by Ed Symkus

Let's do this in baseball terms. Two years ago, when George Lucas returned to directing for the first time since Star Wars in 1977 with The Phantom Menace, he hit a single that was just shy of being a foul ball. This time out, he's got a two-run homer. It's not a magnificent movie, and while the title is rather misleading, it's a great 150-minute time. And it marks the return of Lucas getting his moviemaking hat on properly. It's the best in the series since The Empire Strikes Back.

Set 10 years after the events of the last film, there's unrest in the Senate, peace and order is challenged, a separatist movement is shaping up and the Jedi are overwhelmed. Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) is now Senator Amidala, since her two elected terms ran out, and cute young Anakin has grown up into hunky young Anakin (Hayden Christensen).

Anakin, committed to being a Jedi someday, is an apprentice under the tutelage of Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor, who has been paying a lot of attention to how Alec Guinness played the part in later years) and is becoming feistier than his master would like. "Learn your place," Obi-Wan keeps warning him. But Anakin wants to be out there having adventures, flying through the skies (and those skies are awfully crowded, traffic having become an obvious problem a long time ago), courting the lovely senator who he's never stopped dreaming about since childhood.

But there are those who would attempt to kill her -- by explosion, by icky poisonous crawling things -- but they're always foiled by our heroes, who have sworn to protect her.

Before much time has gone by, there have been numerous excellent action sequences, as well as fleeting moments when Anakin has tried to tell Amidala how he feels about her (but, you know, she's a politician and he's going to be a Jedi; the relationship, she says, doesn't have a chance). And soon after, the dashing Obi-Wan has taken off for other worlds to find out who has been trying to kill Amidala. What he does find out is much more than he bargained for.

And it all goes from there, with the separate stories jumping back and forth between each other. Since this comes from the mind of Lucas, there's also a whole hell of a lot going on within the cracks. There are more than a couple references to the 1977 film, most of them kind of funny: One is of Obi-Wan using the force in a similar manner to the way he did with some cops on Tatooine. Another has Obi-Wan referring to Anakin, but saying more to himself, "Why do I have the feeling you're going to be the death of me?"

Oh yes, and there's Jar Jar Binks, limited, happily, to only a few minutes of screen time, yet still very much involved in a side plot.

He's the only character who's distracting. Another one, a bartender named Dex (you can't miss him -- big pot belly and four arms), is great. As is, no surprise, the film's set design, featuring enormous interiors and exteriors. Composer John Williams also makes a great comeback, especially in the film's many quiet scenes, where his soundtrack accompaniment becomes beautiful.

The list of positives can go on, but a few negatives should be pointed out. Although Yoda has finally become a fully realized character, a puppet no longer, his stilted speech is more annoying than ever. The mood of the film gets temporarily lost when the story switches to one of Anakin and his mother, but gets back on track without too much trouble. And Lucas, as usual, forgets the fine art of timing by allowing his sprawling battle scenes to go on too long. As we learn soon enough, clone armies are better than droid armies. The one major -- and unavoidable -- problem is that anyone who's seen the chronologically later films knows who's going to live and die, so there's no way to have much concern for them here when they're put in tight spots.

But the positives still win out. Portman again gets to display an array of ridiculous headwear; at one point she's seen with her hair in a double bun, just the way Princess Leia wore it; and there's a terrific scene in which Amidala is telling Anakin all about how she lost her virginity when she was 12. But it's written in a clever manner that won't give away what she's talking about to anyone too young to know (hey, it's PG).

Anyway, good, bad -- who cares? There's no confusion, be it plot developments or hard-to-pronounce names, that can't be remedied by six or seven viewings.

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