The Phantom Menace: For a Young Audience?

I came across an interesting quote while reading my Insider the other day.  They had an interview with Roger Christian, who worked as a second unit director on ROTJ and TPM.   While talking about Lucas and his vision, he says,

George’s target was always the younger age group.  I am not sure he expected the dad and granddads to be so enthralled by it.  That’s how Jar Jar Binks came about as well.  People might forget this, but the kids loved Jar Jar when The Phantom Menace was released.  It was just the adults that couldn’t stand him [laughs].  But George always said he was making The Phantom Menace for a young audience.

This caught my attention.  No – I’m not writing this post about Jar Jar, but I wanted to focus on the last line: “But George always said he was making The Phantom Menace for a young audience.”

You wrote it for us? Aw, shucks, we're blushing.
You wrote it for us? Aw, shucks, we’re blushing.

Ever since I looked at when Mon Mothma actually entered the OT a few Scene it on Friday’s ago, I’ve begun obsessing about percentages in Star Wars.

For example, according to the scenes (not running time – important distinction here), at what point in the movie do we first see the Emperor?  Is it 50% of the way through the OT?  (It’s 20% of the way through the OT, but 48% of the way through ESB)  At what point do we meet Yoda in the OT?  At what point of the saga do we meet young Anakin Skywalker?  Etc, etc.

We all know that I seem to be one of the few people in this world that actually genuinely likes TPM.  Jar Jar aside, I wrote a blog post almost two years ago on why the movie holds a special place in my heart.

But after reading Christian’s sentiment that George was making TPM for a younger audience, I have to question Lucas.  anakin tpmI’ve mentioned this on my blog before but the first time I ever realized that TPM might not actually be a kids movie was when I introduced it to a 6 year old.  This child loved TCW and had seen ANH, also liking it, though according to him it wasn’t even near as good as TCW (truly wonderful, the mind of a child is).  So I thought it would be no problem introducing him to TPM.  I mean, the CGI was better, so maybe more on par with what he was used to in movies, and there’s a lot of flashy fun spaceships, podracing, plus the big battle at the end.

I think he semi-liked the movie.  The thing was, he got bored through a lot of it.  There’s just so. much. talking.  And I had never realized this before.  If you compare the dialogue in ANH and TPM they are lightyears apart.  ANH involves a lot of folklore (Jedi, the Force, the Senate, etc) but we don’t actually see what that is.  A lot of ANH is action and even the talking scenes are interesting enough that you can kind of follow it.

Whenever there is talking in TPM, on the other hand, it often is drenched in politics.  Words like “The Trade Federation”, “negotiations”, “committee”, “senate”, “prophecy”, “supreme chancellor”, are thrown around so much that I doubt a young audience would understand what is going on.

While writing Scene it on Friday’s, I have observed that the Prequels contain many, many more scenes than the OT.  The OT has a total of 235 scenes, whereas the Prequels contain a whopping 533 scenes.  I often feel that this is a mistake on Lucas’ part.  As we’ve seen from my Scene it on Friday’s, a scene from the Prequels could be 3 sentences long.  Lucas fell in love with fast cutting and editing of scenes to make rapid action sequences.  Scene, cut, scene, cut, scene, cut.  The OT has less scenes and longer ones, but each scene contains depth and holds your interest the entire time.

Now here’s when my obsession came in.  I decided to take a look at TPM, which has a total of 115 scenes (including deleted scenes), and see how many involve action vs. how many involve just talking.  I know this is vague and subjective, but I tried to quantify a talking scene as one where a 5-8 year old child would get distracted.

I have counted that 31% of the scenes in TPM contain only dialogue.  I know that doesn’t sound like much, but one of the main problems with this number is that the majority of the scenes are all clumped together within the movie.  Most of it happens when everyone arrives on Coruscant.  Since there are no switching scenes to see what other characters are doing somewhere else, a child’s attention wanes pretty fast.  I then compared it to ANH.  ANH came in at 18% of talking scenes and even that was stretching it.

You guys are talking too much. I'm bored.
You guys are talking too much. I’m bored.

