In the lead-up to Star Wars: The Last Jedi, we look back at the first Jedi (narratively speaking) with a series of stories about the much-beloved and never-disparaged prequel trilogy.
George Lucas is a man who breaks boundaries. In 1977’s A New Hope, he stunned audiences with realistic, kinetic space battles and iconic heroes and villains that have stood the test of time. In 1999’s The Phantom Menace, he gave us Jar Jar Binks. No other film at that time had attempted to create an entirely computer-generated character. It’s kind of remarkable any have attempted since.
But even though it was Jar Jar whose name was on the CGI marquee, and later burned in digital effigy, the Star Wars prequels were packed wall-to-wall with computer cartoons, a veritable menagerie of empty eyes and strangely untethered skin for esteemed actors such as Liam Neeson and Natalie Portman to act opposite. Some of them are not so bad, if you ignore the fact that they look like wads of brown bubble gum! Some of them have some actually cool creative flourishes and design quirks! And some of them are more egregious than a clone army of Gungans. So what is weesa waiting for? Let’s take a look at them: the good, the Bombad, and the utter Poodoo.
10. The alien podracers (minus Sebulba)
Appear in: Episode I
It’s not an accident that The Phantom Menace’s podrace is so well-represented on this list and generally spared the venom that the rest of the film got from fans. George Lucas is a documented gearhead, and even if he had lost his entire grip on what makes a story and film compelling by the late ’90s, he still knew how to stir the blood with the sound of revving engines. The entire podrace sequence is a great bit of world-building, too, from the windswept flag ceremony to the colorful crowd shots. It’s one of the few times we see the rambunctious side of the galaxy far, far away.
But in addition to those cool pods, we also got ALIENS! Fun, weird aliens that nod to the kooky thrill of the first time you saw A New Hope’s cantina scene. There’s the spindly, four-armed Xexto racer Gasgano, flicking his switches like a podracing Liberace, there’s furry Clegg Holdfast, who was apparently a sports journalist turned racer who later went on to tweak the record on his performance in this race? (Why is this known? I mean, I guess it’s cool that someone put some time into this, but jeepers, there are so many incredible books and movies in the world.) And, bless his heart, there’s the Alfred E. Neuman–bobblehead-looking Ben Quadinaros, who spends the entire race in a standstill before his power couplings go out and his pods fly out of control and explode. We all have Ben Quadinaros days.
Design: The lineup of podracers is as diverse in size and shape and species as the Jedi Council, but the podracers are allowed to be a little more unsavory and have a little more personality. I’m personally most fond of Gasgano, who is like a fun Yarael Poof.
Voice Acting: Not much to go on here, but Mars Guo’s Cookie Monster cry of agony before being smashed to bits is phone-alert worthy.
9. Poggle the Lesser
Appears in: Episodes II and III
A theme of this list is that what many of the CGI characters in the Star Wars prequels lack in realistic-looking visual rendering, they make up for with sound. A cool voice or vocal tic can go a long way to selling the cloud of ones and zeros that George Lucas forced his poor human actors to deliver lines to. Poggle the Lesser, is not the worst designed alien on this list, but he’s a voice and a dialect before all else. The Geonosian dialect is either the height of character-concept creativity in the prequels, or it’s the sound of someone throwing in the towel and realizing they can get away with anything.
Design: One of the more complex aliens in any of the Star Wars films, Poggle was inspired by a termite infestation in George Lucas’s home. Cool fact, right? Which means Episode II is inspired by the second Bush administration, and wood-eating vermin. Hey, kids, have I got a movie for you!
Voice Acting: When someone makes a ten-hour YouTube video of the sound of your voice, you know you’ve struck a nerve.
Most superfluous Wookieepedia fact: SPOILER ALERT: “It is noted that a ‘juice’ flies out of his body as Poggle the Lesser is squashed to death, almost as if he was a bug being whacked with a fly swatter.”
Appears in: Episode I and II
Watto has something almost none of the other characters on this list can boast: an honest-to-goodness arc. The shrewd Toydarian (mind tricks don’na work on him) was a true neutral, follow-the-money character, and as the slave owner of Shmi and Anakin Skywalker, a burden and an impediment. It’s not that he has a change of heart exactly, but when Anakin and Padme return to Tatooine to find Shmi, he’s a considerably sadder figure, sagging and stubbly and wearing the most piteous little hat you ever did see. That hat alone is one of the most emotionally affecting figures in all of the prequels.
Watto, despite being a gambler and a slave owner, is never treated as overtly evil in Episode I, just a kind of annoyance whom we have bypassed by the movie’s halfway point. When we meet him again, the movie successfully conveys the feeling of visiting your old elementary school as an adult — smaller and shabbier than you remembered, even though at one point it dominated your life.
