Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Problem with Jar Jar Binks

On May 19, 1999 Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace was released. The majority of critics and fans alike thought the film was a disappointment. For all the film's flaws, however, there was one fatal flaw that would earn the movie the consternation of critics and fans alike:  the character of Jar Jar Binks. Meant as comedy relief, Jar Jar Binks became perhaps the most hated comic sidekick of all time.

The hatred of Jar Jar Binks began even before the movie's official release on May 19, 1999. Indeed, it began even before the movie was finished. Rob Coleman, the lead of the Industrial Light ad Magic (ILM) animation team, cautioned George Lucas that the team thought the character of Jar Jar Binks came across badly. Mr. Lucas told him that he had created the character specifically to appeal to young children. That was the end of the issue at Lucasfilm, but it was not the end of the issue for critics or fans.

Indeed, much as the animation team at ILM had warned George Lucas, hatred for the character of Jar Jar Binks emerged before the official release of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, in the reviews of various critics. In the May 16, 1999 issue of The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Ron Weiskind stated, "The liveliest creature of the lot, an amphibian called Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best), proves to be a bumbling babbler whom kids will love. Many adults will find him annoying enough to wish someone would slice him in half with a light sabre." In his review in the May 17, 1999 issue of Time, Richard Corliss bluntly wrote, "The Gungan klutz Jar Jar Binks, who talks (sometimes unintelligibly) like a Muppet Peter Lorre and walks as if he had Slinkys for legs, is more annoying than endearing." In the issue of Newsweek published the same day, David Ansen complained, "For comic relief, we get the computer-generated Jar Jar Binks, a goofy, floppy-eared, vest-wearing toy serpent with a clumsy two-legged lope and an incomprehensible Caribbean accent. (He's a kind of extraterrestrial Stepin Fetchit.) Funny not he is, as Yoda would say." The following day in The Hartford Courant Malcolm Johnson wrote, "Lucas also shows his silly side. None of his previous films has put forward a more irritating character than Jar Jar Binks, the upright equine with eyes like headlights. This Gungan bumbler manages to bring down the level of every scene he appears in."

If George Lucas thought the critics were harsh, he was to learn that the fans could be much harsher. Almost from the moment the midnight showings of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace finished, fans began spewing venom towards Jar Jar Binks on the internet. Typical of the attacks on the character was the web site Jar Jar Must Die. By Thursday, May 20 1999 the web site Deja.Com had 15,000 messages posted to it regarding Jar Jar Binks, the vast majority of them criticising the character and many advocating he be killed off. A common criticism of the character was that he was created only to appeal to very young children. More common was the criticism that Jar Jar Binks was just plain annoying and not the least bit funny.

Indeed, it is a reflection of the hatred of Jar Jar Binks that in 2000 there surfaced a fan edit of The Phantom Menace called The Phantom Edit. Among the changes "Phantom Editor" Michael J. Nichols made to the film was cutting what he called "Jar Jar antics." The Phantom Edit was actually preferred by many critics and fans alike to the original film, and there can be little doubt that much of the reason for this was it had less Jar Jar Binks.

While many Star Wars despised Jar Jar Binks for being annoying and unfunny, others had a more serious criticism of the character. In his review in Newsweek, David Ansen described the characters as a "kind of extraterrestrial Stepin Fetchit." He would not be the only one to see Jar Jar Binks as a racist stereotype. In the May 19, 1999 issue of The Wall Street Journal, Joe Morgenstern described Binks as a "Rastafarian Stepin Fetchit on platform hoofs, crossed annoyingly with Butterfly McQueen." Patricia Williams in the June 17, 1999 issue of The Nation, in an article entitled, "Racial Ventriloquism," wrote that aspects of the Jar Jar Binks character reminded her of stereotypes from blackface minstrelsy.

As might be expected, Lucasfilm would respond to the criticism. To fans who believed Jar Jar Binks was added simply to appeal to young children, George Lucas simply replied in July 1999 with the words, "the movies are for children but they don't want to admit that... There is a small group of fans that do not like comic sidekicks. They want the films to be tough like The Terminator, and they get very upset and opinionated about anything that has anything to do with being childlike." To accusations that Jar Jar Binks was a racist stereotype, Lucasfilm spokesman Lynn Hale replied, "Nothing in Star Wars is racially motivated. Star Wars is a fantasy movie. I really do think to dissect this movie as if it had a direct reference to the world today is absurd. "

The uproar over Jar Jar Binks would eventually die down. He would appear in a much smaller role in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, in which he gives a speech advocating giving Chancellor Palpatine rather broad emergency powers, thus beginning Palpatine's path to becoming Emperor. He appeared only briefly in Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. Jar Jar Binks is a recurring characters in the animated series Star Wars: The Clone Wars, but even there the sort of antics in which he engaged in Phantom Menace are kept to a minimum.

While the uproar over Jar Jar Binks would die down, Star Wars fans' hatred of him has never gone away. In a poll conducted by the British website, LoveFilm.Com of 5000 film buffs, Jar Jar Binks was voted the most annoying film character of all time. To this day all one needs to do is google "Jar Jar Binks" and one will receive thousands of results, most of which boil down simply to hatred of Jar Jar Binks.

