Eeeeh, I gotta disagree. I'm talking as someone who enjoyed the prequels as a kid. I went back to watch them again, and... Phantom Menace was just... the Phantom Menace. It had Liam Neeson. That was pretty cool. Pretty much everything else was dumb. Ewan McGregor is awesome, but I didn't feel like he really came into his own as Obi-Wan until.. maybe Attack of the Clones. Jar Jar was obnoxious. Even as a kid I knew he was obnoxious. Darth Maul was cool, I guess, but he's honestly just kinda got less cool over time. The plot was boring, the characters were boring, the action was... yep, still pretty boring.
But I have to admit... I'm not sure its my least favorite any more. For the longest time I pretty much went in reverse order. Revenge of the Sith was the best, Attack of the Clones was okay, Phantom Menace was the worst... but upon viewing them again... I kind of found Attack of the Clones to be the worst of the three. There was the big battle at the end which was cool but the entire rest of the movie was just a chore to get through. Even the parts with Jango Fett were tiresome and just... uninteresting.
Revenge of the Sith is still my favorite of the three, though, and I consider it more or less on par with Return of the Jedi. That should kinda say something though. The best of the prequels is on par with the worst of the originals.
Personally, I think they REALLY dropped the ball on Anakin's character development. Even as a kid I rarely found myself liking him. I always found Obi-Wan to be the more compelling character and that's probably just because it was Ewan McGregor playing him. I mean, he seemed like the one actor consistently trying through all three movies.
I did enjoy the new one, though. I mean, you can dissect the movie all you want, but at the end of the day, I enjoyed this one, and I didn't enjoy the prequels (at least, not after my brain had developed enough to not be easily impressed by the cinematic equivalent of jingling car keys), and that makes it a better movie in my book.
People accuse it of ripping off the classic movies, but I didn't view that to be the case at all. It certainly rehashed elements of the original movie, but I felt like it did so in fresh enough ways that... watching it, I just didn't care. I had a few moments where I was like "Oh hey, this is like the original", but never in a bad way.
tl;dr, TFA wasn't boring, and that's enough to make it better than the prequels in my book, ESPECIALLY the first two prequel movies.
Honestly, I quite liked the actin in Phantom Menace, but really I think that comes down to a matter of taste and there isn't much more to be said. You didn't like it, I did. I would say this though, Darth Maul becomes really cool as a character in the Clone Wars TV show. In fact the story arc involving him, his brother and Obi-Wan was probably the best thing from those five series.
I've actually always thought Clone Wars was the worst of three for the exact reason you just said. Everything from the moment the stadium scene starts is awesome, but from about 20 minutes in you just get an hour of Anakin and Padme and it's just so fucking unspeakably boring. I totally get why they did it, it was necessary to see Anakin's development of finding something he loves and the death of his mother, but they just made it drag out so bloody long.
I also liked Revenge of the Sith, but I'll disagree with the other statement, but that's primarily because my favourite of all of the films is Return of the Jedi. I realise that's definitely unusual and not the commonly accepted belief, but for me it's definitely my favourite. For me, I always loved Luke Skywalker. Lots of people thought Han Solo was cool and all that, but Luke was my favourite character from day one and so seeing him evolve into a true Jedi Knight is probably the best thing in the whole series for me. Plus, Darth Vader's return to the Light side. Them feels.
You're probably right about the dislike of Anakin stemming from a dislike for the actor rather than the character. Although, like you say, it's nearly impossible to stomach Anakin in The Attack of the Clones and so it's pretty hard to get over that. So when he finally starts dropping his whiney, bitchy persona in Episode 3, by then you've already had 2 full episodes of Ewen McGregor being awesome, so there was just no way to stand up against that.
Talking about the prequels and Phantom Menace in particular while clearly there's an awful lot wrong with it I also think the final fight with Maul is probably the best lightsabre duel across all the films. Without having either old actors or people in heavy suits there's a level of technique and athleticism they can use there that doesn't appear in either the original trilogy or Attack of the Clones, while it's not as overwhelmed by obvious CGI as either the final fight between Anakin and Obi Wan or whenever Yoda and Palpatine draw their blades.