Within ANH, I noticed a lot of the scenes that could potentially be boring were often filled movement and excited dialogue.  It was usually propelling the story forward, and I feel like you could sense that as a child, even if you didn’t know what they were talking about.  A good example would be when Obi-Wan and Luke meet Han in the Cantina.  I counted that as a “talking” scene, but I feel that there was enough excitement in that scene that the audience was still engaged.  In TPM, a lot of the talking scenes were just that.  Talking.  They had wooden faces and the scene felt stale i.e. boring.

Lucas could have had good intentions while making TPM and tried to direct it towards a younger audience, but I believe he often fell short.  If you are making a movie for a young audience, you still need the scenes with dialogue to create excitement.  In the words of a stormtrooper, the movie needs to “move along, move along.”


14 thoughts on “The Phantom Menace: For a Young Audience?

  1. I was 14 when Phantom Menace came out and was disgusted by the idea that it was supposed to be “a kids’ movie.” I have always, and to this day, opposed the designation, for all six films. Frankly I’ve always thought Lucas’ idiot was showing when he took his films, beloved by teenage boys in the 80s, and decided to make a follow-up 20 years later . . . targeting young children?! Would not any other logical, sane, intelligent human being anywhere in any galaxy have targeted men in their late 30s? (The lost “buddy cop” version of the prequels that may exist in a parallel universe . . .)

    And I agree completely it’s not a kids’ movie. It’s also not a movie for anyone who didn’t love the trilogy. Doesn’t make it less of a movie in my opinion; I loved it at 14 and 24 and I daresay I’ll love it at 34. I was 12 when I first saw it; I didn’t let my geeky niece see it until she was 12; and if it is ever up to me again when someone sees Star Wars for the first time, I’ll wait until he or she is 12 as well. I don’t have enough respect for Lucas as a filmmaker or human being anymore to think that he was targeting anybody with the film. He, as always, did exactly what he wanted to do, and threw Jar Jar in for various reasons of his own. He retconned in the “it’s a kids movie” defense when his 30 year old fanboys complained.

    Ooh, and since you brought up percents and I happen to know: Jar Jar has less than 9% of the dialogue in Phantom Menace (calculated using my Star Wars Concordance, which is a project I started listing every word in every film; TPM is the only one completed). Fun fact!

    1. ahem . . . *I was 12 when I first saw the Original Trilogy. Just realized epic pronoun confusion going on there in my second paragraph. Episode I I loved at 14, and A New Hope I saw at 12. Geesh, me. It’s been a long day 😉

      1. You wouldn’t let someone see ANH until they were 12? I’m not sure I agree with that. I feel like you can get a lot from Star Wars and I think children can definitely watch ANH around 6-7 years old. I’ve seen lots of child Star Wars fans who just love it, even if they don’t completely understand it.

        Another fear would be that 12 is almost too old to get sucked in. Don’t get me wrong – I got sucked in at 11. But at age 12, you’ve already begun to care what other people think of you and you might dismiss Star Wars as “a kids movie” or “not cool enough”…though the second perception may change as Disney starts unleashing films every year. I want to introduce my future kids to Star Wars as early as possible. I want them to grow up drenched in it. I don’t want them to know life without Star Wars. Once they reach the age of 12, 13, 14, they can decide to not like it, but I do want them to know ANH during their formative years.

        Interesting fact about Jar Jar! That 9% definitely drove most of the world crazy.

        1. I don’t age-restrict it because I think think there’s anything appropriate or inappropriate about it. Sure, a little kid likes watching flashy pictures on the screen as much as the next cat, but there just isn’t any reason for them to. Star Wars doesn’t have a complex plot, excessive violence, or strong language — but “there’s no reason they can’t” is a poor reason to do anything for a kid. There’s no reason they should see it before they’d really, well, get it.

          Really it’s that attitude of “I don’t want my 12 year old kid to think they’re too old for Star Wars” that is the root cause of my frustration every time “star wars is for kids” comes up, and I’ve been stamping my foot about this since I was about 14. It’s not for kids. It’s YA, if such a thing exists for movies — quintessentially teenage with a 20-year-old protagonist, and I’d choose to see it first as a teenager every time. There’s just no reason for a little kid to waste their time. My perspective since I was a child has been “children younger than 10 have so, so, SO much better things to be doing than ever watching a TV.” I certainly did. We didn’t have a TV until I was 3, and I could count the number of movies I saw on both hands before I was ten. If I’d seen Star Wars from the time I was born, it would’ve been meaningless, just another rando VHS from the library. Instead, it was an Event.

