed as "The Phantom Menace" still have some qualities worth mentioning.