With rerelease, The Phantom Menace becomes one of the highest-grossing films of all time

Actor Ahmed Best (Jar Jar) looks back on how the narrative surrounding Star Wars: The Phantom Menace has changed for the better in the 25 years since it came out.
Jar Jar Binks in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace
Jar Jar Binks in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace /

When it came out in back in 1999, The Phantom Menace — the first new Star Wars movie since 1983's Return of the Jedi — was a huge hit, netting $64 million in its first weekend in theaters; that's high for a movie today, and downright astronomical for 1999.

But then something unexpected happened: before social media, before fandom culture as we know it today really existed, there was a public backlash to the movie. Fans complained about the long scenes set in the halls of space congress, or the stilted dialogue, and above all about the character of Jar Jar Binks, an alien with a goofy accent who for years became emblematic of the movie's alleged failings.

The Star Wars prequel trilogy marched on, with Jar Jar's role notably reduced in the next two movies. Speaking to The New York Times, actor Ahmed Best recalled how he felt "really hurt" by the experience. "As an artist you want the respect from your peers, and I felt as if I was being scaled back because I didn't do a good job," he said. "Everybody was running away from me, including the people that I gave two years of my life to."

But that was then. Twenty-five years later, The Phantom Menace is back in theaters, and made $15.1 million internationally over this past weekend, behind only The Fall Guy. That's enough to bump it into the list of the top 50 highest-grossing movies of all time, ahead of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and just below Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, which it will almost surely overtake before this new run is over.

This is a good example of how the narrative around The Phantom Menace has changed in the quarter century since its release. Best recalled that director George Lucas told him that the children who grew up watching Jar Jar would eventually become his biggest defenders. "He was right," Best said. "It's a different story now."

Even critics who were around at the time of The Phantom Menace are being more lenient on this rerelease, in part because the backlash seems overblown in retrospect and in part because the Star Wars sequel trilogy — made after Lucas sold the rights to Star Wars to Disney — gave fans something new to grumble about. Jar Jar may be dorky, the argument goes, but at least the prequel trilogy had an overall vision in mind from start to finish, rather than being slapped together as it went by the modern minders over at Lucasfilm.

As for Best, he's comfortable with his film history, reasoning that his performance as Jar Jar kicked off a wave of CGI characters that's still continuing today in movies like Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes, which opens this weekend. "You can't have Gollum without Jar Jar. You can't have the Na'vi in Avatar without Jar Jar. You can't have Thanos or the Hulk without Jar Jar," Best said. "I was the signal for the rest of this art form, and I'm proud of Jar Jar for that, and I'm proud to be a part of that. I'm in there!"

Best got to return to the Star Wars universe in the third season of The Mandalorian as a Jedi character named Kelleran Beq. "This is going to sound really corny, please forgive me, but it felt like coming home," he said.

The Phantom Menace is playing in theaters now.

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h/t Gamespot, Slashfilm