Aside from that, though I was struck by the fact that TPM is not a mediocre movie riddled with unforgivable flaws, but an awesome movie dragged down into apparent mediocrity by two main repetitive sins.
First and foremost, George Lucas miscast Anakin and failed to insist on verisimilitude from his bit players. I count this as a single sin, because the woodenness of Anakin and of the minor cast members is all of a piece.
Second, but almost as crucial, John Williams delivered a score that runs contrary to the storyline in the great majority of the slow, talky scenes. Don't get me wrong -- there's a lot of great music in TPM, especially during the duel at the end. But large chunks of the film are rendered annoying by background music that seems to be saying, "Look how whimsical and delightful all of this is" -- even when the scenes aren't particularly whimsical or delightful, because the characters are actually discussing serious issues. In the heavy dialogue scenes, the soundtrack gives us generic and meaningless fluff instead of matching up with what the characters are saying.
I remember how much I hated the "What are midichlorians" scene the first time I saw it -- in fact, every time I saw it before today. I thought it an awful, thoroughly misconceived scene that completely upended the spirituality of the films in the most ham-handed way. I was convinced that the dialogue was a travesty -- unnatural and amateurish. But watching it today, I realized that a tremendous part of its problem is that Jake Lloyd is terrible in that scene, and John Williams' music spends the entire scene telling us, "You're watching filler material right now." If Anakin's lines had been delivered plausibly, and if the music had struck an ethereal, mysterious tone, the scene would have been entirely tolerable. It wouldn't have been great, but it wouldn't have been offensive either.
With the exception of Jar-Jar and the general silliness of the Gungans, almost all of the wince factor in TPM would have been covered over completely by better acting and better music. No, the dialogue is not on a par with that in A New Hope or The Empire Strikes Back, but it's worse by inches, not by miles, and mainly because none of the characters are quipsters like Han Solo. And if the cringe-worthy delivery and background music had been fixed in the rest of the scenes, I think even Jar-Jar would have been easier to take.
At any rate, once I recognized the profound drag on the movie of the minor casting and the music, I saw with fresh eyes a wealth of other things:
First, Qui-Gon Jinn is astonishing. He is not as engaging or lovable or wise as Ben Kenobi in Episode IV, but in some respects he's a much richer character, because he's got clear and obvious flaws. He's repeatedly dishonest, bending the truth and breaking rules in pursuit of what he views as the right course of action -- even though we the audience know he's way off-base in thinking that training Anakin is a good idea. He embodies many of the flaws that end up bringing down the Jedi order: an arrogant assumption of his own correctness, a willingness to tolerate mundane evils like slavery, a paternalism toward those he considers inferior (Jar-Jar), and a denial of the importance of family, evidenced by the fact that he could easily promise to return and buy Shmi Skywalker out of slavery for her son's sake, but instead leaves her behind without so much as a shrug. And yet he's also wise and courageous and clever, as when wishing it were true that "no one can kill a Jedi" or when maneuvering Watto through the application of wit once he realizes he can't manipulate him with the Force.
Shmi is also terrific, exhibiting a quiet strength in all of her scenes and showing us exactly what Anakin needs in a parent figure -- compassion, morality, and genuine devotion instead of the abstract pursuit of intellectualized ideals.
If every performance in the film had been as truthful as those two, and if all the music had been as appropriate to its storytelling purpose as the "Duel of Fates" theme, I doubt there would be much debate over The Phantom Menace's rightful place in the Star Wars saga. The lightsaber duel at the finale is astonishing, Queen Amidala (though not Padme) is fascinating and magnetic, R2-D2 kicks butt repeatedly, the tension between Anakin-the-kid and Anakin-the-future-Darth-Vader is palpable at many points, Darth Maul is terrifying, and Senator Palpatine schmoozes and schemes with such apparent sincerity and charm that his ascendancy to power is as entirely believable as it is chilling.
I left the theater on opening night in 1999 thinking, "Well, that kind of sucked." But I left the theater this evening hoping very much that this re-release does well enough for the other movies to follow, and soon.
If Lucas brings them back out, I'll be there for every one.