Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace is a low point among Star Wars fans. Between the emphasis on CGI visuals over the story; the cheap, pandering humor; and the retroactive rewriting of continuity, Phantom Menace regressed a beloved older franchise to make it more palatable for a younger audience — one eager to buy countless toys. I recently watched Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them for a second time over the holiday weekend, and one thing was clear from the repeat viewing: Fantastic Beasts is the Phantom Menace of the Harry Potter world.
Now, I realize that’s an extreme accusation, so let's break down the comparison. Because while The Phantom Menace undoubtedly had problems, it can be viewed as a valuable cautionary tale of how not to revive your franchise.
SPOILERS FOLLOW FOR FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM, HARRY POTTER, AND STAR WARS
The lead up to release
The Phantom Menace was released in May 1999, 16 years after the then-presumed-to-be Star Wars finale Return of the Jedi. Arriving after years of fan speculation and hope, it was the progenitor of modern nostalgia-based sequels and reboots. At the time, fans only had an expanded universe of books to draw from, and The Phantom Menace was a shining promise of a return to a galaxy far, far away, right down to the first trailer featuring John Williams’ iconic score.
The lead up to Fantastic Beasts follows the Phantom Menace playbook move for move. It was announced as the first major Harry Potter movie series in years, coming almost a decade after J.K. Rowling had closed the book on more wizarding world stories with the novel Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in the summer of 2007. After surviving for years off short snippets of new Harry Potter lore on her Pottermore website, fans were now faced with the possibility of a number of new stories in the magical world that they loved. And like Phantom Menace, the first teaser plucked the heartstrings of longtime fans with the familiar strains of a John Williams score.
The need to be two movies at once
The core question of any reboot is one of balance: how do you make a movie that satisfies older fans, who grew accustomed to dark plots like The Empire Strikes Back, while still reaching new, younger fans? Unlike the recently released Force Awakens, which struck a balance between old and new, The Phantom Menace skewed sharply away from the things that made the original movies great in favor of kid-friendly material centered around the nine-year-old Anakin Skywalker. Fantastic Beasts makes the same mistake, burying the darker conspiracy of Grindelwald’s efforts to procure an Obscurus in order to conquer the world underneath a mountain of Newt chasing down cute, computer-generated creatures and showing off his magical menagerie. By the time Newt participates in a mating dance with a glowing rhinoceros, the movie reached Jar Jar Binks-levels of embarrassment. Like the Phantom Menace before it, Fantastic Beasts panders to a new audience, rather than satisfy the one it already had.
The table-setting for future films
The other major problem with both Phantom Menace and Fantastic Beasts is that nothing really happens in them. Sure, there are a lot of action scenes and running around, but they’re of little consequence. Things like the pod-racing sequence or Newt's Niffler chase just don't affect anything in the larger world or serve a purpose beyond being an immediate solution to a problem contrived a few scenes earlier. None of the characters in either movie can really have a fulfilling character arc or undergo consequential change, since nothing causes them to grow. And the few morsels of interesting plot we do get are simply meant as a tantalizing tease for future films.
In Phantom Menace, we don't get to see Darth Sidious taking over the galaxy, we get a shadowy hologram and trade negotiations. And while Fantastic Beasts may be setting up for a spectacular duel between Dumbledore and Grindelwald, at this point all we get are a few whispered words from Johnny Depp. Both of the movies are prequels, which means that we already know how the story ends. And right now Fantastic Beasts is stuck at the beginning of a very long road. With four remaining sequels, it’s like only getting the appetizer at a restaurant known for its desserts.
When The Phantom Menace came out, I was the newer, younger audience the filmmakers were aiming for. It didn't even occur to me that it was bad. I had seen the other Star Wars movies, and I was excited to see more, but I hadn't spent years waiting for a new film. Years passed before I realized why people didn't like the adventures of Jar Jar and company. So I can understand the audience that will love Fantastic Beasts, that will smile while Newt tries to catch his Niffler, and will laugh as Jacob runs away from the in-season Erumpet. It’s just somewhat disconcerting to have become the disgruntled older fan I once didn’t understand.
But with all the missteps of Fantastic Beasts — and the hindsight of Star Wars fandom — I have hope for the future. The Phantom Menace, and indeed, the rest of the Star Wars prequels, aren't all bad. And things like The Force Awakens have shown that it is possible to build a movie that does succeed in the balancing act, maintaining the legacy of the original entries in a franchise while still moving forward. Fantastic Beasts does have the bones of a good movie buried in it — Rowling’s world is still magical to see, and Grindelwald has a compelling argument as a villain. Here's hoping that the sequel learns the lessons of the first movie, and (to make one more Star Wars analogy) follows in the footsteps of The Empire Strikes Back instead of Attack of the Clones.