It may not be as great as you hoped, but it is not as bad as you feared. In fact, it exactly has the same strengths and weaknesses as the original three, plus breathtakingly spectacular visual design and special effects.
Those strengths are, in addition to the computer graphics and design, sensational action sequences, including a “Ben Hur”-like race, battle scenes, and some fancy fighting with the Jedi’s favorite weapon, the light sabers. The young queen is strong and courageous. This chapter has made a small step forward by including two black characters, though Samuel L. Jackson has little to do. The weaknesses are cardboardy characters with emotionless line readings (one actor in the three previous movies said that Lucas’ direction to actors consisted of “Look over there! We’ll add in the effects later.”) The director appears to have been more concerned with making his computer characters seem alive than his human ones. The grown-up actors seem constrained by their participation in a legend and the younger actors seem as though they are floundering. Han Solo is sorely missed. So is Chewbacca. Instead of a Wookie, we get a floppy-eared klutz. (In fairness, his slapstick antics, including stepping in monster poop, were greeted with squeals of appreciation by the kids in the audience.)
The plot is reminiscent of Yeats’ “The Second Coming:” it is a time when “the best lack all conviction and the worst are filled with passionate intensity.” While the Senate is deadlocked by bureaucrats and the Trade Federation is imposing heavy tariffs. As the movie begins, they have blockaded the planet of Naboo, inhabited on land by the followers of Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) and undersea by the floppy- eared, pidgen-English-speaking Gungans. Two Jedi knights (Liam Neeson as Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn and Ewen McGregor trying to sound like Alec McGuiness as Obi-Wan Kenobi) arrive to negotiate, but the Federation invades the planet. With Gungan Jar Jar Binks, they rescue the Queen, to take her to make the case for her people before the Senate.
Their spaceship must stop for repairs and fuel, and they end up on Tatooine, the same planet where we first met Luke Skywalker, back in Chapter IV. The group meets Anakin Skywalker, destined to become not only father to Luke and Leia, but also Darth Vader. At this point, though, he is a cute kid with a bowl haircut, mechanical talent, very fast reflexes, and a walloping lot of The Force. He is building the future C3PO and a flying car called a podracer in his spare time. Anakin and his mother are slaves, owned by junk dealer Watto, who looks like a bug and hovers like a hummingbird. Watto will not accept their money, so they make a bet on a podrace, with Anakin’s freedom on the line, too. Anakin flies his own podracer, and soon they are all on their way.
The queen appears before the Senate to ask for support and Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi appear before the Jedi Council to ask that Anakin be trained as a Jedi. The Queen is able to initiate a vote of no confidence, but the results are inconclusive. And the Jedi Council turns down Anakin.
They return to Naboo, where they persuade the Gungan to join them in fighting the Federation, including the scary-looking and mysterious Darth Maul. While our heroes are successful, there is plenty of foreshadowing about the villains in the next two chapters.
Parents should know that the level of violence is about the same as in the other movies — lots of shooting and explosions, and no blood. Many of the bad guys are robots. They get blown up but don’t really “die.” One of the main characters is killed, and a bad guy is sliced in half. Some kids (and some adults!) will wonder about the references to Anakin’s never having had a father and having been somehow immaculately conceived at the sub-cellular level.
Despite the addition of two black characters (and what is that captain’s name again?), the movie is still heavily white Anglo-Saxon, with some of the bad guys and comic characters using Asian or Caribbean accents. Kids under 12 who have somehow missed the original trilogy may find that viewing it will help them to get familiar with the characters and with concepts like The Force before seeing this one.