Hate "The Phantom Menace"? The Ewok Line theory could explain why

What if a "How I Met Your Mother" hypothesis also applies to our divided opinion about the "Star Wars" prequels?

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published May 25, 2024 3:55PM (EDT)

Carrie Fisher on Stinson Beach in Northern California with an Ewok from Star Wars. (Photo illustration by Salon/Aaron Rapoport/Corbis via Getty Images)
Carrie Fisher on Stinson Beach in Northern California with an Ewok from Star Wars. (Photo illustration by Salon/Aaron Rapoport/Corbis via Getty Images)

Twenty-five years onward from the theatrical debut of "Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace," nearly every one of its haters has a story about how George Lucas wrecked their childhood.

Maybe it was the acting, or more accurately, its absence. Many cite the introduction of the whole midichlorians pseudo-science which, as my still-traumatized husband explained during a recent rewatch, negated the mystical wonder of the Force connection. "The podracing . . . the podracing . . . " he muttered his breath with all the resignation of Colonel Kurtz gasping out his last words.

This man loved "Star Wars" well into his 20s . . . until Lucas brought Jar Jar Binks and the Gungans into his orbit. The Naboo natives’ barely intelligible patois moved critics like NPR’s Bob Mondello to wonder what Lucas was thinking in “ [introducing] "a race of idol-worshiping primitives who speak with Caribbean accents and behave like refugees from 'Amos n Andy.'"  The Jar Jar hatred ran so deep and fierce that it brought years of virulent harassment upon Ahmed Best, the actor who voiced him. 

To the manchild I love, that character and most of what surrounded it marked the death of any nostalgia he held for “Star Wars.” 

This explains why the bulk of the movie’s silver anniversary coverage breaks down to measuring how we feel about “The Phantom Menace” all these years later as opposed to appreciating what it contributes to moviemaking or the franchise canon. Our love or hatred frequently boils down to what age we were in 1999. 

Less often examined is the mechanics of “Star Wars” as a brand with emotional staying power and Gen X’s insidiously possessive attitude concerning the original trilogy. This existed long before Lucas wrote and directed “The Phantom Menace,” the opening act to the prequel trilogy that arrived 16 years after “The Return of the Jedi.”

Indeed, the origins of the middle-aged "Star Wars" fan's signature smug dismissal may be yub-nubbing their way through that installment, the same one that forced Carrie Fisher's Princess Leia to fight in a bikini.

The 25th anniversary of “The Phantom Menace” coincides with the 41st anniversary of a fictionally established but sound theory first presented by Neil Patrick Harris’ Barney Stinson in a seventh season episode of “How I Met Your Mother” called “Field Trip” that first aired in 2011. 

He called it “The Ewok Line,” a demographic border established on May 25, 1983. Those who turned 10 before that date were “too old for something so cloying and cute,” said Barney. Anyone who turned 10 afterward loves the Ewoks “because, why? . . . They reminded you of your Teddys.”

The sitcom father of all F-boys is right. Well, not quite . . . it’s writer Jamie Rhonheimer who verbalized the source of the first schism within the “Star Wars” congregation. 

The origins of the middle-aged "Star Wars" fan's dismissal of "The Phantom Menace" may be yub-nubbing their way through "Jedi."

Frankly, I was not aware of it until college, when I attended a marathon screening of the original movies in the campus' largest lecture hall. By the time the “Jedi” reel was in the projector about half the audience was inebriated, setting up the roar that met the Imperial AT-STs firing on Endor’s fuzzy cuties. Everyone who detested them cheered while the rest of us sat there in horror. (Fun fact: this is the first movie my husband and I attended together, only we hadn’t met yet. Guess which team he was on.)

“HIMYM” presented The Ewok Line as one of its many jokes that rings true because it solidifies a generational quirk that many 30- and 40-somethings didn’t recognize as a commonality. It’s also one of the rare times that Barney was correct instead of purely ridiculous, although for him the Line was a secret metric he used to guess a woman’s age.

Regarding “Star Wars,” it was the smaller fault line that predicted the chasm created when the people who waited for a full driver's licensed teenager’s existence for a new “Star Wars” chapter were greeted by Jake Lloyd listlessly yelling “Yippee!” That's the actor who had the unenviable task of playing the nine-year-old boy who would become Darth Vader.

I remain in the thumbs-down camp concerning the prequels, by the way; instead of rehashing the same quibbles, I’ll simply direct you to Charles Taylor’s 1999 review for SalonWhat he said.

