The One About Jar Jar

A long time ago, I thought I’d have to do a post about Jar Jar for the “character everyone else hates that you love” challenge. I ended up finding another character, which was good because I don’t love Jar Jar and I like to be accurate.

But for the last month or so, I’ve been thinking more and more about Jar Jar as a character and about the structure of the prequel trilogy in general. First: I like everything about Episode I except the podrace. I like Jar Jar’s character, his role, and everything else. I don’t like that he’s in 2 and 3, but in every scene, he annoys me far less than Artoo does. I will vote Jar Jar over Artoo every day of the week.

People often accuse Jar Jar of serving no purpose. Actually, he is a tremendous character, and there’s a lot going on here that has to do with the old-fashioned style of storytelling Lucas prefers combined with Ahmed Best’s own acting style.

First, complaints about Jar Jar are generally unhinged. I did the math, and he carries 9% of E1’s dialogue; he’s onscreen about 30% of the time, but that’s every moment he’s visible, not every moment he’s the focus (I didn’t calculate that). People act like every single moment is him dancing around juggling senatorial bills or something.

Second, there’s great artistry going on in his performance. People who don’t get that Lucas is following a 1930s style aren’t going to catch how Jar Jar’s a Buster Keaton homage. But Ahmed Best worked hard AND worked well. Liam Neeson himself said “this guy’s gonna be the next Eddie Murphy.” He called him hilarious. No one in the cast or crew thought there was any problem with the character.

I had this idea a couple weeks ago that Jar Jar is supposed to be the “gateway” for the younger audience, to draw them into the action. I was thinking about the poignancy of his “I was banished for being clumsy” past. You know how the droids were the gateway for the OT–the films Lucas made for 12-year-olds (his phrase)–but he made E1 for his own kids, a younger audience. Little kids are always getting shut out for clumsiness, for being silly, for not being like the adults. And here’s Jar Jar, a big character who is just like them. He’s a simple guy. He just wants to have breakfast. But he gets whisked off with these people doing things too big for him to understand. He’s exiled for clumsiness yet he saves them all.

There’s the beauty in the story of Jar Jar: Even the most annoying or incompetent individual has value. This is a message our modern world desperately needs to hear, as genocide against Down syndrome becomes increasingly the cultural norm, as teenage suicide skyrockets, as kids start to question their meaning in life at younger and younger ages.

If you hate Jar Jar, if you weren’t a young child when you first saw E1, I encourage you to just take a minute and put aside all your first impressions of the character. Sit down and watch the movie, if not with the innocence of a child, at least without the cynical assumptions of an old crank. Keep your eyes on Jar Jar as much as you can, every moment he’s on screen. I did this for the first time last week and was amazed. In the OT, Luke is the only one worth watching every second because he’s the only one who is always reacting, always doing something. Fisher and Ford both kind of check out when the scene isn’t on them. But Ahmed Best and Mark Hamill are always doing something worth seeing. I watched how he stands in the background, rocking on his feet, swaying his arms, blinking, looking at people . . . and I went, “Sweet Maker, I’ve been Jar Jar my whole life. Staring at people I don’t get doing things I don’t understand, wondering what I can possibly do to fit in or help.”

Again, I’m not some huge Jar Jar fanboy and I don’t think he should’ve been in Episodes II and III, but I have always loved this: after the whole movie of Jar Jar breaking things when he wants to help (title of my autobiography right there), he has the courage to speak to the QUEEN. Think about that. He doesn’t know that’s Padmé! It’s a stranger, the leader of the people who universally hate his people. It must’ve been the scariest moment of his life. And then his sincere attempt to make her feel better, because he has no racism and can’t stand seeing anyone sad, actually inspires her with a game plan to both rid her planet of invaders and unite it more powerfully than ever before. And get this . . . It works! He did it right! The whole final focus of the movie doesn’t so much celebrate banishing the invaders as it celebrates a world of united peoples. Because Jar Jar worked up the courage to do something. Awesome.

Now think about being a little kid seeing this for the first time, a little kid who gets pushed around at school, pushed aside at home, who’s always being told he’s too clumsy, the wrong shape, or not smart enough to do things. “Nobody talks like that,” “Nobody looks like that,” stuff every victim of bullying hears. And then this kid sees Jar Jar, nonthreatening, funny Jar Jar. This character who goes through all the same stuff this little kid does–but Jar Jar never loses his good attitude, he never gives up, and then he saves everybody.

Adults get too cynical about the PT. But I guarantee you Jar Jar changed some little kid’s life when they realized that no matter what people yelled at them, they could save the world. We’re still watching the people grow up who grew up with the PT, they’re only just now beginning to find their voice and move into the public square where the folks who grew up on the OT have dominated. I think once these full-saga kids are adults who start speaking for themselves, we’re going to hear a lot about this whole different perspective on the much-maligned Jar Jar.

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