There's no denying that Star Wars has had an influence on me. I was one of those young kids who did stop motion animation with my Star Wars Action Figures. My friends and I used to compete on how many times we had seen Star Wars. We waited every few years in long, long lines to see each new Star Wars Chapter as it opened.
But times have changed, I have changed, and so has Star Wars. The latest installment, Star Wars: Episode 1 The Phantom Menace, is considered by many Star Wars fans to be the weakest Star Wars movie so far. I consider it to be a real disappointment. I walked out at the end of my first and only time seeing Phantom Menace in the theater with a feeling of discontent.
I've been told by many people that you HAVE to see Phantom Menace at least twice. But every time I hear people say this I'm reminded of the joke "Why do people see Star Wars Phantom Menace two times? To convince themselves that they enjoyed it the first time around."
So with the DVD, I sat down and gave Phantom Menace a second try, and attempted to put the way I felt about it the first time around aside. I tried so hard to re-connect with my enthusiasm for the Star Wars universe. At first I found that I was really enjoying the film and was blown away at how crystal clear the picture was and how phenomenal the sound was. But then there was Jar Jar. I tried real hard not to hate him, not to let my mind drift to 'The Phantom Edit' (a fan's version of the film which removes all scenes of Jar Jar) but I just couldn't. Jar Jar sticks out like a sore thumb as something that just doesn't fit the way I see Star Wars. My dislike for Jar Jar took a back seat to the Pod Racing scene, which seeing again, I just loved. Could it be.... would I like Phantom Menace the second time around? Was I the butt of my own joke? Unfortunately not. As the second act of the film comes to a close, the excitement drains out of me and I remember why I really didn't like it the first time around. The story degrades into a jumbled mess which Lucas claims makes sense when put in context of the entire series, but what I've always loved about the Star Wars films is their ability to exist by themselves as well as part of a series. Phantom Menace just isn't strong enough to stand on its own. When the closing credits started to roll I found myself humming the Star Wars theme - man, I love John Williams' score. Too bad it wasn't on a better film.
With Star Wars Phantom Menace, THX has taken a much deeper involvement in the production of the DVD. Rather than certify the movie at the end of the production process they were there hand in hand with the production team from beginning to end, and it shows. Also it's important to note that Lucas decided to do the transfer for the Phantom Menace DVD from the film master over the pure digital print that was made for the small number of digital theaters which Star Wars Phantom Menace was shown in. This was a conscious choice and the result is the image is great, but not perfect.
For the majority of the film the image is crystal clear, without any defects, specs, scratches, or anything. You could easily say it was immaculate. But the scenes on Tatooine do have a grainy feel which comes from using this film master. To me it wasn't distracting or unlike other strong transfers I've seen. I point it out only because the rest of the film transfer is so good, so it stands out.
I would have liked to have seen them release the digital print as I never got an opportunity to experience Phantom Menace that way (Portland doesn't have an all digital theater yet), but knowing Lucasfilm I'm sure we'll see it some time in the future.
This is as good as it gets. Phantom Menace features a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track which is so full and dynamic, it's going to make your head spin. The Pod Races are certainly demo quality as the soundtrack moves from almost a quiet hum to a roar and back again. The DVD also has a Dolby 2.0 and a Spanish 2.0 track on it which are of the same high caliber as the 5.1 track. Since the theater I saw Phantom Menace in wasn't the top of the line, state of the art theater, I found my home theater experience of Phantom Menace to be BETTER than the one I had in the theater. It both looked and sounded better.
The Special Features
You can't talk about the Star Wars Phantom Menace DVD and not talk about the Menu Design, which is easily the best design I've seen on a DVD. Each time you insert the Phantom Menace DVD into your player one of the three complete menu designs randomly comes up, each themed after the major planets of the film (Naboo, Tatooine and Coruscant). All three are stunning and extremely well produced and each has its own unique look and feel. Both the main DVD and the 2nd DVD have a number of fun 'time outs' (when the music and such cycles while you wait) including a fun one in Watto's shop. These add to the character of the disc and make the menus come alive. Lucas has made the menus of the Star Wars Phantom Menace just as much a part of the Star Wars experience as the movie, and you really feel like you're exploring the Star Wars Universe.
Easter Eggs Disc 1
I'll be honest, I didn't find all the Easter Eggs on the first disc, and that's probably a good thing. It's so fun to look for them, that having a review spoil it for you takes some of the fun out of it. I can tell you that above the THX Optimode logo on the Naboo Options screen there is an egg which takes you to the DVD credits and a hilarious blooper reel.
Rather than providing separate commentary tracks for different aspects of the film, Phantom Menace has a 'best of' commentary track, where they've intercut commentary from George Lucas, Rick McCallum, Ben Burtt, Rob Coleman, John Knoll, Dennis Muren and Scott Squires. One fantastic feature of the commentary tracks is that when someone speaks their name comes up on screen. With so many people talking it's a GREAT help trying to keep track. I was pretty disappointed that there wasn't a separate commentary track for George Lucas. He spoke a lot about theory and the big picture, and I would have liked to hear more off the cuff, blow by blow commentary with him, but overall the edited together commentary works and it provides some extensive information on how they made Phantom Menace, and will change the way you see what you see on the screen.