At the same time, today I can better appreciate that Lucas didn’t make those films for me. He made them for 1999’s children. As such the love/hate division has become less binary as the franchise’s mythology has expanded and we’ve all matured. To varying degrees. 

If people feel better than we once did about those prequels, credit Dave Filoni’s contributions to the “Star Wars” mythos by way of “The Clone Wars” and “Star Wars Rebels.” 

That acclaimed pair of animated series thoughtfully filled in the gaping potholes left between the prequels, and fleshed out Anakin Skywalker’s backstory and psychological profile. Thanks to them, old-school devotees have a respectable consolation prize to enjoy with their children and grandchildren.

We might also contemplate our collective recognition of the dangerously intoxicating effects of nostalgia and the ways one’s loyalty to the original trilogy exemplifies that. “A New Hope,” “ The Empire Strikes Back” and “Jedi” collectively became a kind of morality North Star for Gen X, augmented by Joseph Campbell’s authentication of the films as spiritual parables.

Several essayists have described common characteristics of the “Star Wars” generation in terms of its existence at a technological turning point. We remember having to physically dial phone numbers using devices that plugged into walls, or when only a handful of movies came out each summer. The pioneering special effects Lucas used in “A New Hope” are part of setting those expectations. So were the action figures – the disenchanted devotees' Teddys. 

Remaining tethered to playthings and the imagination surrounding them for that long led millions of us to build backstories and worlds in our heads, some described on classic Kenner packaging and others teased into reality in official novels and comics. Which we also read – how else were we expected to quench our thirst for all those years? 

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And the marketplace assigned value to all that. EBay came online a few years before Lucas reawakened the Force in theaters, letting the masses know our old lightsabers and plastic Tauntauns had actual monetary value above and beyond the price tag. 

Did critics misjudge their cinematic worth back then? From a canonical perspective, perhaps.

Our disappointment may also be a function of movie consumption evolving as well. Those feelings over ownership over “Star Wars” probably have something to do with the fact that we actually owned copies of the original movies on VHS. Home video systems enabled superfans to rewatch the confrontation between Han Solo and Greedo repeatedly to determine who shot first. (It was Han, dammit!) 

That also meant we could pick apart the smallest details about each scene to amplify some sense of profundity that, truth be told, probably wasn’t there in the first place. “The Phantom Menace” left no doubt of that, revealing Lucas to be less of some space opera guru than a guy more skilled at whiz-bang effects than character development or thoughtful exposition. 

The man gave the role of Queen Amidala to Natalie Portman, an actor who went on to win a best actress Oscar in the same year as “Field Trip,” and dulled down her abilities to the level of taxidermied fish puppetry. But you know who wasn’t scrutinizing Portman or Liam Nesson or Samuel L. Jackson for emotional range? People born on the post-1983 side of The Ewok Line.

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Many “Phantom Menace” lovers embrace it as the first “Star Wars” they saw in theaters where they are close to Padme Amidala’s age, 14, or Anakin’s; he was nine. Genre fantasy can especially empowering for the young, enabling them to relate to somebody like themselves tossed into a position of trust and power instead of relegated to the booster seat. 

Those folks loved the podracing scenes and the fact that boy Anakin saves the day by, in effect, hitting the off switch on a massive remote. Most embrace the silliness of Jar Jar as opposed to expanding his clumsy slapstick into something more sinister than his maker intended.

Did critics misjudge their cinematic worth back then? From a canonical perspective, perhaps. In 2024 we’re awash in “Star Wars” stories, some better than others, thanks to the seeds Lucas planted in those prequels. The best of them map new roads through this universe that call upon mature, thoughtful perspectives differing extensively from what Lucas endeavored to do two and half decades ago.

In terms of their overall execution . . . they’re still really, really not good. That said, not every critic bludgeoned “The Phantom Menace.”  This is what the late, revered Roger Ebert wrote in 1999:

 At the risk of offending devotees of the Force, I will say that the stories of the "Star Wars" movies have always been space operas, and that the importance of the movies comes from their energy, their sense of fun, their colorful inventions and their state-of-the-art special effects. I do not attend with the hope of gaining insights into human behavior. Unlike many movies, these are made to be looked at more than listened to, and George Lucas and his collaborators have filled "The Phantom Menace" with wonderful visuals.

Some of them were cuddly and meant to be kid-friendly. That doesn’t exempt them from disdain or criticism but maybe all these years later we naysayers might observe more closely which side of the line we stand on and what that position says about us.

“Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace" is streaming on Disney+. "How I Met Your Mother" is streaming on Hulu.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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Commentary Ewoks Gen X Gen Z How I Met Your Mother Movies Star Wars The Phantom Menace