The year is 1999. In a dark screening room, somewhere deep within the walled compound that was Lucasfilm Ltd’s campus, five men were in deep trouble. They were watching the new “Star Wars'' movie—the first in 16 years since 1983’s “Return of the Jedi”—and something wasn’t working. In a documentary released alongside the film, you can see George Lucas, writer and director, slump into his seat. His producer, Rick McCallum, tries to cheer him up to no avail. His editor, Ben Burtt, says the film is “too fast...that we get thrown around.” Lucas’ eyes scan towards production designer Doug Chiang, who, excitedly, says: “We almost got Jar Jar to work.” The camera pans back to Lucas, his hand on his chin.
“Well, if we can make Jar Jar work, we can make the movie work, because he’s funny in a way we haven’t... seen before.,” Lucas says. “Jar Jar is the key to all of this.”
“Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace” is considered by many to be the worst installment in the 11-film franchise. The first line of Peter Travers’ review for Rolling Stone put it bluntly: “The actors are wallpaper, the jokes are juvenile, there’s no romance, and the dialogue lands with the thud of a computer-instruction manual.” Words weren’t minced for Jar Jar either. In Frank Scheck’s review for the Hollywood Reporter, he was described as “…more suitable for Toys R Us than the big screen” and “ particularly egregious and far more irritating than endearing.”
When I pitched writing an “Entire Piece about Jar Jar Binks,” I didn’t expect it to go so well. Perhaps it’s a symptom of the monoculture, but it’s been instilled in me not to utter that name to just anyone. The tall, goofy, discomforting 3D alien continues to elicit strong reactions, from utter rage to ironic joy, in anyone who’s seen even a short glimpse of the “Star Wars” prequels (themselves hated and loved with the same ferocity.) As a “Star Wars” fan, accustomed since childhood to the numerous “cringe moments” of the franchise, I tried to keep the films’ associations with the Gungan to a bare minimum. I tried to forget he existed.
But secretly, deep down, I felt an odd fondness for Jar Jar. I was born in 2000, which makes 1999’s “The Phantom Menace” just a little older than I am. I remember being five or six, renting the DVD from Blockbuster, being entranced and terrified by the yellow-eyed visage of Darth Maul on the disc. Out of all the strange, monstrous beings on screen, Jar Jar was friendly, clumsy, naive, like myself. In a way, he offered a door for my tiny mind to enter the universe on screen. And I think he did the same for more of us than we’d all like to admit.
I’d like to clear the air a little: this isn’t just a Jar Jar fluff-piece. If it was, I would’ve said that in the title. In a lot of ways, the film’s detractors were correct regarding Jar Jar Binks: his character brings very little to the plot, save minor slapstick and a third act deus-ex-machina. His voice, a sort of faux-patois, was cartoonish at best and offensive at worst. The animation itself is nauseatingly unreal, especially in a film shot on 35mm celluloid. And, really, he wasn’t very funny at all.
Despite all of Jar Jar’s very off-putting traits, I think it’s important to consider just how remarkable the character is for even existing. In 1999, having a fully computer-generated character perform alongside humans in live action was thought to be impossible. But George Lucas insisted on it. The team at Industrial Light & Magic, Lucasfilm’s effects arm, first tried to put the actor, Ahmed Best, in a realistic rubber suit. Best was not a trained actor; he’d been cast by producer Rick McCallum after a viewing of “STOMP,” the music & dance revue, on Broadway. The plan was to only replace his head with the CGI head of Binks. Lucas was shown two versions of a camera test: one featuring the suit and head replacement, the other fully 3D animated. Somehow, the second way, the way that hadn’t been done before, was cheaper. Such is the spirit of the “Star Wars” prequels.
I don’t have to explain how impactful that decision was. Think about it: if not for Jar Jar Binks, the clumsy arbiter of the CGI Revolution, we wouldn’t have the countless animated beings appearing in the endless deluge of half-animated movies we watch today. Despite the awkwardness and ire, someone had to do it first. In the corporate “Major Motion Picture” sphere, these kinds of experimental, pioneering moves are often quashed. For better or worse, Lucasfilm absorbed the risk. In the age of billion dollar sci-fi epics like Marvel’s “Avengers” franchise, in which effects previsualization and set-building begin years before principal shooting begins, this kind of willful experimentation is almost anachronistic. One would be forgiven for thinking “The Phantom Menace} was a maverick indie film and not the biggest movie in the world.
You’d also be somewhat correct. Lucasfilm was still over a decade off from being bought by Disney, which, believe it or not, made it a fully independent studio. Depending on your definition, “The Phantom Menace” and its subsequent sequels was an “indie” movie. It’s the kind of thing that could never happen today, could never have happened at any time, before or after. Many attribute this as one of the fundamental failures of “The Phantom Menace”’s production, that Lucas having so much control meant he was surrounded by “yes men.” But in the modern world of filmmaking-by-committee (take a look at the “Justice League” fiasco for an example,) it’s incredibly admirable.
I started to see the sentiments around Jar Jar shift in the mid ‘2010s. People online were coming up with increasingly irrational justifications for liking the character—first, as clipped, repeatable images, then as increasingly dense conspiracy theories about Lucas’ original intention to make Jar Jar a Sith Lord—that those justifications themselves became memes. It seemed, in general, that a group of fans who’d grown up with the bumbling fool had grown to love him too.
With the Disney sequels on the horizon, the prequel movies began a quiet resurgence and reappraisal. While I’ll go to bat for the sequels, I’d felt a keen sense on the opening night of 2015’s “The Force Awakens” that not much new had been tried. I was oddly nostalgic for movies that weren’t very good at all, only because they looked and felt so different.
The prequels were, to quote James Hannaham, “just north of wrong.” Jar Jar, his idiocy, his uncanny pioneering, is the clearest example of this. For an artistic decision so wholly reviled at release to slowly become a prescient sign for the medium to come is an anomaly for the history books. But in a billion dollar industry, with many massive companies all competing for the next “Star Wars,” it’s unlikely we’ll ever see a blockbuster, nor a character, like this again.
Art by Noelani Fishman