The lessons my daughters taught me seeing The Phantom Menace

Well past bedtime, but well worth the adventure.
Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace 25th anniversary artwork. Image Credit:
Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace 25th anniversary artwork. Image Credit: /

It was a risky — dare I say foolish — parenting decision. A 6:40 PM start time for a movie that’s well over two hours was pushing it even for me — and I’m 35.

I tried to temper expectations for my two daughters, only six and three years of age.  

All the same, we were excited. I was excited. Like so many fans my age, I grew up on the Star Wars prequel series. I was in the theater twenty-five years ago to witness the franchise’s return to the big screen. I ate up the backflipping Jedi, the dizzying podraces and the pew pew pew of starfighters, along with fistfulls of butter-soaked popcorn. I eagerly went home and built out the film’s greatest scenes with the first generation of Star Wars LEGO sets.

Now, twenty-five years later, I was excited for my daughters to do the same. I was excited to formally introduce them to Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace.

They’re no strangers to Star Wars, of course. They have their own sets of Star Wars LEGO. They’ve watched the majority of Young Jedi Adventures. My eldest has made it through Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope from the comfort of our couch, and they love the characters you’d expect: Chewbacca, Leia, Ahsoka Tano, and Baby Yoda.

They know, too, that Darth Maul is generally up to no good. Another of my foolish parenting decisions was letting my eldest, then barely three, watch the final arc of The Clone Wars, a decision that provoked nightmares and headaches but also a pretty solid understanding of prequel-era villains.

But seeing a Star War in the theaters? It would be a different experience altogether. It would be worth the dangerous dance past bedtimes and broken evening routines. It would be awesome.

The three of us dressed for the event: me in my obnoxiously red Wookie-infested Life Day t-shirt from Galaxy’s Edge, my eldest in her Grogu hoodie, and my youngest in a Grogu dress. My girls proudly held high the purple lightsabers my brother had gotten them for Christmas as we posed in front of the movie poster just outside the theater. We grabbed Oreos and popcorn and found our seats.

Earlier that day, my younger cousin called me up and asked how I was. I told her about our evening plans. “It must be so cool,” she said, “to get to pass on the things you enjoyed to your kids. You must really love that.”

“I do,” I said.

But sitting between my girls in the theater that night, I realized there was something more going on here. I wasn’t simply passing on a beloved story to them; I was inviting them in. I was allowing them to play in the sandbox with me; I wasn’t just showing them how to do it. We Star Wars fans spend so much handwringing over the right and best order in which to watch the films—really, we just need to invite people in, let them find their own place in that galaxy far, far away.

So, what did my girls discover? Well, in Jar Jar Binks, they found a character in whom to delight. “I love that silly guy!” my eldest giggled—and not a moment too soon. I was grateful to Jar Jar for cutting the tension that the parade of underwater monsters had elicited in my girls.

“Dinosaurs?!” my youngest gasped. She’s a big dino fan. Once I reframed the creatures she was viewing on screen from monsters to dinosaurs, there was nothing but glee. Turns out The Phantom Menace is riddled with dino-wannabes. (There were a lot more Dewbacks on Tatooine than I remembered.)

My eldest dozed off sometime around our heroes’ landing on that sandy planet, but youngest couldn’t tear her eyes away. “Is that a bad guy she asked?” Again and again and again.

“Watto? Well, he’s not great…”

“Sebulba? Yeah, not great either…”

“Oh yeah—that’s Darth Maul. He’s the bad guy.”

There was a real concern on her part to identify the bad guys, to know who to root for and who to root against. I could feel her little body tense up when young Anakin Skywalker was in danger—whether he was in a podracer or an N-1 starfighter. She laughed with Jar Jar; she resonated with Anakin.

That made me happy: Two characterstwo actors—who had been so lambasted some twenty-five years ago were the two characters—the two performances—that most delighted my kids. Not the queen, as I’d expected, but the Gungan and the sandy-haired boy. Turns out, there was wisdom in the casting, in the writing, in the storytelling all along.

Anakin, Jar Jar—they, too, are invitations to enter into the story of Star Wars. And if you don’t resonate with those characters, that’s fine; the invitation wasn’t for you. But it was for my daughters—and they accepted it with joy.

When the iconic sounds of “Duel of the Fates” commenced, my daughter joined Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon in igniting her lightsaber. She swung it around as though Darth Maul was just out of reach. (Don’t worry—it was not a crowded theater.) She gasped when Qui-Gon met his end; she pumped her fist when Obi-Wan sent Maul tumbling to his supposed end.

And she wondered—several times—about Shmi. “But where’s his mommy?” she asked. “Where’s his mommy?” And I mumbled some half-hearted response, knowing the true answer would not satisfy her.

Instead, I pointed at Palpatine: “He’s the real bad guy,” I said. My daughter shrugged, pointing instead at Anakin: “But where’s his mommy?”

A haunting, persistent question. And perhaps a reframing of the story’s true phantom menace. I’m eager to pass on and invite my kids into stories I love. But in the doing, they invite me to look anew at plot points and characters I’ve already set down in ink.

My eldest woke up in time to watch The Acolyte preview. “That was short,” she said. “You missed the rest of the movie!” I said in reply. “But we can watch it at home. I’m just glad we were here.”

Next. The Phantom Menace is why I have 2 Star Wars movie ranking. The Phantom Menace is why I have 2 Star Wars movie ranking. dark