Reception history for Star Wars: Episode I, The Phantom Menace is different from most other bestsellers on the list because it is a novelization. Essentially, there are fewer reviews for the Terry Brooks' book itself, while there is a large amount of mixed criticism aimed at George Lucas, his story, and of course the movie. This is likely due to the fact that the story is not the creation of Brooks and the film was arguably the most anticipated release in history. Movie reviews will be discussed here, but only as they pertain to the story.
Terry Brooks' novelization did not receive reviews in the way of a typical bestseller. Some of the writers who gave it attention merely recognized it as a Lucas product that hit the shelves shortly before the release of the movie.
Guinn of the Times Union writes, "Read 'The Phantom Menace' any time and you'll be settling for paste-and-cut pap. It isn't in any sense, except print on paper, a 'real' book. It's a Lucas moneymaker, just like those plastic action figures that'll sell in the millions come Christmas."
Weingarten of The Washington Post gives Brooks and his bestseller tongue-in-cheek treatment. A precursor to his article states, "what our story lacks in effort, originality and insight, it makes up for in the sheer speed and thoughtlessness with which it was produced." Brooks is described as, "a man in his fifties, with a head, and a torso, and feet. As he talks, his mouth moves and, from time to time, he blinks, his eyelashes spanking each other the way eyelashes do when you blink." In what little criticism Weingarten offers, he states the book "is pleasantly written, in the sense that words are placed together to form intelligible if sometimes promiscuously picturesque sentences."
Perhaps the sharpest comment that Weingarten makes is that, "Typically, a novel is produced by a writer working alone with his talent and his demons, fired by desperation, poisoned by ambition, enslaved and empowered in equal measure by a life of bad decisions, good adventures, and despair." It is implied that Phantom Menace is a book that required neither talent nor ambition to write.
Other reviews briefly discuss what the book offers to readers who have or have not seen the movie. The general consensus is that to those who have not yet seen the film, the book is a "spoiler." To those who have seen the film, the book will "fill in the gaps" with insights towards Anakin Skywalker's moral views and Qui-Gon Jinn's interest in finding some usefulness in Jar Jar Binks. Brooks told USA Today that Lucas "want[ed] to expand on the movie and make a companion piece for the moviegoer." Snider of USA Today describes the book as "a quick read" and says "the background Brooks provides helped me follow the fast-paced beginning of the film. I already knew enough about the political situation? That allowed me to attempt to take in the sweeping scenes of Lucas' digitally enhanced film."
Brown of the National Post adds that, "Part of the demand can be attributed to the book's author, Terry Brooks. Unlike the first three Star Wars adaptations, Lucas this time called on an established writer to turn his screenplay into a novel. [Brooks] brings his own readers with him to the Star Wars fold." He also points out that "Although it doesn't offer the same experience as seeing a motion picture with computer generated characters and backdrops, the book represents the best Lucas-sanctioned source of Phantom Menace information available. It is, in effect, a 324-page-long flyer for the movie."
As to why this novelization would be a bestseller, Cling of the Las Vegas Review interviews Barnes and Noble merchandising assistant manager, Chris Cantwell, who says, "The energy for the whole ?Star Wars' cult ? it's just going to increase till the movie comes out." She notes the bookstore took dozens of advance orders, "so the minute the book was released, [customers] would have it in their hands. People were ready to read anything, buy anything. With Star Wars you have a bigger furor, because it has a longer history." Cling also mentions the fact that the book was released with four different covers. This, essentially, guarantees increased sales as hardcore fans and collectors will purchase multiple copies.
Movie reviews of Phantom Menace can be found by the dozens in the ProQuest Newspapers database. In general the movie received rave reviews for its special effects, state of the art technology, and visual wonders, but the critics were not so kind to Lucas and his writing. The following are some excerpts from reviews as they pertain to Lucas' story, essentially the novel Brooks elaborates upon.
"The lack of suspense is burdened by a plot that is at once overly complicated and utterly uninteresting. Lucas's chief error was in writing the script himself." Telegram & Gazette, Worcester, Mass.
"Complex as it is ? and as good as most of the actors are ? reducing this movie to its plot misses its full impact. ?The Phantom Menace' is a hokey tale." Chicago Tribune
"Even die-hard fans of the heretofore awe-inspiring saga are bound to be disappointed with this joyless, overly reverential and impenetrably plotted prequel. ?Phantom Menace' has more of everything, except compelling characters." Washington Post
"The characters are bland, the script too chatty, the humor too infantile." Los Angeles Daily News
"Behind the dreary, deadpan dialogue that passes for exposition, pay close heed as George Lucas' all-powerful market machine whispers to the masses: ?S-s-sucker.' ?The Phantom Menace' is merely a ghost of a space epic, a hint of a myth in the making." Tampa Tribune
"It's got the hardware but neither the characters, the imagination, nor the resonance one had hoped for. In short, there's a lot that's eye-filling but not much that's brain-filling." Boston Globe
"George Lucas has left a lot of room for improvement, particularly for character development and emotional juice." San Francisco Chronicle
"The film is heavy with technology but short on humanity." It has "little narrative depth or coherence" and "seems less like a satisfying story than a sketchy prologue to Episodes II and III." Tulsa World
"Though Mr. Lucas's screenplay carries far more baggage in the form of interplanetary turf wars and highly ceremonial political wrangling, the basics will suffice. What matters is that the series' sense of good and evil is still quaintly naïve, just as its notion of heroism remains rooted in movie traditions much less nihilistic than today's. The big battles are crisply staged and sadism-free." The New York Times
Some mass market magazine reviews follow.
