Ask any Star Wars fan about Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace and you’re likely to hear some variation on a list of its weaknesses relative to the Original Trilogy:
The “no protagonist” criticism is particularly telling: it can’t be Anakin, because he’s introduced late in the movie; it can’t be Obi-Wan, because he has only 20 lines; and it can’t be Qui-Gon, because he dies in the end. Jar Jar is usually discounted immediately. If only there were some character who has multitudes of lines, who does politics, action, and diplomacy, and who is in Episode I from the first five minutes until the final shot! Oh, and who isn’t a girl. Girls can’t be protagonists; they’re supposed to be goals for the protagonist to achieve. Right?
Considering Padme as the leading character also helps refute the charge of formlessness. Episode I is structured to be her story, one in which she takes on the Trade Federation and saves her planet from military occupation. Tatooine is an extended detour in which Anakin is introduced and set up for the later movies, but it is not meant to be the center of this movie, and neither is Anakin.
As for the introduction of children into the movie: It’s important to remember that the prequels are prequels. Major parts of the ending are necessarily fixed. Try to imagine that you’re George Lucas in 1997: You want to tell the story of Anakin’s fall to the dark side and the rise of the Emperor. To show the turn to the dark side, it’s necessary to begin with Anakin in a state of complete innocence, before the events that started his fall. His separation from his mother, his rejection by the Jedi Council, the death of Qui-Gon — all of these are essential steps in making Anakin into Darth Vader. Skipping over these pivotal events, as Lucas could have done, would have amounted to giving Vader a generic off-screen Bad Childhood, which I don’t think anyone would have preferred. Instead, Anakin has a significantly happy childhood — loving mother, good friends, heroic exploits — with just enough bad elements (no father, slavery, kidnapped by doomed Jedi) that things will go badly later. So including Anakin as a child is an unfortunate consequence of other worthy storytelling goals, not just an attempt to pander to children.
Padme, on the other hand, was one of the few characters about whom Lucas had complete freedom; not so much as her name was established in the Original Trilogy, much less any character attributes (unless you count “sad” and
“lived long enough for Leia to remember her”). So I think it’s a credit to Lucas that he put so much effort into making her a strong female lead, capable and independent, and not just a damsel for Anakin to claim.
But there’s a major trap there as well: If Padme were written older and more competent than Anakin, there was a possibility she would come out as the villain of the entire six-movie series, the Lady Macbeth whose unfulfilled ambition drives Anakin to seek the power of the Dark Side. By giving Padme her own political success, prior to her meeting Anakin, Lucas avoided that trope. But what about making her the temptress, whose wiles drive Anakin to the Dark Side, seeking power to win her love? To avoid that interpretation, Padme needed to not be responsible for the affair. It had to be clear that Anakin was the implacable driving force behind his own tragic destruction. But how can Padme refuse Anakin, if she’s truly in love? She must be an utterly self-controlled character, capable of subordinating her own desires to the greater good, outwardly emotionless (lest she lead Anakin astray by her displays!). And there it is — the explanation for Padme’s unemotive outward persona (contrasted with the kindness she shows to Anakin in private). She may appear emotionless, but that’s the only way Lucas could be sure she wouldn’t be blamed for Anakin’s fall and the subsequent “Dark Times.”
I’m not going to defend Jar Jar. Jar Jar is abominable — annoying dialect, obnoxious slapstick, mostly irrelevant to the plot — but looking back at the Original Trilogy, there’s plenty of terrible slapstick and annoying comic relief. Threepio interrupts people, gets lost and left behind and dismembered; Artoo takes pratfalls and makes beeping jokes. If Threepio had better mobility or Artoo could talk, we would have had Jar Jar in the Original Trilogy — it’s really just dumb luck that we didn’t, not some mysterious artistry that Lucas subsequently lost.
It’s certainly not a perfect movie — casting and working with children is difficult, and Lucas didn’t distinguish himself there; Darth Maul is an uninteresting, unmotivated villain; and there’s at least 80% too much pod racing. But I think its reputation as a franchise-ruining, poorly planned, poorly directed, children-pandering catastrophe is undeserved.