Jar Jar Binks should be famous for being the first fully interactive CG character in a movie. Instead he stands accused of ruining Star Wars . The SFX tribunal reconvenes
The Prosecution’s opening address: The Prosecution asserts that the Defendant, one Jar Jar Binks of Naboo, is one of the most irritating comedy characters ever inflicted on science fiction – a wholly unnecessary addition to Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace , dragging the whole series even further down the kiddie-fodder route than the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi . In fact, as Tim Bisley put it in an episode of Spaced : “Jar Jar makes the Ewoks look like f**king Shaft!”
The Defence’s opening address: Mr Binks has been a victim of circumstance – a whipping boy for Star Wars fans disappointed that while they had grown, the movie series had not. He became the focus of their hatred, a symbol of everything that was wrong – in their eyes – with The Phantom Menace . In fact, he was popular with young children and was a technical marvel – the first CG character in a movie to fully interact with the living members of the cast. Also, let us not forget, The Phantom Menace , the only film in which Jar Jar had a major role, achieved the biggest box office return of any Star Wars movie. He must be credited as a factor in that success, at least in part.
Prosecution: Mass popularity has never been a good indication of quality, otherwise Jive Bunny would be regarded as a musical genius. The fact remains the vast majority of film-goers loathed Jar Jar. Within days of the film’s release his name was already a by-word for rubbish comedy characters. In fact, Jar Jar eventually became a verb with no fewer than two meanings. If a film was Jar-Jarred it meant that it contained unwanted CG characters. Meanwhile, tech heads of the early year of the millennium used the term “to Jar-Jar” to refer to pointless add-ons to electronic devices or software, as in, “Microsoft Word has been Jar-Jarred with lots of annoying extras”. Even today, if you Google “Jar Jar Binks” you will find dozens of entries titled “Jar Jar Binks must die” or something similar.
This is not the kind of thing that happens to popular characters. This is what happens to characters you want to put in a blender, then a microwave and then a furnace just to make sure. Except, of course, he was just a bunch of pixels so we were denied that pleasure and had to make do with decapitating bendy Jar Jar dolls instead. And there were certainly a lot of those left in the shops at the end of 1999, which says something in itself. If he was so popular, then why was Toys R Us trying to offload discounted Jar Jar dolls for years afterwards?
Defence: Actually, millions of items of Jar Jar merchandise were sold. The reason why loads were left on the shelf, as Lucasfilm itself has admitted, was that the company granted far too many licences created a glut of Jar Jar-enalia. It was a lesson it learnt and rectified with later marketing campaigns.
Prosecution: At which point we have to suggest: well, they would say that, wouldn’t they? Interestingly, though, there were no Jar Jar toys released to coincide with the third film.
Defence: Well he was only in two scenes and had no dialogue.
Prosecution: And if he was so popular with the kids you have to ask yourself, why was that?
Defence: Star Wars producer Rick McCallum explained that back at the release of Attack Of The Clones : “We didn’t have Jar Jar less in Episode II because of fan reactions. He just didn’t have the same place. We fulfilled his mission with Episode I .”
Prosecution: A likely story. I would suggest that Lucasfilm was well aware how much Jar Jar was hated and changed their plans, but maintained support for Mr Binks in public while quietly pensioning him off.
Defence: An assumption for which there is no documented proof at all.
Prosecution: Not in the public domain, though sources have reported a sculpture in Lucas’s studio of Jar Jar encased in carbonite, which would seem to suggest they do have a certain opinion of the odious, flop-eared loon.
Defence: That evidence is inadmissible as it’s based on hearsay.
Prosecution: The photos are out there, if you know where to look. Even more damning evidence is the game Star Wars Episode I: Battle for Naboo . In the title sequence, Mr Binks is shown being crushed by the Nintendo logo. As this was an officially licensed product you would assume the people at Lucasfilm gave that the green light.
