I just watched a great film and a crappy film one after another: Episode 1 and Ratatouille. Episode 1 is traditionally blasted for Jar Jar Binks and a general stew of crappiness aside from that, and anything Pixar just gets a blanket statement about story, dreams, Renderman, etc.
But I noticed a very specific difference between the two in terms of story mechanics this time, which I think is the key to why Rat was great and Episode 1 didn't measure up to previous SW films: choice as a story mechanic.
There's a number of good films that put hard choices on the shoulders of characters. But in Ratatouille they go the extra mile: EVERYTHING is choice. Almost at NO point is Remy carried along by fate. He CHOOSES to break into the kitchen, to fix the soup, to go back and stick with Linguini, to let his family steal, soon and so forth. Choice is so big a part of the movie that even in the place when Remy is swept along by fate in the sewer early on, he's given an arbitrary choice of guessing which sewer pipe to go down. It's a meaningless choice, because he's guessing randomly, but it is nonetheless a choice, and therefore it carries emotional weight. As a result of all this choice, when it finally comes to the moment of truth, when Remy/Linguini have to rely on others and see if they're believed in, everyone else makes a choice, and it shows a lot of character for everyone involved: most leave, but the rat family finally believes in Remy, and Colette still believes in Linguini.
Compare this to Phantom Menace, in which the characters are almost nailed to a conveyer belt. Engine trouble FORCES (ha!) the heroes onto Tatooine. Watto's supply monopoly FORCES the heroes to deal with him. With no worthwhile currency, they are FORCED to look at Anakin as a solution. Jar Jar is FORCED to follow Qui Gon due to a life debt.
Sure, there's plenty of times where characters overcome odds in saber fights, podraces, etc, but they almost never made conscious, hard emotional decisions to be in those situations. The third act is the icing on the garbage cake: Metaphorically like all other parts of the movie, Anakin is forced into an auto-pilot starfighter that drags him into a situation where he saves the day. He has no heroic spirit or courage leading him to make choices others would fear. Similarly, Qui Gon's death is not a result of any internal, meaningful choice on anyone's part, especially Kenobi's or Qui Gon's. Instead, Obi Wan is forced into a spectator role, then afterward is just a dude fighting another dude. Imagine the guilt Obi Wan would feel if instead he made a bad decision, and that led to Qui Gon's death. Imagine the powerful message of love if Qui Gon sacrificed himself to save Obi Wan (as Obi Wan later does to save Luke, etc.). Less choreography, more choice please.
To analyze things further, compare Anakin (crappy hero) to Luke (good hero). Anakin does not succeed or fail by his choices, literally. In the new films we learn about a prophecy apparently meaning that Anakin's fate is already written in the stars. So who cares? WE knew he would be Darth Vader, and the reason he sucks is because apparently the Force new as well.
But Luke? Luke is a hero of choice, of decision. It's never "he's a good guy, he's the hero, just trust me." He's presented with potent, troubling decisions about his father, his loyalty, his friends and his greed. And in all these cases, he CHOOSES the light side, rather than arbitrarily have his decisions made for him. Same thing with Han Solo. Imagine how meaningless it would be for him to pick off Darth Vader in the end, if instead he was with Luke to start with, just blindly on the good guy's side.
But enough of that! Back to work with me. I should have my trial-finished 11-Second-Club animation completed tonight. Stay tuned!