This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.
If you’re too young to remember the surreal level of pre-release hype surrounding Star Wars: The Phantom Menace in early 1999, take a look at this Vanity Fair article, published in January that year. Writer David Kamp was out in the Tunisian desert to report on what was surely going to be the biggest film of the decade: George Lucas’s triumphant return to the Star Wars universe.
The Phantom Menace has, Kamp writes, “a Garbo mystique”; it’s the most “craved film ever” – a cinema event capable of bringing the country to a standstill on release day. But in among the breathless anticipation all over that article, tiny warning signs can be found.
For one thing, there’s a sneak peek at a portion of The Phantom Menace‘s opening crawl, which includes the lines:
Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic. The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute.
Hoping to resolve the matter with the blockade of deadly battleships, the greedy Trade Federation has stopped all shipping to the small planet of Naboo…
“Precisely what this means is anyone’s guess,” Kamp interjects. Six months later, many people emerging from their local multiplexes, baffled by the finished movie’s unexpected political wranglings, would still be saying much the same thing.
Now head to a later passage in that article, where it talks about the exotic new creatures we’d find in Lucas’s next space fantasy.
“Qui-Gon Jinn has a clownish upright-lizard-like pal named Jar Jar Binks, one of several alien characters who, except for their voices, are entirely digitally generated.”
Ah yes, Jar Jar Binks.
At first, he was the poster boy for the movie’s next-gen visual effects – a walking embodiment of how CGI could revolutionize the storytelling in the Star Wars universe. In pre-release interviews, Lucas often talked about his frustration at having to deal with the constraints of prosthetics, miniatures, and other analog effects in the Original Trilogy. It was when he saw the CGI dinosaurs at play in his old friend Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park that he came to a realization: now, finally, his wildest storytelling dreams could be realized.
The result of all that cutting-edge CGI was Jar Jar, perhaps one of the most infamous characters in 90s cinema – if not all time. A face once considered likable enough to put on the cover of Rolling Stone, Jar Jar wound up as the target for Star Wars‘ fans distilled rage. The anger wasn’t confined to Star Wars message boards, either; critics commonly singled the clumsy, motor-mouthed Jar Jar out for their most stinging barbs. More darkly, some writers suggested that Binks was a racist caricature – something Lucas vehemently denied.
While Jar Jar Binks had his defenders, most would agree that he’s far, far away from the best character in the Star Wars universe. So what on earth went wrong?
“Ooh mooey mooey I love you!”
Of the 1,900 or so effects shots in The Phantom Menace, 461 of them contained Jar Jar Binks.
In terms of ambition, Binks could be seen as the late 20th century analog of Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back. When that movie was in production back in the late 1970s, Lucas’ idea of having a puppet as a co-star was a risky one: would the puppet be able to convey the range of emotion required of it? Would audiences “buy” the character as a living, breathing Jedi master?
As it turned out, Yoda proved to be triumph of design, technology, writing, and performance. Disparate disciplines came together to create one of the most beloved characters in the Star Wars franchise whose unusual turns of phrase are still quoted 35 years later.
When Lucas conceived Jar Jar Binks towards the end of the 1990s, he probably thought he had another Yoda on his hands. The parallels between the two aren’t difficult to draw: they’re both aliens with distinctive silhouettes – one short and squat, the other tall and rangy. They’re both brought to the screen with elaborate special effects. They both talk in a way that’s uniquely their own (“Yousa thinking yousa people gonna die?”).
For Jar Jar’s voice and movement, Lucas cast Ahmed Best, a 25-year-old New York actor, musician, and dancer best known for his role in the hit musical, Stomp. Behind-the-scenes footage from The Phantom Menace reveals that Lucas’ original plan was to have Best perform his scenes as Jar Jar in a full costume, with only the character’s head replaced using CGI. It was only after $100,000 had been spent on the physical Jar Jar outfit that Lucas’ effects team came to the conclusion that the effects shots could be completed more quickly if the character was entirely computer-generated.