          Unfortunately — and I suppress clammy shudders at the “new Disney Star Wars movie ever year”; oh, my dying soul — we live in a society where more is never enough and luxury as a concept is utterly forgotten. Because what is luxurious is by definition rare and what is taken for granted is by definition commonplace. Making “the first time I saw Star Wars” a rite of passage elevates it; restricting it to 6 movies and a hundred books makes it unique, special. Kites only fly with the restrictive string on them. Things with no limits quickly pall.

          1. I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree. From my own experience, I almost lost out on Star Wars forever because I didn’t want to watch it since I was worried about what the cool kids would think of me. I tried to hide my love for it. I think if I had watched it when I was younger, it would have opened my imagination to boundless possibilities. I really wish I had seen it when I was 7 or 8.

            So I think that’s why I strongly disagree with you. I remember a time when my mother sat me down and said I would like Star Wars. We started watching this weird preview of the movies that was on the VHS tapes (I can’t remember why there was a preview for Star Wars on a Star Wars VHS) and I saw the werewolf guy (taken out in the SE’s) in the Cantina and freaked out. I asked her if he was in the movie a lot, and my mom thought I was talking about Chewbacca. She said yes, so I decided not to watch it. The funny thing is, to this day, I remember I had seen Chewie a few times and was not scared. I wish there wasn’t that confusion around that because I would have loved Star Wars. I think I would have understood at least 80% of it. And if I didn’t understand it, I would ask questions. That’s what I hope my children do.

            My kids will be watching ANH as soon as I think they can. (More likely they’ll just grow up knowing about it since my house has Star Wars stuff scattered everywhere) I agree TV should be limited, but that’s almost a separate conversation. It’s not like they will be watching Star Wars everyday. I like the idea of my children not “getting” it right away, and slowly learning more and more as they get older and reaching new levels of understanding.

            Look at me, talking about kids I don’t even have.

            1. I know that’s what most people think and my opinion is definitely not in danger of ever becoming the majority 🙂 Especially since I’m not ever going to be in charge of when someone sees it. (I don’t like kids and will never have any of my own volition. Even when I was a kid, I didn’t like kids.) Ah, well.

  2. Wow, what a fascinating analysis! I was 13 when TPM came out, and I enjoyed it IIRC. I think that’s about the right age to not be so bored with the talking, but not yet be critical of all the silly things. And of course, targeting a younger audience is no excuse for making a lesser quality movie, because plenty of things made for kids also hold up for adult audiences.

    On a related note, I just started season 3 of TCW, and I hit a spate of “political” episodes, which made me want to throw things at the TV. I just want to see more Jedi fighting on various cool planets, please!

    1. Yes, I believe that you can watch TPM ages 10+. I think you can understand it enough at that point to grasp a little bit of what’s going on and at least be able to sit still longer haha. I saw it at 11 and loved it. I absolutely loved the battle droids and thought they were so cool. They did get annoying as the other two films progressed, but they were interesting in TPM.

      Oh gosh! TCW does get political sometimes and it gets super annoying. There are definitely duds in TCW and I feel like they always fell around Christmas time when I watched them. Haha. I wonder if the writers quickly wrote something so that they could air while they were on vacation and not worry about it. But as a viewer I always thought they sucked.

      I can’t wait until you get to the 4th season! That’s the season that I ended up really enjoying and what got me hooked. 5th season is also really good. The 6th season, only on Netflix, has its moments, but I think I would stop at the 5th season if I could do it all over again.

  3. I’m 16 but I saw the prequels when I was 12 or so. I can guarantee that there are a lot of young people who not only like the prequels, but prefer them for their adaptation of the original series with special effects.

    1. I saw the prequels at the same age and loved them! My point with this post was not aimed at that age group…instead I was looking at young, young children of around ages 5-8. I think TPM would be a lot harder to swallow at that age.

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