There's also both some visually cool and pretty nice ideas in there as well; the double bladed lightsabre is a good start but the way the fight gets broken up by the "shields" (or whatever they are) also works damn well; it gives us the cool visual and character development point of Qui-Gon Jinn meditating while Maul paces, there's Obi Wan having to look on helplessly while his mentor and friend is killed and it also allows for one-on-one fights without resorting to the equivalent of the WWE situation where a wrestler gets thrown out of the ring and has to stay down for an inordinately long amount of time so the other wrestlers can face off.
I just have two things against the Darth Maul fight, though overall it is quite a nice touch.
1. An actual nitpick of the fight is the ending is incredibly unsatisfying. Maul just stands nice and still and lets himself get chopped in two. Also, I'm less of a fan of the random walls, because I think it begs the question of how come they didn't use the Force Speed they used EARLIER IN THE SAME MOVIE to get past it. Obi-Wan in particular has no excuse.
2. Less of a issue with the Darth Maul fight itself as much as the directors, I think they took the lightsaber duel in Phantom Menace, saw that people liked it, and then totally misjudged what people liked it for. I think they were like: "Wow, people liked this super choreographed fight full of flips and dramatic athleticism! Let's make EVERY lightsaber fight even more choreographed from now on!" But I look at that lightsaber fight and it is still visceral and grounded at least somewhat in sense. Sure, there is some choreographing that is obvious, but everybody is more or less making reasonable strikes with their blades. They don't have the lightsaber rave scene from Episode 3.
...overall, I think that story matters more for me than flashy effects. So I would have to say that I prefer the lightsaber duel in Return of the Jedi where we see Luke embracing the dark side briefly, because it gets across that effect using the duel as a storytelling technique and not a single word until the very end. Also, I think I WOULD have to say I prefer the Force Awakens lightsaber fight because they really captured the essences of the characters I think within the combat itself. Which is a nice touch.
Edit: Bonus point: I REALLY like the lightsaber fights in Star Wars: Rebels too. I worried they were going to go the path of Revenge of the Sith.
I probably agree that the Darth Maul fight is one of the best, if not my favourite fight (for the same reasons I've stated above with Luke being my favourite character).
Anne makes a good point about the fight possibly being the reason the fights from then on became so massively overblown. Particularly the lightsaber duel between Obi-Wan and Anakin.
I actually think the best Lightsaber fights I've ever seen are also animated ones, but not from a TV show either. In fact my favourites are probably those in the cinematic trailers for Star Wars: The Old Republic. If you haven't seen them I seriously suggest you give them a look. Despite being a few years old now they still remain absolutely world class in terms of animation.
There's an absolutely fucking BEAUTIFUL moment around 3:00 minutes into that video where one of the Sith has disarmed and pinned the Jedi apprentice and is about to deliver a killing blow but then the Jedi Master throws his lightsaber across the room, the blade blocking the strike and then he calls it back into his hand using the force. What I love about these fights is that they incorporate two of the most important things that I think a lightsaber fight has to have:
First off: it ALWAYS has to be form following function. I think a big part of the reason that the fight in Revenge of the Sith was so overblown was because half of the time Obi-Wan and Anakin are just swinging their lightsabers around. It LOOKS flashy and cool until you realise that they aren't actually doing anything and are, in reality, just swinging their blades around for the express purpose of TRYING to look cool. In comparison, the fight in The Force Awakens was a perfect example of form following function because every single blow that Kylo and Rey are landing look like they are done with the intention of killing or wounding. It's why the fight has that brutal "Dark Side" quality, because it's pretty clear that they are ACTUALLY fighting as opposed to just swinging their toys around.
Secondly: it has to be clear that these people are force-sensitive. The reason they are so deadly with these blades is that they can predict the future, and are constantly predicting the future throughout the fight. They can just about see their opponent's moves while their opponent is doing the same to them. They should not only be obviously very acrobatic and athletic, but they should also be pulling off moves that would just not be possible or plausible if it were just two particularly good sword fighters. This is where, I think, The Force Awaken's lightsaber fight falls just a little flat (only a little, I thought it was extremely awesome while I was watching it) because it just looks like two people swinging glowing swords at each other. There's no subtlety.
Meanwhile in these trailers, you have the characters doing absolutely insane things, obviously starting to move BEFORE the other person has started to move as well in order to intercept them and fight them.