Star Wars is back to being one of the best powerhouse franchises in Hollywood, with The Force Awakens and Rogue One blowing away most fans' expectations. Yet, people are still reluctant to forgive the franchise for the prequel trilogy, which most fans will admit was a serious step back for the series.
Perhaps the most disappointing prequel is The Phantom Menace, the first entry of the trilogy. This film holds a 55% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, making it the worst-received live action Star Wars film to date. One major complaint about The Phantom Menace among fans is that no one can seem to identify who the protagonist is. So, I decided to take another look at The Phantom Menace to figure out who exactly the protagonist was – and the answer was not what I expected.
As it turns out, it's actually the franchise's most polarizing character, Jar Jar! I know it sounds like a strange concept initially, but a closer look into how this can be possible shows that he's almost certainly the film's protagonist. However, to understand why Jar Jar should be considered the film's leading protagonist, we should establish why some of the more obvious choices don't fit the bill. So, let's take a look at some of the characters that were originally considered the hero of the story, yet didn't meet the proper qualifications.
Many would assume that the protagonist of The Phantom Menace was Obi-Wan Kenobi, but one of the key parts of being a protagonist is being present throughout most sequences of the story. While Obi-Wan is certainly present during the first act and the final act, he was notably absent during the second act, which took up half of the film. When he did briefly appear during the second act, Obi-Wan was sitting on the sidelines for its duration.
In fact, the only development this character really had didn't occur until the ending, when he finally decided to honor Qui-Gon's judgement and take Anakin under his wing. However, this is much more of a 'B-story' than a central arc. As much as I love Ewan McGregor as an actor, he simply wasn't present enough to be considered the central protagonist.
Like Obi-Wan, Anakin is often considered to be the central protagonist of The Phantom Menace, but, also like Obi-Wan, he's not in the film nearly enough to qualify. In fact, we really don't meet young Anakin Skywalker until around the halfway point of the film.
The only time we really see any focus or development for the character is when he decides to leave Tatooine and train to become a Jedi. After that, Anakin mostly sits on the sidelines, watching events occur. Of course, Anakin's brief arc was vital to the film, but it was not enough to make him the true protagonist of The Phantom Menace.
Unlike Obi-Wan and Anakin, Qui-Gon was in the film consistently. This would be enough to declare Qui-Gon as the film's protagonist, except for one major issue: he is clearly the film's archetypal mentor.
Re-watching the film, it becomes noticeable that Qui-Gon's character does not develop as the story progresses, but rather guides the progress of the characters around him. Instead of falling into the hero archetype, Qui-Gon can really only fit in as a mentor archetype. His story arc even matches up perfectly with the other mentor characters in the Star Wars franchise, including "Ben" Kenobi, Yoda and Han Solo.
But with Qui-Gon being the mentor character of the film, we must ask who is he the mentor character to? That leads us to conclude who the true protagonist of the film really is...
Jar Jar Binks
As crazy as it may sound, and as much as you may hate this annoying character, Jar Jar is the closest The Phantom Menace has to a protagonist.
First off, he is in the film consistently. He is absent from the opening of the film, introducing the "universe" of the movie, but as soon as we run into the character a little over 15 minutes in, we can't seem to say goodbye to Jar Jar. He follows his new Jedi friends as they escape Naboo, joins Qui-Gon on his trip to Tatooine, and he even plays a major role in the Battle of Naboo. Let's also throw it back the original Star Wars and The Force Awakens, where we once again didn't encounter the protagonists (Luke and Rey) until around the same 15 minute mark. Even in the pattern of Star Wars' repeated story arc, there is substantial evidence that Jar Jar may be the protagonist of the film after all.
He also has considerable development throughout the film. When we first meet the nonsensical Gungan, he has been banished from his home for his foolish ways. As the story goes on, Jar Jar begins to understand his own importance thanks to the guidance from his unofficial mentor, Qui-Gon. By the end of the film, Jar Jar is now one of the heroes of a society that had banished him at the beginning of his arc, and he's now well on his way to becoming a representative in the Galactic Senate.
All of this leads to one conclusion: Jar Jar Binks is the main protagonist of The Phantom Menace. He is present throughout a majority of the film, and has at least some focus in practically every scene he appears in. Jar Jar left quite the impression after the release of the film, but that's because the story ultimately followed Jar Jar. George Lucas could have left the Gungan on the Queen's ship on Tatooine and sent Obi-Wan to follow Qui-Gon instead, but he didn't. Why? Because Obi-Wan wasn't the protagonist; Jar Jar was.
"Jar Jar is the key to all of this, if we get Jar Jar working."
George Lucas has even stated that he originally had bigger plans for Jar Jar Binks, but cut much of his involvement after the negative response towards the character. So, we can assume Jar Jar's arc was supposed to continue as we followed the Gungan as a representative in the Senate, gradually becoming responsible for the rise of the Empire.
While he likely would not have become a Sith Lord like many Star Wars fans have since theorized, his role as a protagonist was likely to progress as the prequel trilogy moved forward. Anakin and Obi-Wan may have taken the reins as the stars of Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, but The Phantom Menace was undeniably Jar Jar's story.