The flood of hopes and fears unleashed by recent Star Wars: Episode VII trailers has me nostalgic for the salad days of Star Wars: Episode I hype. When I began working for Newsweek in January 1999, my very first assignment was to write a roundup of Phantom Menace buzz. The trailer had debuted a couple months before, the movie was coming out in May, and excitement was off the charts.
The short piece I wrote laid out some of the concerns Star Wars superfans harbored in advance of the film’s release. There were worries it would rely too much on cheesy CGI. People fretted that the tone of the trailer seemed way too upbeat, not dark enough. Skeptics pointed at George Lucas’ less-than-reassuring track record since the first trilogy: He’d produced Howard the Duck and Willow, and hadn’t directed a film in 22 years.
I also repeated rumors that 9-year-old Jake Lloyd, who was playing Anakin Sywalker, couldn’t act. I noted that he’d received the nickname “Mannequin Skywalker.”
This last bit stuck in the craw of a certain Hollywood macher. Within days, actor/director Ron Howard sent a letter to my editor complaining about the item. “While your ‘Buzz Wars, Episode One’ piece was generally snide and insipid,” wrote Howard, “the pot shot [sic] at nine year old Jake Lloyd was down right [sic] irresponsible … As someone who was acting professionally at an early age, I can assure you that nine-year-old Jake is quite capable of reading, understanding, and feeling the full humiliation of a piece like that.” Howard also offered a mini-review of The Phantom Menace, as he’d seen an early version: “[I]n my opinion, Jake Lloyd is terrific in the film (which, by the way, is truly amazing).”
Newsweek ran the letter under the headline “Pick On Someone Your Own Size.” My editor had my back. But I noticed just a smidge of extra scrutiny given to the next few things I wrote. Getting shade from Opie was a bumpy way to start a job.
A few months later, along with several Newsweek colleagues, I went to an advance screening of The Phantom Menace in a grand old cinema with a huge balcony. The place was packed to the rafters with journalists, VIPs, and contest winners. We were fully primed to get our minds blown. When the movie ended, there was all-around good cheer and raucous applause.
I didn’t get it. I thought the film suffered from every single flaw that fans had anticipated: It had cheesy CGI, was too sunny, and George Lucas seemed totally out of touch. I also thought Jake Lloyd, kid or not, was a putrid actor. Over time, most of you have come to agree with me.
Post-script: Jake Lloyd swore never to act again, reportedly destroyed all of his personal Star Wars memorabilia, and was last seen this summer being arrested after leading police on a 117 mph car chase. George Lucas was roundly criticized for the shoddiness of the second Star Wars trilogy and also for the weird racism in it. Ron Howard soon after directed the 2000 meh-fest How The Grinch Stole Christmas. I quit Newsweek the following year and came back to Slate. The Phantom Menace remains among the top 20 highest-grossing movies in history and also among the most weirdly racist ones.
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