The Phantom Menace isn't a coming of age story like, say, Big, focusing on a single character's transition from youth to adulthood. We don't see a young Anakin Skywalker wish upon a Sith lord to become a full-fledged Darth Vader—all while befriending Emperor Palpatine over a rendition of "Chopsticks."
Anakin's story is a part of the whole, while the film's focus expands to be a coming of age for the entire Star Wars universe. Obi-Wan, Padmé, and Anakin—all characters who will be major players in the saga—begin as youths, and the story thrusts them toward their purposes and fates. We also experience beginnings of the saga itself, witnessing how the innocence of the Old Republic will eventually give rise to the terror of the Empire.
Part of coming of age in the Star Wars universe means accepting the goals and conflicts of the past as your own. We see this in Obi-Wan, who must assume Qui-Gon's quest of training Anakin.
Although Anakin's coming of age story begins in The Phantom Menace, it takes until Return of the Jedi to complete.
George Lucas designed the prequels to be an "echo" of story of the original trilogy. And watching The Phantom Menace is like rereading the first stanzas of a familiar poem.
Like the rhythms in poetry, the film reflects on the way the present influences the future. We understand how Qui-Gon's decisions ultimately, if unintentionally, led to Anakin turning to the dark side, and we see Padmé's youthful ignorance bolster the rank of a man who we know will become a tyrant. And we're guessing Obi-Wan wouldn't have minded a few Force-sensitive spoiler warnings. The result is a film that is less about seeing how it will end and more about discovering why it ends as it does.
In Star Wars, the mistakes of the previous generation always become the conflicts of the next one. Qui-Gon's belief in Anakin becomes Obi-Wan's task, who in turn pushes Luke to become a Jedi after his failure to properly teach Anakin.
The Star Wars saga offers no escape from the past. Every character is bound to it, and it is the force that drives them toward their ultimate fates.
When watching the film for the first time, a couple of words in the opening crawl may feel very anti-Star Wars to you. "Taxation," "congress," "trade routes"—what are these topics doing in a Star Wars film? This isn't a poli-sci class, is it?
Sure, politics may not be the obvious thematic choice for a Star Wars sequel, but the film has a political message to go along with the laser swords and space ships. The film paints the democratic political process as slow, complex, and open to corruption.
While it doesn't shy away from criticizing these qualities of democracy, through characters like Chancellor Valorum and Senator Palpatine, it's quick to point out that the alternative is worse. Gunray and Sidious, who act outside the democratic process, cause harm to many for their own gain and almost get away with it. Also, never try to filibuster a bill sponsored by a Wookie senator. Trust us: it's not wise to upset a Wookie.
The Star Wars universe mixes modern day democratic republics with medieval fiefdoms. Padmé Amidala is queen of Naboo and doesn't seem to answer to any legislative or judicial branch, yet she was elected to serve a term as queen by the Naboo voters.
The true danger of the Trade Federation isn't its battle droids but its willingness to step outside the political system to accomplish its goals.
The characteristic of greed divides the characters of The Phantom Menace. Greedy characters join team Bad Guy; benevolent characters join team Hero. Then they're lined up on opposite sides of the gym and battle it out in a laser-infused game of dodge ball.
The actions of the villainous characters all stem from greedy motives. Sidious hungers for more power while Watto is all about those Jabbas—whom we assume appear on Tattoine's $100 bill.
Meanwhile our heroes fight for the benefit of others. Padmé wants nothing more than to save her people, and Anakin races in the podrace to help people he barely knows. Sorry, Gordon Gekko, guess greed isn't so good.
Anakin's fear of change leads him to greedily hunger for permanence in life. Knowing Star Wars draws influence from Eastern religions, is it possible to read Anakin's struggle as related to the Buddhist concept of impermanence?
Qui-Gon is the only hero to have a greedy streak in him. He doesn't hunger for money or power, but once he has determined his goal, he will greedily go after it regardless of the warnings of others. His refusal to listen to the Jedi Council about Anakin shows as much.