Some Problems With Star Wars Episode I The Phantom MenaceAs Elucidated By A Man On The Internet Who Is Not RedLetterMediaIn No Particular OrderI. The Basic Structure of the Story
This is otherwise known as the plot. So for TPM we have a plot that is separable into three parts, which I'll call "acts". Each act focuses around a setpiece action sequence. For Act I we have the arrival at Naboo, for Act II we have the Podrace, and for Act III we have the final battle. But this gives us some difficulties right away, because we have the Coruscant sequences. Are they part of Act II, or part of Act III? But I'll ignore that for now. The previous movies all have some marvelous setpieces. Let's look at ANH for now. The first setpiece is the opening scene, with the Empire boarding Princess Leia's ship. Then we have the escape from the Death Star, the attack run on the Death Star... Now, one of the marvelous things about ANH, part of why it's considered a great movie, indeed in the top hundred of all time according to the American Film Institute, is that all the setpieces flow organically and there's a clear reason for them to be there.
There's a clear reason why they try to rescue Leia- namely, Luke is infatuated with her and Solo is looking to get some money. And it serves a story purpose of giving them a way to find the hidden rebel base. So why am I talking about this? Well, let's go to TPM. There we have the Podrace. There's no clear, organic reason why the characters are involved or why they're on Tatooine. The whole thing is contrived and artificial because the only reason they're on Tatooine is so that they can meet Anakin, and the only reason they enter the Podrace is to give the movie a quicker middle.
But there's no reason why they should have to land on Tatooine to repair- after all, we saw all those robots get blown up before R2-D2 fixes the ship! (God bless you, Mr. Green R2-D2.) And the ship afterwards doesn't look damaged at all. And there's no reason for it to be Tatooine specifically. Now, this is something that's easily forgivable, especially on its own. But then we run into the problem that there's no reason why their money is no good, and why Watto should be immune to Jedi mind tricks, except to set up the Podrace. While we can forgive the first half, or the second half, on their lonesomes, all together they add up to "contrived". While you could do some work to remove this contrived status from the movie, it still would be better in the end to fix the root problem and rewrite the movie so that there's an organic reason for a action scene there and organic reasons for how they meet up with Anakin.
Then, too, we have the problem that the movie is paced very poorly when you look at its action scenes. The opening is a lengthy action sequence that continues, with only a minor interruption, until they leave the planet. Then we get a few cooldown scenes until the podrace, and then all the slower-paced scenes come into play and drag on the movie until we get to the final battle. This is bad because the movie starts with a massive bang but we need some slow-paced scenes to establish things (not well enough, but that's another issue I will address later) and these are crammed into the last half of the movie, forming a clumsy four-act structure which left a lot of people complaining about how slow it felt.
These problems, you may note, are structural and deep issues. You can't solve these without essentially replacing TPM with another film, so I'm not going to talk about how to repair the problems created by them in any more detail. But these aren't necessarily dealbreakers- what they do do, however, is require the movie to be good enough to counter them.
Another structural issue, though a minor one, is the final battle, which splits four ways. This isn't hugely problematic in and of itself, unlike the other ones, and it really ties into the characters more so,II. The Characters
We have, for the forces of good, Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, Anakin, Amidala, and Jar-Jar as characters. For the forces of evil, we have Nute Gunray, Rune Haako, and Darth Maul. This is broadening the definition of character in the latter case by a tremendous amount, but whatever. A big problem with the characters is that the only ones with readily definable traits are Qui-Gon and Jar-Jar, and one of those is solely definable through him being fairly annoying and racially questionable. Obi-Wan is eager and young, but only when the script remembers. And yet he's also supposed to be the representative of authority for Qui-Gon to be a maverick against. This can work, but again, he only does this when the script remembers. Amidala is formal and stiff, but not really, it's just an act. Except she does it when around her personal councilors... Anakin is almost human, but not really. Seriously, he's basically a lump and I already wrote a post about how he should have been different, but I'll go over that in a little bit.
The villains similarly are complete non-entities. All we have are vaguely disquieting accents and cowardice. Cowardly, incompetent villains are the subject of comedy and farce, not of Star Wars, where the humor comes from within the picture itself rather than from without it (e.g. all the jokes are ones that would be observable if we were living in the film). And they have nothing other than cowardice. Even their greed is left entirely to the opening crawl and we thus have no idea why they are invading Naboo in the first place, apart from "taxes", which is not a motivation. For what's actually given in the movie, they could be doing it just because Sidious told them too. But it's not like motivations actually matter, right? We all know that.
