The last big panel at Star Wars Celebration was a 20th anniversary retrospective of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. The maligned prequel that kicked off a new era of Star Wars after a 16-year hiatus from the big screen hasn’t ever been considered a bright spot in the saga’s history. But 20 years later, fans who grew up on Episode I seem to have a special place in their heart for the movie.
The crowd at Star Wars Celebration gave The Phantom Menace anniversary panel a warm reception. It probably didn’t hurt that Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) and Darth Maul (Ray Park) were in attendance, not to mention some of the key crew members who have made the modern era of Star Wars what it is today. But George Lucas also sent in a personal message talking about his love for The Phantom Menace, and doubling down on his love for Jar Jar Binks. Plus, some interesting cameos you might not have known about were revealed and much more.
The Legacy of Phantom Menace
The Phantom Menace 20th anniversary panel started off with a retrospective look back at the development and making of the film. Hosted by Warwick Davis, the discussion featured visual effects supervisor John Knoll, viewpaint supervisor Jean Bolte, design director Doug Chiang and supervising sound editor Matthew Wood talking about how much George Lucas pushed them beyond their limits with what he wanted to accomplish with The Phantom Menace.
Regardless of how you think about Episode I with regards to its quality as a film, you can’t deny the important place this movie has in Star Wars history. The first prequel is what gave way to Star Wars Celebration itself and the revival of the classic saga in a much bigger way. It helped bring Star Wars to a new generation, and it advanced film technology at large, ushering in a new wave of blockbuster filmmaking.
Furthermore, even though George Lucas may not be the shepherd of Star Wars any longer, his influence and style is still present through those he mentored while working on the prequels. Everything that John Knoll, Doug Chiang, and Matthew Wood bring to Star Wars today comes from what they learned from Lucas giving them an opportunity to rise to the challenge of his vision for The Phantom Menace, and they all echoed those sentiments when referring to the Star Wars projects they’re working on today, from Rogue One to The Last Jedi. And even though Jean Bolte doesn’t work on Star Wars movies anymore, her talents are still firmly in place at ILM with work on movies like Iron Man, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, and Avengers: Age of Ultron.
Speaking of Lucas, he sent in a personal message to fans attending The Phantom Menace 20th anniversary panel:
Thank you for coming to the Celebration. [The Phantom Menace] one of my favorite movies and of course Jar Jar is my favorite character. Ahmed [Best], you did a fantastic job. It was very very hard. Also for John Knoll and all the guys at ILM, I made it impossible for them. We broke a lot of ground. We were using test equipment but it was the beginning of digital, even though we didn’t get to shoot the whole thing digitally, we got to shoot part of it so it was really one of the first digital features and I’m very proud of that. The fans are always such a big part of these films and obviously those of you who are here are the fans of Episode 1 and I love each and every one of you.
And in case you think George Lucas is still crazy for proclaiming Jar Jar Binks as one of his favorite characters, when Ahmed Best came to the stage during this panel, the crowd gave him some of the biggest cheers of the day. That might be because he’s had a rough go from the more vicious fans who hated The Phantom Menace, but it honestly seems like it’s because there’s a new wave of Star Wars fans who have come to appreciate the prequels for what they are. These are Star Wars fans who just love Star Wars.
Plus, there are some other interesting little nuggets to be gleaned from The Phantom Menace after all these years. Even if these aren’t new to you, these little tidbits were new to me, so here you go.
First of all, you might have already recognized a younger John Knoll as a Naboo pilot (above) during the assault on the Trade Federation ships in the final act of The Phantom Menace. But what you might not know is why George Lucas actually used the shot of him as the only pilot seen getting killed in the final cut of the movie. Knoll explained:
“What George told me was that the reason I’m the only one you see get killed is because it’s a pretty short shot, and I was the only pilot who had a beard. Because it was a short shot, he wanted to make sure there wasn’t any confusion that somebody important got killed.”
Funnily enough, Matthew Wood was responsible for the sound during the space battle sequence, including the shot where John Knoll’s character dies. But John Knoll also shot Matthew Wood’s cameo, which was a little more painstaking of a process. Wood played Bib Fortuna standing next to Jabba the Hutt during the podracing sequence, and it’s all because George Lucas in his infinite wisdom thought he looked thin and creepy enough to do it. How kind!
And finally, Ray Park is obviously best known for playing Darth Maul, at least when it comes to his face, body and incredible fight choreography (the voice in the movie belonged to Peter Serafinowicz, but he’s since also been replaced by Sam Witwer, who has voiced the character in animated form for years now). But during one of his days off from the film, he came to just hang out, so he ended up getting suited up as one of the Queen’s guards during the assault on the Theed palace on Naboo, and you can see it in the still above.
Ian McDiarmid is Good at Keeping Secrets
Finally, for anyone hoping that Ian McDiarmid might offer up any nuggets about his involvement in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker after that telling laugh at the end of the recently released teaser trailer, you’re about to be disappointed.
When Warwick Davis asked if there was anything McDiarmid wanted to tell us, he merely said, “Friday I just happened to be in the area, so I thought I should just drop in for a laugh.”
Then later, McDiarmid talked about when he confirmed with George Lucas that the Emperor was dead at the end of Return of the Jedi. Hoping there might be a chance for him to come back down the road, McDiarmid was rebuffed several times in the conversation by George Lucas saying the character was definitively dead. Of course, all these years later he got a chance to play Palpatine again in the form of both the Senator from Naboo and the secret Sith lord Darth Sidious (something co-star Liam Neeson somehow didn’t even know until he saw the film’s premiere).
But now all these years later, McDiarmid has gone back to what he thought about Emperor Palpatine after Return of the Jedi, “I made the assumption that we’d never have to see him again, and I guess that’s how it’ll remain.” Of course, he said this with a bit of a cheeky tone and smile. And since this return is supposedly something that has been in the works for awhile, you can do with that what you will.
You can watch the entire Star Wars: The Phantom Menace 20th anniversary panel below.
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