Defence: Or maybe they just have a sense of humour. They were well aware of the reaction to Jar Jar from many adults. It was unavoidable. That doesn’t mean that Jar Jar was a total failure. Let’s get back to hard evidence. Mr Binks, on a technical level, was an astounding breakthough – the first fully interactive CG character, flawlessly integrated as a main character alongside live actors. Even today the animation, texturing and compositing are of a very high standard. Usually a “technical” film pioneer will date rapidly as techniques and technology advance swiftly…
Prosecution: Stop quoting tech-speak!
Defence: …but Mr Binks remains a stunningly realistic creation, even when viewed today. The success of Jar Jar Binks, though, is as much down to the artistic talents of his 15 animators as his technical achievements. They give him true character, whether you like that character or not.
Prosecution: They give him too much character, I’d argue. It’s like every scene he’s in they have to draw attention to him. He can’t stand still or be quiet. He has to bobble about like Mickey Mouse in “Steamboat Willy” and has a severe case of verbal diarrhoea. He even emits a goofy, comedy squawk at Qui Gon’s funeral. Someone should have garrotted him with his own prehensile tongue. He’s not a “fully integrated” character, because even if he’s “flawlessly integrated” into the background his stupid antics are being foregrounded. And as for his vapid slapstick buffoonery, it may not have been so insulting if it hadn’t started to become a vital part of the plot development. Stumbling around with a numbed tongue after a bizarre pod racer accident is one thing; saving the Gungan army by – oops – accidentally letting loose a truck load of conveniently-shaped bombs is another thing altogether.
Defence: But children did love him.
Prosecution: My turn to play the hearsay card. We only have George Lucas’s whistling-in-the-wind claims to back that up.
Defence: On the contrary. Please check Evidence Box #1: a survey carried out on the SFX forum which seems to prove conclusively that Mr Binks did appeal directly to the audience Mr Lucas said enjoyed him.
Prosecution: Indeed, that evidence is both surprising and conclusive, albeit not the whole story. I believe the same survey discovered some kids who hated Jar Jar.
Defence: That I will concur. But the Defence’s aim is to refute the claim that everybody hated Jar Jar. The poll suggests that at least two thirds of under-tens really did love him, even if they grew out of it later.
Prosecution: However, those children only made up a small part of the overall audience. Everyone else wanted to slice and dice the bug-eyed pariah, especially those who believed he was an insulting racial stereotype. There was a big outcry from African Americans because his comedy voice seemed to be taking the mick out of ebonics – a form of African American lingo.
Defence: Oh, that old chestnut. George Lucas himself denied those allegations in a BBC Newsnight interview in 1999: “These are criticisms made by people who’ve obviously never met a Jamaican, because it’s definitely not Jamaican and if you were to say those lines in Jamaican they wouldn’t be anything like the way Jar Jar Binks says them.”
Defence: I think my learned colleague is being a bit overly sensitive in this regard.
Prosecution: Probably there was no malicious intent, but nevertheless, the result is insensitive.
Defence: That’s a bit like saying the Ewoks were stereotypical noble savages who would just as soon eat a white man as… oh hang on. I retract my comment.
Prosecution: And let us not forget that Mr Binks also faced criticism for being a gay stereotype.
Defence: For which it is difficult to find evidence, unless one is basing the accusation on his mincing walk. Besides, he’s significantly less camp than C-3PO.
Prosecution: Point taken. But he still, undeniably, pissed off a large percentage of movie-goers. Some fans were so appalled with Jar Jar that they even made their own versions of The Phantom Menace playing down the character. Mike J Nichols distributed free an unauthorised version of the film called The Phantom Edit, which cut out as many of Mr Binks’s scenes as possible. Another group of fans produced a version in which Mr Binks’s dialogue was removed entirely and replaced with subtitles. And another well-known fan made Revenge of the Sith which virtually cut the annoying little blighter out altogether.
Defence: Oh, that is a low blow.
Prosecution: In summation, Mr Binks was a racially insulting, irritating, unfunny waste of space who became a public joke and a byword for unnecessary FX noodling.
Defence: But the kids loved him.
Prosecution: If their opinion counted, we’d let ’em vote.