"One suspects that Lucas was more interested in the aliens than the humans..." Time
"...the jokes are juvenile, there's no romance and the dialogue lands with the thud of a computer instruction manual." Rolling Stone
"Some of ?The Phantom Menace' is fun, but it's also skittery and overstuffed, too intent on keeping the audience wired into a state of sense-crackling excitement." Entertainment Weekly
Amid all the criticism of poor characterization, Jar Jar Binks is by far the most targeted. If "Phantom Menace" was the most anticipated film of all time, Jar Jar may be the most disappointing character of all time. Few reviewers have anything positive to say about him. The following excerpts offer common opinion.
"And there is an allegedly ?cute' creature called Jar Jar Binks, a floppy-eared lizardlike thing with stand-up eyes, a flickering tongue, awkward body movements and an annoying vocabulary of mangled-English baby talk. It's an attempt at a new Chewbacca, but it's as if Barney, instead of Harrison Ford, played Han Solo." Denver Post
"Comic relief ? supposedly ? comes from a toy-friendly creature called Jar Jar Binks, who looks like Joe Camel with bug eyes and floppy bunny ears and speaks in an irritating pidgin English (me-sa, you-sa, we-sa) that sounds vaguely Caribbean and constitutes one of several racially and culturally questionable stereotypes in the film. As sidekicks go, he's mostly grating and a poor substitute for the inscrutable Chewbacca." Tulsa World
"The only indelible creature in ?Menace' is Jar Jar, in the worst way. He's a computer-generated creation whose role as clumsy comic relief grows grating fast. Plus, his Rastafarian-inflected pidgin English is often incomprehensible." The Atlanta Constitution
Finally, Jerome Weeks of the Dallas Morning News reports that Jar Jar "provoked a great many film fans who have found him less racially insensitive than simply maddeningly irritating. There's already and International Society for the Extermination of Jar Jar. In response, there are already a half-dozen anti-Jar Jar Web sites, including a Jar Jar job hunt (maybe he'll be too busy for any future films) and a page that features audio clips from Phantom that, when reversed, reveal Jar Jar killed Paul McCartney."
Brown, Dan. "Phantom Menace Book Reveals All to Faithful: Read it While Waiting in Line." National Post 7 May 1999, Nat. ed.: B3.
Cling, Carol. "Feel the Force." Las Vegas Review ? Journal 18 May 1999: 1E.
Guinn, Jeff. "'Phantom Menace' a Spoiler Not a Book, But Another Moneymaker." Time Union 30 May 1999, One Star ed.: J5.
Kimmel, Daniel M. "Score ?Star Wars' High on Special Effects, Low on Originality." Telegram & Gazette [Worcester, Mass.] 19 May 1999, ALL ed.: C5.
King, Dennis. "The Force ? Off Course ?Phantom Menace' Won't Levitate You From Your Seat." Tusla World 19 May 1999, Final Home ed.: 3.
Maslin, Janet. "In the Beginning, the Future." New York Times 19 May 1999, East Coast late ed.: E1.
"Menacing Reviews." Pittsburgh Post ? Gazette 13 May 1999: 3.
Murray, Steve. "Episode 1: The Review Lucas' ?Phantom' Empire Strikes Out Heart and Fun of 1977 Original Strangely Missing in Effects-laden ?Menace' Prequel." Atlanta Constitution 18 May 1999, home ed.: B1.
Rosen, Steven. "'Phantom' Lacks Respect for Elders." Denver Post 19 May 1999, Rockies ed.: F10.
Seavey, Todd. "Science Fiction." New York Post 30 May 1999: 48.
Snider, Mike. "'Star' Author Hopes Film Fans Follow Him." USA Today 20 May 1999, final ed.: 06D.
Snider, Mike. "Uncovering the Plot of ?Phantom Menace' Book Fills in Background While You Wait for Tickets." USA Today 13 May 1999, final ed.: 04D.
Weingarten, Gene. "Instant ?Menace'; ?Star Wars' Author Rockets to Top of Bestseller List." Washington Post 21 May 1999, final ed.: C01.
"What Some Other Critics Say About it." Richmond Times ? Dispatch 19 May 1999, city ed.: D2.
Weeks, Jerome. "Putting a Lid on Jar Jar Filgoers Don't Bottle Up Feelings Toward ?Phantom Menace' Character." Dallas Morning News 10 Jun 1999, third ed.: 1C.
Wilmington, Michael. "At Long Last, In a Theater Not So Far Away the Good." Chicago Tribune 18 May 1999, Chicagoland ed.: 1.