Oh goodness gracious, I actually wrote it. In the headline even. I must be insane. Defend Jar Jar Binks of Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace, nearly inarguably the most hated film character in the past 10 years…perhaps in the entire history of moviemaking? In public?!
But I am here to set the record straight for the poor schlub. As an ardent Star Wars fan, I feel it’s my duty. I have recently seen the light and feel compelled to clear poor Jar Jar’s name.
I first saw The Phantom Menace when it came out in 1999. I was so excited that a new Star Wars movie was coming out. I think I saw it just once at the movies (quite a change from the many return visits I made for the first three Star Wars movies in my youth), then bought the DVD. I never did understand the level of vitriol aimed at poor old Jar Jar. Yes, I got that some people saw it as a version of Stepin Fetchit in an alien mask, especially because the actor who did the voice and motions that were later overdrawn with the computer-generated Jar Jar was black. I also saw the other side of the argument, that a black man would never willingly create a character that demeaned African-Americans.
Then there were the disturbingly hardcore Star Wars fans, who thought that anything silly designed for the kids in the audience was sacrilege. Apparently they forgot that the original movies (IV, V, and VI) were also meant for kids. I mean, the Laurel and Hardy back-and-forth of Threepio and Artoo? the teddy-bear Ewoks? Cripes!
Maybe I was naive, but when I saw The Phantom Menace, I saw in Jar Jar neither a modern-day version of a blackface character nor a critter so generally annoying that a whole cult arose, which might as well be called I Hate Jar Jar More Than You Do, populated by people who dedicated their lives to proving this point. I just saw a goofy comic-relief character, a spot of brightness amid the (I’ll admit it) boring gloom and stilted human acting (I’m talking to you, Queen Amidala!) of the first prequel. In my eyes, he was just a character with a really weird name (George Lucas never was good at naming humans, critters, or planets), in all his floppy-eared, slapstick pratfall glory, immortalized for all time as part of the Star Wars franchise. Hate him or…hate him (there seemed to be no other option allowed), he was there to stay.
Yet the backlash was so ferocious that the 7-foot-tall, gangly goofball was relegated to a nearly nonspeaking role in the following movie and was practically nonexistent in the third. Poor Jar Jar. What a way to go.
And yet, although he was eased out of the franchise, over the past 10 years the IHJJMTYD cult has been going strong. It’s actually become a knee-jerk reaction of the terminally hip: Someone says the name “Jar Jar Binks” (in person or online) and everyone within ear- or eyeshot immediately pig-piles onto the poor critter. I felt sorry for him. Did he really deserve the nonstop abuse? the permanent punchline status?
Well, my son is 5 and as such is all about Star Wars. In fact, it was the first thing he became interested in that was not cars. Ironically, he became enamored of the vast mythos by playing the Lego Star Wars game on our new X-Box 360—before he saw any movie. And like his mother before him, he read (or, rather, heard) the story of the original Star Wars (the one with Luke, Leia, and Han) before actually seeing the movie. (Yeah, it’s true—I actually read the novelization of Star Wars before seeing the movie. Long story short, my family and I were driving cross country in the summer of 1977, and I ran out of books in Oklahoma. When faced with the paperback selection in the local 7-Eleven, which consisted of romances, westerns, and Star Wars, what do you think I was going to pick?)
Anyway, once I read him the classic Star Wars Storybook (hey, how much is this artifact worth, anyway?), he was eager to see the whole movie, even though he never had much patience for sitting through a whole feature film. He loved it (of course) and plowed through all the movies in record time. And I (of course) decided to re-enjoy them right along with him. When it came time to watch The Phantom Menace, I couldn’t help but pay close attention to how I reacted to Jar Jar. And, you know, once again, I didn’t mind him at all.
What was more important, however, was how my son reacted. I snuck looks at him throughout the movie. As could be predicted, he was bored out of his skull at all the politics (trade federation? WTF?), he thought the ceremonial dress and makeup of whoever was pretending to be queen of Naboo at any given moment was strange and off-putting, and he loved the pod race.
Most important, however, was that he giggled madly at Jar Jar’s antics. I checked after he finished watching the movie. Did he like Jar Jar? “YEAH! He’s funny.”
And that should be the final word on the matter—a 5-year-old’s opinion: thumbs up. Jar Jar, you are vindicated. Rest in peace, my Gungan friend.