So it was that ILM began creating a ground-breaking process of performance character and animation to turn Best into Binks. On set, Lucas encouraged Best, a naturally physical performer, to play up the clumsy, comic angle of his character. This was, after all, a Gungan – an amphibious creature banished from his home because of his hapless nature. On land, he’s even more prone to getting into trouble.
The Phantom Menace‘s making-of documentary shows Lucas acting out Binks’ now-infamous “loose-limbed” walk.
“Your arms, you know, they don’t have much in ’em,” Lucas says, before marching along, hands flapping, as Best nods in agreement. Best later revealed that he and Lucas watched “a lot of Buster Keaton movies” while The Phantom Menace was in production. The work of that silent film star played heavily, therefore, into Binks’ various pratfalls and mishaps.
Looking back at the raw footage of Best in action as Binks, it’s clear that he’s a talented physical actor. It’s also clear just how particular Lucas was about the types of movements Best would make and how Binks would behave – something the writer-director made clear even at Best’s audition.
“George had a very specific idea in mind of how the character was supposed to go,” Best told Vice earlier this year. “He very much wanted him to be more of a Buster Keaton than anything else. I gave him a lot of stuff. I was really – still am – into martial arts and acrobatics, so in my mocap audition, I was doing backflips and high kicks. It was more like athletics and he kept trying to pull me back from being so athletic and being a lot more lanky and long and silly. I eventually picked it up at the end of the mocap audition and he was like, ‘OK,’ and walked out of the room.”
In the very same interview, Best also confirmed reports that Lucas had originally imagined the part of Jar Jar Binks going to Michael Jackson, but ultimately decided that having the King of Pop as an alien in prosthetics would have been too distracting for audiences. We can only imagine what the finished film would have looked like had Lucas not changed his mind.
As well as Buster Keaton’s physical comedy, Lucas also had in mind a classic animated cartoon character when he created Jar Jar Binks. Lucas revealed in a speech earlier this year that Binks’ ungainly form was inspired by the Disney canine, Goofy.
“I can’t begin to tell you what an influence Disney’s been on me,” Lucas told the audience at this year’s D23 Expo. “I will say one secret that nobody knows… Goofy was the inspiration for Jar Jar Binks. I know you’ll look [at him] a little differently now…”
“Monsters out there, leaking in here…”
The problem with Jar Jar Binks, it could be argued, can be found at the very heart of Lucas’ original concept. Envisioned as a lovable sidekick whose antics children could identify with, Jar Jar instead proved to be a strange and glaring distraction among the pod races and arcane political machinations. Even the movie’s visual effects supervisor Rob Coleman admitted, shortly after The Phantom Menace‘s release, that he was less than sure about Binks’ chances of endearing himself to the public.
“When I read the script the first time, I had a reaction similar to what many of you had when you saw the movie,” Coleman admitted at a 1999 Visual Effects Society seminar. But Lucas remained insistent: kids would love Jar Jar.
“I only had one audience member to please and that was George Lucas,” Coleman continued. “If he was happy with what we were doing with Jar Jar, then I was happy.”
It didn’t help that Lucas failed to find a means of making Binks sympathetic as well as clumsy, and it’s arguable that the absence of Lawrence Kasdan, who brought so much subtlety to the humor in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, was sorely felt in The Phantom Menace.
Speaking to BBC’s Newsnight in the summer of 1999, Lucas insisted that Jar Jar Binks’ poor reception was because he’d made a film for children – something older Star Wars fans didn’t admit. And besides, he added, didn’t some people hate characters like R2-D2 or the Ewoks in the earlier films?
“The movies are for children but they don’t want to admit that,” Lucas said. “In the first film they absolutely hated R2 and C-3PO. In the second film they didn’t like Yoda and in the third one they hated the Ewoks… and now Jar Jar is getting accused of the same thing.”
