Stars: Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd, Samuel L. Jackson, Frank Oz, Ian McDiarmid, Peter Serafinowicz, Terence Stamp. Written and directed by George Lucas. Rated PG for sci-fi action/violence.

The long wait is over! The most eagerly anticipated film of the year, perhaps the decade, has arrived. "Star Wars: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace", set a long time ago in a galaxy far far away, is the first chapter, chronologically speaking, in the ever-expanding "Star Wars" saga. In this first film of the prequel trilogy, enduring favorites Luke, Leia, Han, and Chewie are nowhere to be found, although younger versions of several other familiar characters put in an appearance. Even more so than Episodes IV-VI, "The Phantom Menace" is aimed squarely at kids, a fact that may disappoint the hardest of hardcore fans. But rest assured that the whole family will be able to enjoy the humor, action, and drama of George Lucasí latest brainchild.

At the onset of the story, the Trade Federation is blockading the planet Naboo. Jedi Knight Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his young apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) are called in by the Chancellor (Terence Stamp) to negotiate a quick resolution to the situation. A shrouded manipulator of the Trade Federation learns about the visiting Jedi and conspires to have them killed. He plans to invade Naboo and take its resources by military force, in defiance of the Galactic Republic. Young Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) is forced to flee her planet and appeal directly to the galactic council on the city planet of Coruscant.

Meanwhile, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan, who have since escaped their fate, find themselves escorting the fleeing monarch. Their travels take them to the desolate planet of Tattoine, where they encounter a young slave (Jack Lloyd) whose natural ability with The Force makes him a prime candidate for Jedi training. Opposition comes in the form of Darth Maul (Peter Serafinowicz), a Sith Lord. The Sith, only recently returning from out of legend, is the evil counterpart to the Jedi.

"The Phantom Menace" is not the masterwork fans have been clamoring for, but it is a rousing, rollicking adventure nonetheless. Once again raising the bar for special effects, effects house ILM has created a record number of computer- generated images, including one the filmís main characters, Jar Jar Binks. Jar Jar, a member of the swamp-dwelling Gungan species on Naboo, is a difficult to understand companion to the Jedi and their royal companion. Unfortunately, Jar Jarís nearly unintelligible speech isnít the only problem with "Episode 1".

Other downfalls include an oddly unexciting high-speed race, a battle on planet Naboo which is more than reminiscent of the battle on Endor in "Return of the Jedi", and a strange medical explanation for ability with The Force. None of these frustrations, however, dampen the fun of the film very much. One might have wished for a little less Anakin Skywalker and a little more Darth Maul, but who can quibble when the results are pleasant enough on their own. As long as you are looking for some great action and cool special effects, and you donít have your expectations set sky-high, "The Phantom Menace" wonít disappoint you.

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