The Mandalorian review: Star Wars series from Disney+ finds sweet spot between amusement and appeasement
The Mandalorian is not your usual Star Wars adventure. Go in looking for a samurai western in Star Wars clothing — and you should be in for a pleasant surprise.
We all know Star Wars inspires a devotion than can border on dogmatic obsession among the more entitled fans. Rian Johnson and some stars of The Last Jedi had to endure a nightmarish trial by social media for rewriting a mythology beyond paternity tests. JJ Abrams heard the complaints, and gave us The Rise of Skywalker, fine-tuning the finale in an attempt to appease the rabid fan base. But where on the spectrum is fan reaction to The Mandalorian likely to register? — somewhere in that sweet spot between amusement and appeasement.
The flagship series of Disney+ does not reinvent Star Wars mythology boldly (like The Last Jedi did) but in its best moments, it does rekindle the thrill of watching Firefly. Disney+ essentially gave Jon Favreau (Iron Man, The Jungle Book, The Lion King) a blank page to write new canon, allowing him expand the rich universe of Star Wars.
The Mandalorian explores the treasury of wonders in the hidden corners of galaxies far, far away, bringing to life several parallel stories set in the lowlands of inhospitable planets, where smugglers, thugs, and bounty hunters thrive.
The bounty hunter at the center of this Star Wars story is a Mandalorian (Pedro Pascal) who has been tasked by a mysterious client (Werner Herzog) to recover a lucrative package. The package turns out to be a 50-year-old child aka Baby Yoda. Cuteness elicits conscience. Bounty hunter turns babysitter. Both become targets of fellow bounty hunters, ex-Imperial officer Moff Gideon, and what remains of the Empire.
The Mandalorian often feels like playing a Star Wars video game, where the titular hero makes his way through a season broken into levels of increasing difficulty. The first three episodes see Mando deliver a package from checkpoint A to B to C for armour upgrades; he receives a payment in Beskar pieces which are fashioned into pauldrons. There is also a little more hand-holding in the introductory levels, as an Ugnaught named Kuiil (Nick Nolte) guides Mando through basic training, like how to hitch a ride on a Blurgg.
Some episodes feel like side missions. "Chapter 2: The Child" sees Mando's Razor Crest ship dismantled and scavenged for parts by Jawas. Again, Kuiil intervenes and suggests trading with them. The Jawas ask Mando to steal the egg of a large horned beast, but Mando gets his ass handed to him. Just as it charges at him in a finishing move, Baby Yoda intervenes and — in what is a stunning reveal — uses the Force to lift it mid-air to let Mando deliver the killing blow. The untrained child taking down the beast is every bit as contrived as the untrained Rey almost beating Kylo Ren in their first lightsaber duel.
If Abrams' films felt like nothing more than footloose fan service, Favreau's series is more a tribute to the spaghetti westerns, crime capers, and samurai cinema that inspired George Lucas to create a space opera like Star Wars. Mando is a character that will bring to mind Clint Eastwood's lone gun-slinging bounty hunter in Sergio Leone's Dollars trilogy; the lawless settlements in desert planets, and the saloon-like cantinas where the "scum and villainy" come together are also reminiscent of the Wild West. The shots also reflect it, capturing the alienation of a man in the wide open wasteland, which seems more perilous and endless as it stretches on. But gone are the grand, sweeping themes of John Williams; Ludwig Göransson instead conjures the music of Ennio Morricone, and gives it a contemporary twist with electronic sounds.
The Mandalorian is a space western at heart but one that embodies the spirit of Kenji Misumi's Lone Wolf and Cub saga. But it also crosses over with other films and genres. "Chapter 4: Sanctuary" evokes Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai as Mando trains a village of farmers to defend themselves against raiders; Only these raiders have an Imperial AT-ST. "Chapter 6: The Prisoner" is essentially a prison-break movie.
Favreau also adds to the Mandalorian mythology by teasing details about Mando's past in flashbacks. We learn his real name is Din Djarin; he was not born on Mandalore but taken in and trained by the tribe of warriors after his parents were killed by the Separatist Droid Army during the Clone Wars.
The child's origins however remain a mystery. It is not yet clear if he is a descendant or a clone of Yoda. The force-sensitive toddler is every bit the Disney-certified green bundle of joy the memes have made him out to be, and hopefully his role will grow into something more than a merchandisable MacGuffin.
Season 2 will possibly explore if Din trains him in the ways of the Mandalorians or take him back to Yoda-land — or if maybe we have another Jedi in our midst. The final shot in the season finale with Moff Gideon cutting himself out of the TIE fighter wreckage with a Darksaber (which has Mandalorian origins) also adds to the mystery.
The Mandalorian is not your usual Star Wars adventure. So do not go in hoping for intergalactic adventures, driven by a chief mystery about who the son, the father or the grandfather of the protagonist is. Go in looking for a samurai western in Star Wars clothing — and you should be in for a pleasant surprise.
The Mandalorian is now streaming on Disney+ Hotstar.
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