When I think about The Phantom Menace, I am overwhelmingly struck by the quintessential fairy-tale nature of the entire film. The scope, the dreamy colors, the adventure, and dangers, and daring! It’s all there and so are the familiar characters we as an audience know by heart: the age-old damsel in distress (who valiantly saves herself IMHO), the Arthurian-esque knights of morality who color our perception of good and evil for better or worse, the archetypal lost prince with an uncertain destiny, and larger than life villains who seek to overthrow goodness and humanity, etc. etc. In essence, TPM truly is the “Once Upon a Time…” segment of the Star Wars saga and without it the entire series is immediately unmoored and unbalanced.
The trials and tribulations of the future don’t mean as much or pack as much of an emotional punch when you don’t know that before Vader was Vader, he was Anakin, a young slave who dreamed of setting his people free and who opened his heart and his home to people in need and risked his life to help them when no one else would. And it’s hard to care about the momentarily-mentioned broken bond between Obi-Wan and Darth Vader in A New Hope (when so much else is happening onscreen with Luke and Leia and Han) unless you’ve witnessed the two meeting for the first time and felt the ripples of fate move across the surface of the galaxy. And it’s difficult to feel pity for a man who makes ALL THE WRONG DECISIONS when it comes to his family unless you know that that entire future of that family began with a little boy innocently asking a beautiful young girl if she was an angel.
And that’s what I love so much about The Phantom Menace. More than any other prequel film, it shows the working hands of fate – or the force – and all that was required for the story that we know and love to come into existence. Padme’s world had to be invaded so she would leave it, her ship had to be damaged so it would need repairs, and Ani had to be a slave so he would be in the shop when Padme walked in looking for help. Because how else would a Queen from a lush, green planet meet a slave boy from a harsh, desert world?
In short, this movie had to happen, these events had to take place for the rest of the story to mean anything. Without TPM the story of Darth Vader is still there, but the emotional impact is stunted, and the characters only partially fleshed out. After all, a villain is only a villain at a certain time in his life, and a hero is only a hero when the story is told a certain way.