Somewhere in an alternative universe, there is a version of Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace starring Haley Joel Osment as Anakin and Robin Williams as Jar Jar.
And it rocks.
In that universe, George Lucas broke his hip just before filming began and handed the directorial task to his good friend Steven Spielberg. Busy with his own projects, Spielberg hired M. Night Shalayman to smooth out some problems in the script, and Shalayman in turn introduced Spielberg to Osment, starting a collaboration that would later continue in Spielberg’s critically acclaimed movies Artificial Intelligence in 2001 and Harry Potter in 2003.
The real turning point in the production was the hiring of Robin Williams to replace Ahmed Best as Jar Jar Binks. Spielberg was reluctant to replace another of Lucas’ chosen cast but after repeated attempts to tone down the character, Best’s creative differences with Spielberg reached the breaking point and he quit the production. Almost simultaneously, Lucas suggested Williams to Spielberg for some role after seeing him perform at a charity fundraiser at Skywalker Ranch, and Williams heartily agreed.
The completed film was two and a half hours long and made over seven hundred million dollars in its domestic release. Lucas, Spielberg and Williams threw their marketing weight and star power behind the film, but it was Olsment’s Oscar-winning portrayal of Anakin Skywalker that generated real audience buzz. Fleshing out a role already greatly expanded by Shalayman, Olsment brought quiet dignity and heartrending pain to the boy who would be Vader, and became the youngest winner of the Oscar for Best Actor.
While Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace would go on to win nine academy awards, the biggest upset of Oscar night was Robin Williams’ shutout for his portrayal of Jar Jar Binks. Acting largely from an improvised script, Williams brought both gravity and humor to the role of the exiled Gungan warrior — providing a much-needed element of comedy in Spielberg’s often grave treatment of the fall of Naboo — and later proved the perfect foil for Olsment’s tortured Anakin in his moving death scene at the hands of Darth Maul. However, since the physical appearance of Williams’ character was computer generated, he was technically shut out of the category of Best Supporting Actor, despite the extensive write-in campaign on the part of the Academy voters.
After recuperating, Lucas returned to the executive producer role on the Star Wars saga. Despite his injury, he had remained intimately involved with the production of the movie and was pleased with the final outcome, despite his initial resistance to changes made by Spielberg and Shalayman. Shalayman and Spielberg both attempted to bow out of the saga, reluctant to continue without the magic of Williams nor Olsment, who could not realistically return in later sequels. However, after intense personal lobbying Lucas convinced both Shalayman and Spielberg to return to the project, and work on the sequels began in earnest.
Episodes II and III are being filmed back to back in Tunisia and England as we speak. However, despite the critical buzz already being generated about the project and the remarkable collaboration of the three directors, there is little doubt that the Star Wars creative team will be hard pressed to top Jar Jar’s poignant death scene in Anakin’s arms. As Obi-Wan Kenobi and Qui-Gon Jinn watched helplessly on, young Skywalker is first touched by death as Jar Jar utters words that echo later in the series:
“Remember, Ani. Inna Force, I be with you always.”