While Lucas is right about the Ewoks’ decidedly mixed reception in 1983, their part in Return of the Jedi was far less prominent than Jar Jar’s in The Phantom Menace. Artoo and Threepio may have bickered, meanwhile, but they were the eyes and ears of the whole saga; they drove it along, and even helped out when they could. Most of all, they were vulnerable; for all their pratfalls and scrapes, they felt like nuts-and-bolts droids. We really felt the clang when Artoo fainted after being zapped by a Jawa on Tatooine. We shared Threepio’s horror when he was smashed to bits in The Empire Strikes Back.
By contrast, the elastic-limbed Jar Jar never seemed to be in any danger, even in the midst of a screaming battle at The Phantom Menace‘s climax. It’s certainly a far cry from Yoda’s scenes in The Empire Strikes Back; the diminutive Jedi master has moments of comedy, sure, but his wisdom and great age also come across in every scene. Had Jar Jar been invested with that level of nuance, his reception could have been very different.
Imagine for a moment that, instead of being ousted from his tribe for being so useless, Jar Jar was the last of his kind – the rest of the Gungans killed, perhaps, by the Trade Federation. Or maybe Jar Jar could have been clumsy on land, but graceful and even useful in combat in the water. Giving the character pathos and a modicum of depth may have helped endear him to an older generation of movie-goers, as well as fit more neatly into the world of Jedis and power-hungry Sith Lords.
Instead, Jar Jar Binks became one of the most controversial aspects of an already divisive film. His duck-like face winding up as the flashpoint for debates about the over-use of digital effects, the limits of creative freedom, and the ubiquity of Jar Jar Binks merchandise. Lucas stood by the character, refuting allegations that Binks was a “Caribbean stereotype,” or a “Rastafarian Stepin Fetchit on platform hoofs” as his more vocal detractors put it.
Nevertheless, the fan reaction and numerous anti-Jar Jar articles took their toll. A once prominent character was diminished to almost non-existence in the movies which followed, with even a brief exchange of dialogue between Binks and Anakin Skywalker removed from the final edit of Revenge of the Sith.
Even 16 years after his debut, Binks remains a much talked-about part of the Star Wars universe. Most recently, we’ve heard the much-shared fan-theory that, far from the bumbling oaf he appears to be, Binks is actually an evil warrior who specializes in mind control.
Even director J.J. Abrams got on the Binks hatred wagon earlier this year, when he mentioned that he was thinking about alluding to Jar Jar’s death in The Force Awakens. “I have thought about putting Jar Jar Binks bones in the desert there,” Abrams said, pointing to an unfinished shot from the film. Whether it actually happens or not, that the director felt safe to joke about the death of a major Star Wars character speaks to how greatly disliked Binks still is among fans.
Behind all the jokes and fan hatred, it’s worth sparing a thought for the man behind Jar Jar, Ahmed Best. It’s evident from interviews – including this one from Rolling Stone – that his love of Star Wars was genuine, and that he was more than excited to have a chance to make his mark in its universe. Instead, the character he helped bring to the screen became a “lightning rod,” as he later described it, for the film as a whole. Best puts a brave face on his memories from the late 90s, but the public reaction must have been difficult to absorb.
The final irony? That the way Best imagined Jar Jar Binks was quite different from the one we eventually got in 1999. Best saw Binks as an innocent and an outsider, an awkward creature trying to keep up with a world always a few steps ahead.
“I saw an innocence in the character,” Best said in an interview with The Philadelphia Enquirer. “I saw the honesty of the character. I saw the awkward kid who didn’t fit in. I was definitely the kid who didn’t fit in. That’s why I identified with the character.”
Had Jar Jar Binks been closer to Best’s description than the one in the finished film, then maybe he’d joined the likes of Chewbacca and Yoda as one of the Star Wars universe’s most loved – rather than loathed – supporting characters.