Design: The hooked nose, the accent, the preoccupation with money … there is certainly reason to raise an eyebrow at Watto’s design. But I guess it means something that he is not even remotely the most obvious racial caricature in the prequels. On an aesthetic level, I could take the fat-mosquito design or leave it, though I do appreciate that his renderers actually thought it worthwhile to give him expressive and complex eyes, instead of the inscrutable little beads on Jar Jar and basically everyone else on this list.
Voice Acting: And again, no matter what you make of that accent, Andrew Secombe gives one of the most real-feeling, lived-in performances, with none of the weird singsongy recitation so many of the other CG characters spout.
Most superfluous Wookieepedia fact:“Another of Watto’s personal effects was his swagger stick.” IT’S A CANE CALL IT A CANE.
Appears in: Episode I
Sebulba was innately tied to the thrilling promise of podracing prior to the release of Episode I. Which means that there was a concerted effort to make Sebulba happen. Maybe not to the extent of Jar Jar Binks, but there were Sebulba action figures, Lego mini-figures, Sebulba the playable character on the Racer N64 and arcade games. We were given a lot of information about Sebulba. By the time the film came out and he was identified as a “dug” we were all like, “Ah yes, the dugs. Of course. From Malastare.”
But what is there to say about Sebulba? He’s bad, for sure. A real villain who resorts to all sorts of dirty tricks to stay reigning champion of the Outer Rim. But I’d say the most interesting thing about Sebulba is how much the people love him, even knowing what a no-good guy he is. He’s every reality-TV villain that paved the way for our current administration, a good indicator that the galactic mood is sour and cynical, and perhaps primed for fascism.
Design: The walking-on-hands thing is a cool effect, and I give props to any creature that extends outside the “weird head/human body” formula.
Voice Acting: He generally speaks in a hissing smoker’s growl, but he makes some cool gloating sounds throughout the podrace. He also has to utter the word “Poodoo!” which is the highest blessing master Lucas can bestow upon a character.
Most superfluous Wookieepedia fact: “Sebulba also visited the planet Nal Hutta during the Clone Wars, where he was handing out autographs at ten o’clock am on a Saturday.”
6. Fodesinbeed Annodue
Appears in: Episode I
The Boonta Eve classic on Tatooine was truly a melting pot of a sporting event, and it needed a sportscaster that could speak to the people. Luckily, they found a Troig. Fodesinbeed, also referred to by his two separate heads as Fode and Beed, knew how to whip up a crowd of crazy podracing fans, whether they spoke Galactic Basic or were handier with Huttese. Weirdly, this is one of the only “Space! It’s like 20th-century Earth sometimes” gags I’m down with in the new trilogy, mostly because of Greg Proops’s completely committed voice performance as Fode. (“That little human being is outofhismind!” is one of the few genuinely cute lines in all of the prequels.)
Fode and Beed also happen to have one of the more nightmare-fuel designs in all of the prequels, mostly due to the fact that it appears they were redesigned at the last minute and slapped with bizarre, semi-humanoid faces just kind of stuck on the front of their dinosaur necks. They are truly faces made for radio. Which makes sense since they apparently had a radio show on Tatooine called the Fode and Beed Show, which I think means that they are the first …. podcasters …. in the galaxy???
Design: When I said it was nightmare-fuel, I meant it was bad. They look bad.
Voices: I’d subscribe! (Would I? It is possible I am just saying this to convince myself that making this list is fun and was a good idea when I pitched it.)
5. Boss Nass
Appears in: Episodes I and III
My dear friends David Sims and Griffin Newman of the Blank Check podcast (which started off as a prequels podcast) have a word for the weightless, blobby feeling of bad CGI and exemplified all over Episodes I–III: flubber, named after the 1997 Robin Williams movie of the same name (but not 1961’s The Absent-Minded Professor). There is a bunch of competition here, but Boss Rugor Nass is almost certainly the most flubbery character in the prequels. This is not helped by his tendency to waggle his jowls, a deeply unnecessary bit which sends digital spittle flying all over the green screen.
That said, as the leader of the Gungans, Boss Nass may be nothing more than an outline of a kooky character, but the cutout is at least kind of imaginative, in a two-dimensional way. He’s definitely a Pixar character sitting in a chair, but people like Pixar, so maybe he’s not all bad. However, he’s dumb enough to fall for a Jedi Mind Trick, and yet another example of how the Gungans are a biologically inferior species, which just feels ableist and un-fun to watch now.
Design: Is he even a Gungan? Why does he look like a completely different species? He’s like a Gungan crossed with a hagfish. I wish there was a Star Wars alien that looked like a hagfish.
Voice: Brian Blessed makes up for Nass’s flubberiness with a nicely embodied performance, full of fun tics (those clicky sounds!).
Most superfluous Wookieepedia fact: “During the celebrations that followed the victory against the Trade Federation, Nass agreed to play the game of Gungan dunk tank, during which people would make him fall into the water for fun.”
