For years, Return of the Jedi was my favorite Star Wars movie. I loved that its plot was both quicker and more jam-packed than Star Wars and that it didn't have the dark turn of The Empire Strikes Back that 8-year-old me wasn't ready for. The menagerie of critters and criminals at Jabba's palace, the gang's Ewok-filled mission on the Forest Moon of Endor, the Millennium Falcon finally flying into battle -- I dug it all. Jedi was the ultimate toy box.
But growing up is hard and admitting certain truths even harder: Return of the Jedi is not a good movie. And The Phantom Menace, the bane of so many Star Wars enthusiasts, is the reason I know it.
Since The Phantom Menace's release 16 years ago, I've come to regard Jedi and Phantom as a pair. Both were the product of commerce. Both use fan service as a crutch. Both mistake doofy cuteness for "what kids like." Everything that ever went right and wrong in Star Wars went right and wrong along these two trilogy shorelines. But while The Phantom Menace is, apparently, hot garbage that had its way with our collective fandom ("thanks for nothing, George!"), haters tend to give Return of the Jedi an out clause simply for being part of the original trilogy.
Don't mistake this as critical praise. The Phantom Menace is not a good movie, either. But in the grand Star Wars spectrum, the 1999 film's important role as both an individual cinematic experience and a spark plug to a densifying fantasy franchise gets undercut when we bag up Lucas' prequel movies and throw them overboard. But in anticipation of this week's release of The Force Awakens, I feel compelled to give a point-by-point argument for why The Phantom Menace should no longer be regarded as the black sheep of the family.