2nd DVD - Special Features
When talking about this DVD, Lucasfilm emphasized that they focused on quality of special features over quantity, and they delivered in spades. I'm hard pressed to think of a better companion DVD than the one that comes with Star Wars Phantom Menace. It is this second disc and the content on it which makes this a MUST OWN DVD.
Deleted Scenes and Deleted Scenes Documentary
Unlike most deleted scenes, the seven deleted scenes on the Star Wars Phantom Menace DVD were cut from the movie before they were ever fully produced (in a Q&A Lucas commented that things were cut in concept, it was the idea of something that had to be cut, things didn't get to be produced unless they were IN). Lucasfilm went back with the seven scenes and completely produced them. This is really well explained in the 'Deleted Scenes Documentary' which not only covers the production of the Deleted Scenes but also discusses why scenes are deleted from a film in the first place. It's a fascinating documentary which gives a great deal of context about the deleted scenes. Of the seven deleted scenes included on the DVD, my favorite are the two related to the Pod Race. Both the introduction to the Pod Race has been extended as well as the second lap. Elements of both these deleted sequences have been re-incorporated into the main feature as well as an 'Air Taxi' scene on Coruscant.
Episode 1 - The Beginning
Taken from over 600 hours of archival footage, this documentary provides a look into Lucas' creative process. It is the most compelling thing on the DVD, and it gave me a real understanding of what Lucas was trying to do with Phantom Menace and why he both succeeded and failed. In the documentary there's a scene with George Lucas, producer Rick McCallum and visual effects supervisor John Knoll. In less than five minutes of footage it becomes clear that Lucas isn't just making a movie, he's creating a new industry for Lucasfilm. As he looks over the budgets, it isn't just with an eye for the film, but with the vision of creating cutting edge effects and technology at a price which would be affordable to other film makers. An example of this is the choice to make Jar Jar an all digital character. Originally they designed a suit for Jar Jar 'actor' Ahmed Best to wear and were planning to just digitally replace his head, but after figuring out the costs they discovered going all digital was less expensive. The money spent on the actor's suit was seen as an investment in figuring this out rather than a waste of money.
Another poignant moment in the documentary is when Frank Oz, doing the puppetry for Yoda, sees some of the completed Jar Jar footage and says to Lucas, "You don't need me any more to do this, George", a bitter sweet ode to the transition to digital film making. A point made even more clear with a scene where Lucas digitally alters an actors performance by splitting him out of the scene, editing him and then putting him back in. Our jaws dropped at what is now commonplace technology for Lucas.
Multi-Angle Storyboard-to-Animatic-to-Film Segment
Like the Fight Club DVD, Phantom Menace has a section where you can see the film at various stages compared with the finished film. On one master screen you can see the storyboard, the animatic or test live action footage, and the final film all together. Using the angle button on your remote you can tab between the three and get a real sense of the progression of the film. It's amazing to think that major decisions on scenes were made on the animatics, which are often extremely rough representations of a scene. One of my favorite things about the Multi-Angle Storyboard-to-Animatic-to-Film segment is seeing stand-ins perform the submarine scene. It's a riot!
The Phantom Menace DVD contains the teaser, the trailer and seven TV spots called 'Totems', each which feature a theme of the movie. I hadn't seen the TV Spots (as I was told they were targeted to woman's programming) so it was interesting to see how they marketed the film (especially to women). There were a number of other commercials which were made but didn't make the DVD due to space.
Even More Making-Of Features
If the hour-long 'Episode I - The Beginning isn't enough for you, the DVD also has five featurettes on storyline, design, costumes, visual effects and fight scenes AND 12 award winning web documentaries which chronicle the process of making Phantom Menace from the first day Lucas began to write the script through production. It's a dizzying amount of information, and incredible to think that there are at least 600 more hours of it in the archives!
After seeing Phantom Menace a second time, I still hold to my first impression of the movie, and that's not a real positive one. As a whole, the movie is less than the sum of its parts. Still dazzling are the Pod Races and the Duel, and the amazing picture and sound on the DVD, but Jar Jar and the mess of a third act make it hard to recommend the movie.
I wouldn't recommend you buy this DVD for the movie; instead, buy it because it's simply one of the best DVDs produced to date. Done at a level so far beyond most DVDs, it's worth picking it up just to experience what can be done on DVD. This is a reference quality DVD with some of the best picture and sound out there, and while I rarely rave about menu design, you've just got to see these menus!
The main reason I'm recommending you run out and buy this DVD is the 2nd disc. The 'Episode I - The Beginning' Documentary makes the disc worth the price of admission, and is a must-get for any Star Wars fan. The documentary is so amazingly produced, it's unlike any other making-of you'll see on DVD and hopefully will set the standard for DVDs to come. The delete scenes are spectacular and anything that extends and improves on the Pod Races gets a big thumbs up in my book.
Most importantly, Star Wars Phantom Menace is the DVD which all DVDs will be measured up to. It's the highest level of excellence on DVD - I just wish it were for a better movie.
Complete Phantom Menace Coverage:
Phantom Menace Official Q & A
Skywalker Ranch - Our Trip Report
The Phantom Answers - Answers to Your Star Wars Episode 1 Questions