The last time I attempted to watch The Phantom Menace I gave up just after meeting Anakin on Tatooine. I had expected it to be rough – that was the first rewatch since being a kid – but oof. This time I was a bit more prepared, and I have to say the movie does pick up in the second half. I think the lack of emphasis on Jar-Jar definitely helps, but it also narratively finds its feet a bit too.
Still, that first 40 minutes or so is rough. There are some decent moments: the introduction of Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan is still a fun sequence; the first look at the Gungan city holds up even after all this time; and the general design of the worlds and people we meet is excellent. The CGI in the film is starting to look a little dated, but the aesthetic does a lot to cover over the cracks. Once Anakin joins the plot (which happens much faster than I remembered) the film ramps up thanks to a number of set-pieces. Say what you will about Star Wars, the franchise has always done spectacle extremely well, and the pod racing sequence is up there with some of the best. It's a fun and highly memorable moment of world-building. Similarly, the Battle of Naboo still captures my imagination. The Gungans have issues in terms of how they're animated and voiced, but as aliens they're well designed and their culture is just cool, so seeing them on an open battlefield against equally well-designed droids is a visual treat. Couple that with some fun espionage sequences with Padme and the Jedi, and the film's second half is a lot more enjoyable.
At the same time, though, Jar-Jar is just a deeply annoying character, Anakin is just badly written and acted, a lot of the more interesting elements to the story are only really clear once you know how everything will play out, Darth Maul is horribly under utilised, and it's painful to look past the now-obvious racial stereotypes and racist elements to the movie. I vaguely remembered that the Trade Federation were Asiatic sounding, but wow they're like something out of a Yellow Peril campaign 😬 Similarly, whilst I remember Jar-Jar being annoying, I'd never noticed how problematic the Gungans accent and "pidgin"-like language was, and then there's Watto who is straight-up antisemitic in design.
In other words, parts of the film were much worse than I remembered, much was as I expected, and some bits actively surprised me. It's a mixed bag, but I honestly think that if you were to update the CGI, completely rework the racist and outright idiotic elements, and recast a couple of the characters, The Phantom Menace could be a genuinely good film. The only reasons I wouldn't call for a complete remake is that Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon, Padme, and Mace Windu were all pretty perfectly cast (actually, add Smee to that as well, who gives a great performance). Maybe George still has the master film somewhere and one day we get a fully reworked version with original footage 😁