Why is Jar Jar Binks so hated to this day? I rather doubt it was because he was comedy relief. As my brother, who is a much bigger Star Wars fan than I am, pointed out, the original trilogy had comedy relief in the form of the droids C-3PO and R2-D2, and to a lesser degree Han Solo and Chewbacca, characters universally loved by Star Wars fan. I think there is something to the accusation by fans that Jar Jar was created to appeal only to small children. While I do agree with George Lucas that the Star Wars films are made for children, I think if pressed on the point  George Lucas would have to agree the films are also made for adults. And sadly, Jar Jar Binks does not appeal to adults (not that he appeals to children either, but more on that later).

As to the accusation that Jar Jar Binks is a racist stereotype, I disagree. When I first watched Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace it did not occur to me that Jar Jar Binks was a racist stereotype. His mannerisms did not remind me of Stepin Fetchit, let alone Butterfly McQueen. As to Jar Jar's odd speech sounding like a Caribbean accent, I don't hear it. While Jar Jar's speech is hardly the Queen's English, it does not sound like any human accent or dialect to me. To drive home that Jar Jar was probably not meant as a racist stereotype is the fact that in the early criticisms of fans, which could be quite extensive, only a very few ever expressed the view that he was a racist stereotype. Indeed, the actor who provided the voice for Jar Jar, Ahmed Best, is an African American and he did not see the character as a racist stereotype. I rather suspect that those who accused Jar Jar Binks of being a racist stereotype simply read something into the character that simply was not there.

Of all the accusations made towards Jar Jar Binks, the most justifiable in my mind and the primary reason he is so hated is that he is annoying and unfunny. In the original trilogy the comedy relief provided by C-3PO and R2-D2 was primarily verbal, with only a little slapstick of the Stan Laurel type provided by C-3PO. It was certainly never intrusive and often quite funny. Unlike the two droids, however, Jar Jar Binks is too much over the top. Indeed, he reminds me of an even more spastic version of Gilligan from Gilligan's Island or Corporal Agarn from F Troop, but lacking either of those characters' intelligence. Unlike C-3PO, his antics are never subtle, and often quite broad. Jar Jar Binks might be acceptable as a character in a comedy, but not in what is essentially a boy's adventure movie. Of course, even in a comedy Jar Jar would not be lovable, he would not be funny.

Indeed, even though George Lucas stated that he created Jar Jar Binks to appeal to children, the plain fact is that I know no children who like Jar Jar. Children love C-3PO. They love R2-D2. They love all the Jedi, Han Solo, Chewbacca, and Boba Fett. They even love the Ewoks, characters some adult Star Wars fans despise (I'm not among them--I think they are sort of cute). But I know of no child who loves Jar Jar Binks. They are either indifferent to him or, like most adults, they actively hate him.

In the wake of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, many fans advocated that George Lucas edit Jar Jar Binks out in the DVD, or at least minimise his time on screen. Even though Mr. Lucas had modified the original trilogy since those films first debuted, even though he has modified the films in the second trilogy to a small degree, there has been no change in the amount of Jar Jar Binks in The Phantom Menace. Personally, given the hatred expressed towards the character on the film's release, I think it would be in the best interest of George Lucas and Star Wars to largely edit Jar Jar out of the film or at least recognise The Phantom Edit as the official version. Indeed, while my estimation of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace had risen since I first saw it (when I thought it was a disappointment), I still cringe every second Jar Jar Binks is on the screen.


Toby O'B said...

As far as I'll always be concerned, those "first" three movies don't exist, and Jar Jar Binks is only part of the problem. There were timeline issues, boring plotlines, and horrible sounding character names. (Christopher Lee and Oliver Ford Davies deserved better than Count Dooku and Sio Bibble, respectively.)

Jar Jar wasn't the only characters in that first movie to have a racial accusation thrown at them - if I'm not mistaken, those banker like characters were seen as anti-semitic and/or Japanese.

I still believe "Jar Jar Binks" is a great name. He has a great look for a character. It was just a very bad characterization. And I saw his inspiration to be more like Jerry Lewis (whose slapstick I never liked, but I do like his serious roles.) But I do like your comparison to Gilligan.

One day I'll have to track down that "Phantom Edit" and see if it makes the movie palatable. But like I said, there were other things wrong with the movie besides Jar Jar.....

Thomas Pluck said...

We used to call Watto- the flying slave owner of Anakin & his mom- "Woppo" because he spoke in a caricature of Italian Americans and wore a wifebeater with stains on it. The prequels are very lazily conceived, despite Lucas having 16 years to come up with them.

Jar Jar is pandering. As kids, we liked Chewy, and begrudgingly the Ewoks, because they were dangerous! Chewy is a fuzzball but he picks you up by your throat. Ewoks poke you with spears and try to cook you. Jar jar and the Gungans are like Teletubbies, we can't possibly believe they won a war, even with all the help they received.

Kids aren't allowed to be scared anymore.

Anonymous said...


Terence Towles Canote said...

LOL. True, I'm a hater when it comes to Jar Jar Binks, but it does seem like I'm not alone. :-)