Stay with me on this one. Underneath all the Jar-Jar antics and the layer-cake of special effects is a good movie, I promise.
But there’s a lot of work we have to do to uncover it.
What Went Wrong
I don’t think I can add anything to the many others who have chronicled the movie’s shortcomings.
Let’s move on.
How to Fix It
Three major changes will do most of the heavy lifting for us.
First, Anakin needs to be older. Preferably pre-teen, say 11-12 years old. Just this one change by itself makes so much more of the movie make sense.
When Anakin meets Padmé for the first time, his lines are kind of creepy for a little kid. Make him a pre-teen, though, and suddenly he’s a very young man trying (and failing, horribly) to hit on an older woman.
The Jedi’s later remark that Anakin is “too old” to be trained is nonsense for a boy that looks no older than any of their younglings. If Anakin were 12, though, and already arrogant and head-strong, those objections would be sensible.
Second, we need a different motivation for the Trade Federation’s invasion of Naboo. I know, I know: the second movie gets bogged down in Senate procedure and no one cares. But that’s my point: the movie as written does a horrible job of making us care. The right explanation, embedded into the script, would go a long way to fix that problem.
Instead of some vague “trade dispute”, we should have a concrete problem. Naboo has an ore that gets mined by the Gungans and processed by the land-based Naboo into some material needed for making droids. Both the Trade Federation and a rival group buy that material from the Naboo and make their — rival — droids from it.
The Trade Federation comes to Naboo and asks them to sign an exclusive trade deal, so Naboo will only sell to the Trade Federation, which would give the Trade Federation a lock on the droid market.
Naboo refuses, of course, so the Trade Federation cranks up the heat: a blockade of the planet, cutting off all trade to the rest of the Galactic Republic. The Senate has to get involved at that point, since the Trade Federation are breaking the free flow of goods across the galaxy.
This is the dispute the Jedi fly in to resolve at the start of the movie: not a vague thing, but a concrete drama with greedy officials and brave (if naive) patriots facing off.
This scenario also sets up the “symbiont circle” between the Naboo and the Gungans that Obi-Wan talks about. Without the Gungans to mine the ore, the Naboo wouldn’t be able to refine it and sell it, generating trade. In return, the Naboo provide the Gungans both money — of course — and technology, by maintaining the systems that keep the Gungans underwater cities going.
The Trade Federation, with their invasion, break this circle. They not only take control of what industry the Naboo have, they start mining the planet themselves, using droids instead of Gungans.
This is why the Gungans have to flee their cities toward the end of the movie. No one is maintaining them — the Naboo are rather busy — and they’ve lost their main monetary supply. Not to mention all the extra drilling the Trade Federation is engaging in, to suck Naboo dry before the Senate can act.
Our final change is a series of small ones that add up to a big one: we need to shift both both Jar-Jar and Padmé’s roles in the story.
Jar-Jar needs a purpose. He’s a goofy-looking character that’s supposed to provide some comic relief, which is fine in theory, but he needs to serve some use for the other characters.
We should give him several things to do. To start, when he runs into Qui-Gon at the beginning, he should accidentally save the Jedi’s life: when they fall under the bot transport, Jar-Jar shields Qui-Gon from the heat of the transport’s engines using his large, floppy ears, keeping them both safe. When they leave the Gungan city to travel through the Planet Core, we should see Jar-Jar giving them directions, acting as their navigator. In their initial encounters with Trade Federation droids, Jar-Jar should take out a few, if clumsily and slowly. And when Qui-Gon goes hunting for parts on Tatooine, Jar-Jar should follow at a distance, unseen, “swimming” through the sand with just his eye-stalks showing, determined to keep watch over the human to whom he owes a life-debt.
Finally, Jar-Jar, not Anakin, should be the one locked in the fighter that ultimately — and accidentally — takes out the Trade Federation’s droid command ship. Taking Anakin to Naboo makes no sense, he’s too young (at any age) and should be left safely on Coruscant (perhaps under the watchful eye of Senator Palpatine?). Jar-Jar’s goofiness fits in perfectly with what happens in this sequence, and playing the hero here sets up his presence in the Senate later on.
Padmé’s scenes should all be shifted to show her headstrong, sometimes reckless, nature.
When the Queen and the Jedi are debating going to Tatooine, we should actually see the debate. Her Captain should make his case for not going, the Jedi should make their case for it, and the Queen should have her handmaidens weigh in. This last will frustrate the Jedi, so used to being obeyed without question, and give the fake Queen a chance to hear from the disguised Padmé what she should do.
And when Qui-Gon actually leaves the ship to search for parts, the Queen should send Padmé because he needs a translator: it turns out Padmé speaks Huttese. Instead of Qui-Gon playing reluctant tour guide to the handmaiden, we should reverse this. It’s Padmé who has seen poverty up close — which is perhaps why she ran for Queen in the first place — and the Jedi that has been coddled in the Inner Worlds. This change will give Padmé much more depth as a character, and reinforce the sense that maybe the Jedi are a little out of touch, a little too arrogant, to play their role properly anymore.
A final Padmé change: in the final assault on the palace, when she and her guard are pinned down by droids, *she* should be the one to shoot out the glass window and insist they winch up. It’d be a nice echo of Princess Leia’s garbage chute solution during her rescue, and again show us that Padmé is able to think sideways to get around problems.
With these changes, we take a movie that can be skipped without missing anything to one that is crucial to understanding the rest of the series.
Anakin, the young hotshot, both too old to be properly trained and too young to be left alone, shows both great potential and great risk.
The Republic is coming apart at the edges, its reach shortened and its ability to settle disputes peaceably in doubt.
Padmé’s recklessness in the pursuit of what she wants lets her reach her goal, but only at the cost of launching Senator Palpatine’s career as Chancellor, paving the way to his ascent to Emperor.
And the Jedi, assured and passive on the outside, are shown to have grown too insular, too used to their comfortable lives in the Inner Worlds to see the dangers to the Republic from within, or even to find a child as talented as Anakin in the Outer Rim.