The Worst Star Wars Prequel Became a Joke in the Best Possible Way

From Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs to the mockumentary short Troopsthe original Star Wars trilogy essentially spawned a spoof empire. Hardware Warsa $7,000 short fronted by characters named Ham Salad and Fluke Starbucker, was even released just 18 months after the Force first awakened. So it’s no surprise that when The Phantom Menace debuted in May 1999, it provided parodists with more ammunition than ever before.

Of course, Episode I was always going to struggle to live with the weight of expectation surrounding its release. But thanks to an incoherent yet juvenile narrative, lumpen performances, and one of the most vilified comic creations of all time, its lampoonings were far more at the merciless end of the spectrum than the affectionate. Everyone from British sketch comedians to pop’s premier parodist were determined to display their disdain, and ultimately disappointment, over a film promoted as an all-time cinematic spectacle. Viewed collectively, these parodies reveal the Star Wars community’s complicated obsession with a movie that’s aged over time like a fine French cheese: bolder, richer, and stinkier with every year.

“Weird Al” Yankovic was the first to take aim. Back in 1985, the polka maestro had skewered The Empire Strikes Back by repurposing The Kinks’ “Lola” into, you guessed it, “Yoda.” Without the benefit of actually seeing the film this time around, though, Yankovic had to rely on online spoilers, which explains why “The Saga Begins” — set to the tune of Don McLean’s “American Pie” — feels a little generic (“My, my this here Anakin guy/Maybe Vader someday later, now he’s just a small fry”). Still, the accompanying promo featuring a piano-playing Darth Sidious and a choir of Obi-Wan Kenobi clones leaned more effectively into his brand of joyous absurdism.

Trey Stone and Matt Parker were always going to be more acerbic, of course. Hitting screens just a month into The Phantom Menace’s theatrical run, South Park’s Season 3 episode “Jakovasaurs” doesn’t explicitly mention anything George Lucas-related. However, it’s blatantly obvious the titular characters — a bunch of humanoid duck-like creatures lacking any genitalia, coordination, or social decorum — were modeled on the much-maligned Jar Jar Binks.

One of the divisive Jakovasaurs.

Comedy Central

The show’s creators had already expressed their contempt at Binks with a swipe at his racist undertones in Bigger, Longer & Uncut. But “Jakovasaurs” allowed the fanboys to stick the knife in much deeper. The species are deemed so annoying the townsfolk hatch a plan to ship them off to Memphis (equally “big, loud, annoying and stupid”) and, via a rigged game show, Paris (where the French lap up their Jerry Lewis-esque antics). You get the feeling Stone and Parker are proud that the Jakovasaurs are as hated among South Park fans as Binks is among Star Wars.

Later that same year, British comedic royalty Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders turned their movie-parodying attention to The Phantom Menace for a lengthy sketch in which the former plays Toby Jugs Kenobi and the latter Pork Dim Sum. Although this sketch is not quite as inspired as their treatment of Titanicthe pair throw in some great visual jokes including substituting R2-D2 for ’70s quiz show mascot Dusty Bin. And they also nail the tedium of the film’s exposition-filled business-speak. (“We have been dispatched here to negotiate the present blockade and thereby relieve the present turmoil and accelerate the plans of the trade union congress of the deltoid outer nebobbian hemorrhoid rim.”)

Pork Dim Sum and Toby Jugs Kenobi.

BBC

The duo certainly impressed Lucas, anyway. In 2011, the impresario agreed to license an animated sitcom inspired by the French and Saunders sketch after being alerted to its affectionate teasing. “I don’t think I have ever seen him laugh that hard!” Lucasfilm’s Howard Roffman later claimed. Unfortunately, he didn’t see the funny side long enough.

A full two seasons of Star Wars Detourswhich took place between the prequel and original trilogies, were subsequently made. But sadly, all 39 episodes have been stuck in the vaults since 2013, with Lucas reneging on the idea over fears its comedic premise would detract from the then-forthcoming The Force Awakens. Still, at least its creator, Seth Green, had already enjoyed an earlier opportunity to poke fun at The Phantom Menace as a key figure behind Robot Chicken.

The Adult Swim favorite delivered three hilarious parody episodes centering on the Star Wars universe, which included an inspired redemption arc for Binks (and in turn the man who portrayed him, Ahmed Besttoo). In a stunning coincidence, Robot Chicken even managed to predict a popular fan theory; one memorable sketch revealed that Jar Jar is, in fact, a Sith Lord named Darth Jar Jar who, far from being manipulated by Emperor Palpatine into handing over power, was the one pulling the strings all along. Meanwhile, its reference to one of The Phantom Menace’s cringiest bits of dialogue (see Vader’s “How come nobody says ‘wizard’ anymore?” quip) even inspired The Mandalorian to bring the slang term back into Star Wars vernacular.

“What if the movie sucks?”

The Weinstein Co.

If that wasn’t meta enough, then how about the 2009 caper about a terminally ill Star Wars obsessive whose old high school friends plot to rob a Phantom Menace rough cut from Skywalker Ranch? Set six months before Episode I’s official release and four months before said fan’s life expectancy runs out, Fanboys was given a seal of approval by Lucas. (He even gave permission to borrow Star Wars’ sound effects.) And while the “no homo” jokes have aged even worse than Binks, it’s largely a warm-hearted, self-deprecating look at the insurmountable hype the 1999 comeback created. While the gang pulls off its nerdy mission impossible, enabling the dying friend to watch the cinematic anti-climax in peace, the comedy acknowledges the efforts may have reaped little rewards. As they wait in line on the day of release to see it for themselves, Sam Huntington’s Bottler wonders out loud, “What if the movie sucks?”

That was a question essentially answered by a disgruntled fanboy in The Simpsons’ slightly belated 2004 skewering of Phantom Menace mania. In the episode “Co-Dependents’ Day,” the release of blatant pastiche “The Gathering Shadow” (there’s even a character named Jim Jam Bonks) is greeted with the verdict “Worst Cosmic Wars ever. I will only see it three more times. Today.” The Fox cartoon may no longer have been firing on all cylinders by this point, yet it nailed the mix of pure vitriol and slavish devotion that consumed certain longtime obsessives.

The Phantom Menace may largely be considered the most disappointing entry in the Star Wars franchise. But if imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery, then ironically, it is also one of the most lauded.

This article is part of the “Celebrating the Prequels” series, a two-weeklong series of articles about the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy leading up to the 25th anniversary of The Phantom Menace.

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