Let's get this out of the way right up top: Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace is not a very good movie. It's haplessly plotted, horribly written, and juvenile. We've said that before, when it premiered on VHS last year. But since then, George Lucas and his merry gang at Lucasfilm have turned this mess into what may be the best DVD of the year.
The most amazing part of this two-disc release isn't the gallery of deleted scenes (Lucas spent additional millions to complete the effects for these, which include an extended lap of the podrace) or the commentary by Lucas, producer Rick McCallum, and others (which is nice, if kind of vanilla), or even that the movie looks and sounds even better, more immediate than it did in theaters. The stunner is an hour-long documentary called ''The Beginning,'' which puts every other making-of program to shame.
Directed by Jon Shenk, who was hired by Lucas in 1997 to document the production, this behind-the-scenes tour was culled from over 600 hours of candid footage -- rare access that enabled Shenk to capture casting sessions, the storm that laid waste to the Tunisian sets, and, most memorably, the day Steven Spielberg visited Lucas on the set and they palled around like big kids who forgot, for a while, that they're masters of the universe.