Maul, meanwhile, is a stunt double with a line and some nifty makeup work. He's not a character, and neither is Sidious, who simply says a few lines. So our primary antagonists fall by default to a pack of idiot cowards with an army that poses no threat to the heroes. In ANH, the stormtroopers managed to inconvenience our heroes. The droid army can't do that, and in ANH, the characters turned and ran from stormtroopers and treated them like a serious threat in decent numbers. The only droids that get treated as threats are the droidekas, who are too far the other way into being essentially invincible. The only threat the droids have is to the pack of mooks at the very end, and even then, they mostly try to arrest them.
The way the movie is set up, though, we need the antagonists to be a credible threat rather than a joke. We could either restructure the movie to make the ridiculous droid army work with the film, or we could make them actually a threat to characters, which should consist primarily of altering character's reactions to them.
Another problem with the lack of any reason to really care about the characters (apart from the one that dies) is that the ending, with its four-way split, is supposed to be an ensemble ending where the disparate parts of the cast each have individual arcs that build up and resolve tension to stack upon each other. Well, we don't have any particular reasons to give a rat's ass about poor little Jake Lloyd, or Ahmed Best's performance that will forever mark his career, or Queen Costumer's Delight. There's only one arc that's relatively interesting. And it has the most actual effort put into it, followed by Jar-Jar, followed by Anakin, followed by Amidala. Interestingly, I've seen some theories that suggest that Jar-Jar is the intended overall protagonist.
The really funny thing is that Jar-Jar is Phantom Menace's protagonist, in a role directly analogous to Luke Skywalker in Star Wars 1. He's the inexperienced outsider with potential, and consequently the audience identification character. He gets arbitrarily promoted to military commander in the exact same way.
Lucas is on record saying that Jar Jar is the key to everything, and I don't believe that was a joke. The Phantom Menace clearly sets up a battle between two different versions of Luke Skywalker: good-but-incompetent Luke (Jar-Jar) and talented-but-evil Luke (Anakin). The final battle is even identical to the Star Wars Death Star trench battle thing, except with Luke's role split between the two characters in separate (but interconnected) setpieces. Looking back on it, it's obvious that the sequels would continue to explore the parallels.
Jar Jar's tragic downfall is clearly meant to correspond with Anakin's rise to power. But then a funny thing happened: one-third of the way into the trilogy, Lucas discovered that fans loathed its protagonist. That's ultimately why the Phantom Menace ended up so maddeningly inconsequential in the rest of the series. It's primarily Jar-Jar's story and so, when Jar-Jar is eliminated later on, the film ceases to have a purpose in the grand scheme of things.
Rather than too much Jar Jar, it was not enough Jar Jar: the character was marginalized from the beginning, to the point that he was readily mistaken as a superfluous comic-relief effect. The only thing that could have saved the prequels would have been to make Jar-Jar more prominent in the later films - 'fixing' what fans disliked about the character by introducing some moral greys to challenge his happy-go-lucky attitude.
Interesting, but it only highlights the overall failures of the film- we aren't ever really sold on Jar-Jar as anything other than a prominent comic-relief character and the film, through its portrayal of Anakin, fails to create any sort of parallels to Luke because he's so uninteresting (largely as a consequence of his age).
But even if you don't buy that, the largest problem with Anakin is that he should be very similar to Luke, to make the prequels truly prequels, pieces of a single story, rather than simply a related one, and to cast new light upon the OT, and to make his fall truly tragic, and to set up callbacks to Owen and Beru and "much like his father". Jar-Jar as protagonist or not, the film fails to do that and so it becomes weaker and more distant from the original movies in critical ways.III. Other Faults
Another problem with TPM is that, ultimately, the intended motivator is working at cross-purposes with the idea of the movie. Star Wars movies are fast-paced, but political movies are slower, because they need to explain and exposit to get things across. Attempting to be politics-focused distances TPM from the previous Star Wars movies, but it never quite breaks on through to the other side of being an actual politically-focused movie and so it drifts suspended between the two. Ultimately, you can't fix TPM with a "director's cut" or with a reshooting with a new director- there are a number of problems inherent to the script, and so in order to make TPM good, you would have to make an entirely new movie with the same name.
That's why there's little point in disucssing how to fix AOTC or ROTS, because they're built on TPM and making it better requires negating them altogether and potentially mining them for ideas. But I'll continue this later, with some talk about how you could improve/replace TPM. Of course, in order to do that we're gonna have to talk about what Star Wars is and what TPM should have been.