It goes well beyond a lack of Jar Jar.
Just to reiterate spoilers ahead.
1. More careful casting
One of the most striking ways the prequels fail is that there’s a real dearth of good performances despite having some really great actors working on them. A lot of that is probably down to the fact the script is rubbish and the fact Lucas doesn’t really give his actors any direction. But the some of it comes down to a mismatch between role and performer. Indeed the casting for the prequels often seems more like fan casting than the work of professionals. Sure it sounds like Samuel L. Jackson as Jedi master would be cool but actually his charisma was wasted on an inert character like Mace Windu.
By contrast, one senses that there’s been quite a bit more auditioning and lateral thinking going on in the run up to the Force Awakens. Fresh talent has been favoured over big names. And even when well known actors were cast it seems to have been with more focus on what they could do in this film than what they had done in others. I doubt for example that many fans were asking to see Domhnall Gleeson as a villain but he’s great as a strutting, sneering imperial commander.
2. JJ Abrams gives actions scenes a focus
During even the biggest and most complicated action sequences in the Force Awakens, it is clear where you are supposed to be looking and what you should be paying attention to. The result is that all that action doesn’t simply become a blur.
3. The lightsabre fights are slower
There’s an in-universe explanation for why this is. Neither Rey nor Kylo Ren are as experienced force users as Obi-Wan, Anakin, Yoda, Grevous, Duku, Sidious and the other characters we see wielding lightsabres in the prequels. Plus Ren is wounded. But I suspect that the driving reason is (similarly to the previous point) Abrams wants to make these scenes legible to the audience. And it works. Rather than looking like an overchoreographed dance with glow sticks, Rey and Ren battling gives you a real sense of two people trying to kill each other. A more human speed allows for more human emotion.
4. It manages to surprise us
Abrams deserves a lot of credit for forcing the marketing team to hold back spoilers. And while fans worked out a fair amount of stuff in advance, there were still surprises. There were precious few in the prequels as they had to tread a path that had already been laid out by the original trilogy.
5. It is not redundant
You remember how the first time you saw Darth Vader kill Obi-Wan you thought “this is alright but I need the back-story of these two spelled out in much greater detail before I can emotionally invest”. No? Me neither! Within its own parameters a New Hope had established the dynamic of that relationship. We didn’t need to see it spelled out. Indeed, the prequels never quite explain why they exist.
By contrast, the Force Awakens explores questions that the original trilogy left hanging. How would Luke cope with being the last Jedi? Could Han and Leia live happily ever after? Would supporters of the Empire just give up or would they keep fighting? The only way to answer those questions was to carry the story forward as the Force Awakens does.
6. Showing rather than telling
Honest Trailers make a running joke out of how much of the prequels consists of ‘people sitting in semi-circles’. Numerous talky council meetings have precisely the effect you would expect on the drama.
Abrams avoids this problem. Action and characters moments are interspersed and indeed often occur simultaneously. Even when he needs someone to deliver a chunk of exposition, he finds an interesting way to stage it. Take for example, the scene that features heavily in the final trailer during which Han reveals that the Jedi are real. The Galaxy shaking importance of this news is underlined by surrounding the characters with a holographic map of the galaxy.
7. Decent dialogue
Lines like “That lightsabre belongs to me. Then come and get it.” are not exactly Shakespeare. But they are perfectly adequate. They don’t take the audience out of the moment nor presumably do they make the actors saying them feel stupid. By contrast, Anakin Skywalker talking about sand more or less ruins the scene for everyone.
8. Better roles for women
I will blog more about this tomorrow but apart from Padme there aren’t really any notable roles for women in the prequels. And even she ultimately winds up being defined by her relationship with a man and rather boring.
There is no equivalents to Rey, Captain Phasma nor Maz Kanata. And of course Leia – the character Padme was an inferior substitute for – is back.
9. A real interest in its characters
This difference is a sufficiently pronounced that I spotted it even in the teaser trailer:
….Lucas was really good at coming up with cool things to fill a universe with but hopelessly inept at using them to build an engaging story. Watching the Phantom Menace one feels that not only were the special effects computer generated but that the plot and dialogue were too. It’s lifeless and lacking in pathos.
Compare that with the shot of John Boyega that opens the trailer:
His expression, the sweat pouring from his face and his isolation all combine to make one feel his utter terror. This single shot generated more empathy from than anything in the entire prequel trilogy let alone the Phantom Menace trailer.
It is easy to attribute the rest of these differences to Abrams being a better writer and director than Lucas. And there’s probably some truth to that and Lucas probably deep down knows that’s true. He allowed other people to direct the Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, and he appears to have approached Ron Howard among others about directing the Phantom Menace.
That still leaves open the question of why the prequels are so much worse than a New Hope. Part of the reason may have been that in twenty year gap between them CGI came along and allowed him to indulge himself. But that wouldn’t explain the differences in say casting.
A better explanation is provided by a ridiculously detailed and persuasive 70 minute video made by a random Star Wars fan. He tracks the problems with the Phantom Menace and attributes them to the fact that there wasn’t anyone at Lucasfilm who could tell Lucas when he was going wrong. It was his company, he was creator of the franchise and he didn’t have any proper oversight.
It seems likely that even had Abrams wanted total and unchecked control of the Force Awakens¸ Disney – who now own Lucasfilm – would have refused to give it to him. He therefore had to work and take ideas from a large team of people. And in interviews Abrams himself has praised the quality of that team.
We tend to think of art as the product of a solitary genius and criticise works that don’t appear to fit that mould. For example, Vox’s review of the Force Awakens complained: “[t]his film feels committee-approved to delight fans”. But film is an inherently collaborative medium. It takes a whole cast and crew to make not just some grand visionary. And I’m glad that ensuring audiences are delighted with the film is considered worthy of a whole committee rather than being left to the temperamental ego of a lonely individual.