4. Dexter Jettster
Appears in: Episode II
You may not remember if it’s been a while for you, but George Lucas definitely thinks that half of Episode II is a noir space mystery. This may not have stuck with you, since every character in Attack of the Clones is lit like they’re getting their photos taken at the DMV, but there’s a whiff of a ’40s-gumshoe vibe as Obi-Wan wanders around lower Coruscant trying to figure out what was behind the plot to assassinate Padme. Dexter Jettster is certainly the most notable figure from this mid-century mood, a Besalisk diner proprietor with a gregarious, bucket-like grin. He has four arms, one of which he can use to pull up his pants when he greets his old buddy Obi-Wan, because this is a movie for children and butts are funny.
Design: Dexter’s look is similar to the Boss Nass school of flubbery-looking alien with flubbery-looking fat lips that poor Ewan McGregor, standing in a seamless sea of chroma-key green, had to do his utmost to act against.
Voice: Ronald Falk is doing the most to make Dex feel like a real person, but it all feels a bit too strained, and makes me feel like Dex should have just been a human played by John Goodman.
Most superfluous Wookieepedia fact: “Despite the rapidly spreading galactic conflict, [Dex] risked traveling for ingredients for his diner to places such as Dractu for cave slugs as a gift for Kenobi.”
3. Captain Tarpals
Appears in: Episode I
Captain Tarpals, a gruff, professional Gungan, shows up to demonstrate that his entire species is not as ridiculous as Jar Jar Binks by informing the latter sternly that “Yousa in big doodoo this time.”
Voice Acting: Fine.
2. Jar Jar Binks
Appears in: Episodes I, II, and III
There’s not much left to say about Jar Jar, perhaps now understood as the digital manifestation of everything wrong with Lucas’s Star Wars prequels. Poor Ahmed Best has spoken his piece, and it seems like the experience genuinely scarred him. I guess one thing I’d offer is that, watching the films again after years away from them, and after years of the narrative being solidified that Jar Jar Is Bad, it is still possible to be shocked by Jar Jar Binks, on a visual level, on a sonic level, and most egregiously, on a writing level.
The only one on this list to have a solo Rolling Stone cover, Jar Jar was poised to be a cultural icon. An character entirely generated by a computer? That George Lucas, always at the vanguard of cinema magic! So what happened? Yes, the technology wasn’t there yet; yes, there’s no escaping at least a subconscious shade of minstrelsy in the concept of the character. But the technology argument feels like an excuse: Jar Jar’s problems are far more old-fashioned. He’s poorly written, and poorly edited around. The problem with Jar Jar is as much what Jar Jar does as how the film regards him and devotes time to him.
Design: George Lucas envisioned Jar Jar as a “talking, feeling, walking, running, falling, fainting bundle of amphibious comic relief.” Ah yes, walking and running, a classic mark of a character bound to stand the test of time.
Voice Acting: I want to be gentle because I know Ahmed Best has been through a lot. But even outside of the deeply ill-considered Gungan dialect, there’s a weird recitative quality to all of Jar Jar’s “jokes” that is just shoddy. I guess he’s at No. 2 to emphasize that this isn’t even as bad as it gets?
Most superfluous Wookiepedia fact: Why did Disney pay $4 billion for this universe again?
1. General Grievous
Appears in: Episode III
Most people assume that Jar Jar Binks is the worst CGI character in the prequels because they read as much in an online list somewhere, and never got around to Episodes II and III because they heard they were bad movies and decided they’d rather do something better with their lives. (Weird, but okay.) Those people don’t know what the rest of us know: General Grievous suuuuuuucks. Jar Jar may have been created by George Lucas for his son, but Grievous appears to have been created by his son, a collection of things a little boy would find cool with zero regard for whether or not they make any fucking sense.
First of all, his name is literally Grievous, so uh, do you guys who missed Episode III think he’s a bad guy? Maybe? Jury’s out? Second, he’s a cyborg (not a droid!) whose defining characteristic is a hacking cough and a kind of limp. DUMB. Third, he’s a “lightsaber collector” who wields four at a time, two of them rotating like plane propellers, which is the most extra thing any villain gets up to in Star Wars, and just stupid when you consider this is all CGI and looks fake as hell to begin with. General Grievous is a walking YouTube comment: a computer-generated attempt at being a bad boy that is not nearly as cool as he thinks he is.
Design: Also his face looks like it was made in craft class out of a paper plate by a 7-year-old with behavioral problems.
Voice: I don’t even have the energy to look up who voices Grievous in the prequels, but I hope to god they won the role in a raffle.
Most superfluous Wookieepedia fact: “After his transformation into a cyborg, his hatred was artificially enhanced.” NO IT WASN’T, FUCK YOU.