Editor's note: This review was written for the original release of "Star Wars: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace" in 1999.

OK, Mr. Lucas, you can release "Part II" now.

That's what I've been thinking ever since I saw "Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace." It's a nifty enough film that's entertaining but not comparable to the original "Star Wars." Still, I hope I don't have to wait eons until the sequel to this prequel (!) arrives on-screen.

Let's get this out of the way now: Yes, this is a good movie. It's fun, it's exciting, it's great for kids and it won't disappoint any generation of "Star Wars" fans. The first thing you'll actually notice is the tremendous special effects, light years (pardon me) beyond what Lucas was able to show us the first time around. Mind-boggling landscapes, light saber duels, an awesome pod-racing contest, memorable digitally created creatures and a decent (but just decent) storyline add up to a fun show.

There's no question that this is aimed squarely at the younger set, who will be asking Dad and Mom to empty their pockets for Jar Jar Binks books, Yoda sleeping bags and Darth Maul T-shirts. In fact, its target might be all too apparent because some scenes and some characters - Darth Maul in particular - have "action figure" and "Halloween costume" nearly written all over them. This isn't just a fantasy that continues a major part of our pop culture. It's a merchandiser's dream come true as well.

There's something going on every second, and on nearly every inch of the screen. We first meet a Jedi Master, Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his apprentice Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor). The two are sent on a diplomatic mission to stop a blockade by the Trade Federation on the planet of Naboo.

They find themselves deceived once they arrive. As they watch armies of war droids begin an invasion, they literally run into Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best), who, in his bumbling way, befriends them as they try to save Amidala, the Naboo queen. Along the way they meet two very familiar-looking robots, a younger Yoda and Jabba Hutt, and the young Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), who, despite the fact he has not been trained as a Jedi, is in tune with The Force. And there's a new Jedi foe: Darth Maul, who has a double-edged light saber.

My favorite scenes were the incredible pod-racing sequence involving the vicious Sebulba and young Anakin, and any time the computer-animated Jar Jar is on-screen. Clearly, Jar Jar's presence - annoying to some, adorable to others, including yours truly - will split audiences, who will either love or hate the amphibious, clumsy creature with good intentions.

The film has its flaws. Anakin's birth is described in a dialogue toss-off that left me hoping for more details in the next episode. Jake Lloyd is a cute kid, but not much of an actor in some scenes.

But overall, this is fun that's wondrous to behold. You'll never forget the gorgeous underwater city that's home to Jar Jar, the city-planet of Coruscant or the computer-generated creatures that, besides Jar Jar, include the greedy Watto.

And the show also moves with pod-racer speed. Battles occur on land and in space. The droids are intriguing, the new creatures thoroughly entertaining and most of the human performers do a credible job, too.

You might as well give into The Force that's drawing you to the theater.

 

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