People say Episode I of the Star Wars Saga was a failure, artistically, for many different reasons. Some say that George Lucas lost his youthful edge, lost his vision. Others say that he sold out, that he became too commercially oriented. Still others say that the hype of the movie, the buildup over several years -- really over the two decades since the first series -- could not possibly have been lived up to.
All of these are fair reasons, but none of them can really explain why Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, turned out the way it did. After all, while people lose their vision, Lucus had planned and plotted Episode 1 from the beginning. Likewise, even if he HAD sold out there should have remained enough of the original carryover to shine through. Which brings the last point: They hype shouldn't have destroyed the movie, it should have saved it. A dedicated fan base can and will justify a lot of things, often overlooking small flaws as long as a thing is canon. In fact, these small flaws shine through and make the series that much more real -- like the stormtrooper who whacks his head on the door in the original. Every one of these could make the movie shine a little dimmer than it might have but, put together, they just make an imperfect movie -- and do not explain the true loss of something essential that is perceived by almost everyone who saw Phantom Menace.
Among Lucas' influences for Star Wars were the writings and teachings of Professor Joseph Campbell of Sarah Lawrence University. Campbell is a fairly well known figure; in the late 1980's Bill Moyers conducted a series of interviews with the professor (at Lucas' Skywalker Ranch for those who doubt the connection) and aired them on PBS under the title The Power of Myth. The Power of Myth for that was Campbell's field: the roots, the common points, that lie at the roots of all the mythologies of the world. Campbell's theories and studies of myth are based in no small part upon the theories and studies of Carl Gustav Jung, one of the fathers of modern psychology and one time follower of grandfather of modern psychology Sigmund Freud. Particular featured is Jung's concept of the collective unconscious. This idea is frequently misunderstood to be some mystical connection we all have to each other's minds -- in reality, the collective unconscious is simply the evolved, hardened structures common to all minds. For anyone who's read Snow Crash, the collective unconscious is a lot like Stephenson's Deep Structures -- except that is is concerned with universal concepts and not merely language.
Campbell took this idea and applied it not merely to dreams and thoughts, but to Mythologies in general, believing the Myth to be simply the dream of a society as a whole. Looking through wold Myths, Campbell found the elements common to them all. Star Wars was born drawing from these elements. The characters and situations in Star Wars are truly archetypal, truly universal.
Star Wars touches on many truly universal themes: The fool, or the innocent who knows nothing of the world, setting out blindly to make his fortune, or to find his origins. The descent into darkness -- of which Star Wars has many, the trash compaction unit in the death star -- indeed the entire experience in the death star -- being only one of these. There is also the teacher, the hermit who has been through the journey himself who now teaches what he knows to the fool. And of course, there is the Force, both an expression of the human will and an extension of intuition, it expresses both male and female traditional roles in magic. A full mythological study of Star Wars is too lengthy to make here - -besides it has been done many times before.
Suffice it to say, after the Bill Moyers' interviews were conducted, before their were aired, Campbell died, and was no longer able to contribute to Lucas' vision. Without Campbell, Lucas' movie, his universe, lost its ties to the universal myth.
Rather that attempting to connect to the deepest, and highest, parts of the mind, the place where spirituality and myth come from, The Phantom Menace tries to appeal to the superficial senses. Episode 1 tries to look flashy, and to appeal to senses of childish humor. It even tries to appeal to the intellect, trying to explain The Force away with Mitochondria, I mean midiclorians.
This all, however, really takes from the mythic qualities that it could have kept from the original. By putting in slick computer graphics, you lose a lot of the dirty, grainy look that the original often carries with it. The graphics look too clean, too slick, to be dangerous and, indeed, rarely are. The Jar-Jar character and his cohorts, even when they are marching in the battle, are humorous -- and a wacky, zany war is just dissonant -- while you may get a few laughs out of it, it will not stir many -- and those that it will stir will be disgusted at the portrayal of wholesale destruction as laughable. War can often be funny, but battles rarely are -- too close, too bloody -- and this fails to shine through. The explaining away of the force decreases its mysticism, another key and major mythological resonance point of the original star wars.
I could go on, but i've made my point. And having made it, I will say this: In many ways, episode 1 WAS a children's movie -- it was the story of a child. Perhaps time will show that Lucas had this in mind in the place of his series, and will show that his lessons from Campbell were truly learned, turning the series toward the darker. Perhaps Jar Jar will grow up along with Anakin.
Perhaps the Trilogy will reveal itself to be justifiable as a whole, and final judgement should be reserved until this can be seen but -- with the explanation of the force, i find this hard to believe.