John Boyega has recently been quite vocal on social media about how he feels he was done over by the Star Wars franchise. This is a mere matter of his character having been under-served, which isn’t wrong, but imagine how angry he’ll be when he gets a look at The Mandalorian, and discovers that, contra what you might think based on the sequel trilogy, Disney can actually do Star Wars pretty well.
There’s a line from one of Bad Lip Reading’s unofficial Star Wars musical numbers that notes ‘some things look so familiar‘ – which is more pointed than you might expect. The franchise has been shamelessly drawing on the fans’ nostalgia for a while now, but where the sequel trilogy didn’t go in and just impacted on the surface, The Mandalorian stays on target (or, if you prefer, uses the force/blows this thing and goes home/French-kisses its own sister).
I’ve written before that the approach of The Force Awakens is, when all’s said and done, pretty much what you’d expect of Disney: it’s a remake of the beloved original, slightly glossier and higher-budget but ultimately a beat-for-beat do-over. Unfortunately, Disney couldn’t present it as their version of A New Hope in the same way as they did, say, Cinderella. Instead, they had injected it into an ongoing saga, so the follow-ups had to bear this yoke from the get-go, creating results that were, to say the least, questionable. Per example, I was also one of the first voices to draw comparison between The Last Jedi and Mel Brooks’s parody of the franchise, Spaceballs.
The Mandalorian succeeds where the sequel trilogy failed by using the originals as a jumping-off point rather than a crutch, expanding upon what people loved rather than retreading it. What goes on away from the Skywalker family? Where did all those stormtroopers go after the Empire fell? Why does Boba Fett look so cool? Let’s find out, shall we? If there’s one piece of nostalgia it is leaning on, then that’s shamelessly reminding people of when Star Wars was a fun space adventure, rather than a visibly strained attempt to satisfy two different focus groups at once.
In fact, I could quite happily fill a whole column with praise for The Mandalorian, not least Pedro Pascal’s ability to act with his face completely covered (this, incidentally, was something his old stomping ground of Game of Thrones always shied away from – watch and learn, boys). However, what I actually want to talk about here is the show’s indisputable breakout star: baby Yoda.
Yes, you’ve all seen the memes. It’s one of the most iconic parts of the original films, but made adorable, and everyone loves it. This even extends to the perennially dour Werner Herzog, who described it as ‘heartbreakingly beautiful‘ – and he’s not a fan of the franchise, he has no nostalgia to play on, baby Yoda brought the hardbitten director of Fitzcarraldo to tears off its own back. Curiously, this kind of reaction extends to inside the show. Pretty much any character on The Mandalorian who isn’t actively, girl-on-railroad-tracks evil gets goo-goo eyes at their first glimpse of baby Yoda, and can you blame them? Done even slightly wrong, this would feel like they’re trying too hard to sell it as cute – instead, they seems to have captured the popular reaction dead-on. Almost as if they somehow knew.
Susan Oliver, who played the original green-skinned alien girl in the Star Trek pilot, described in her biography that when she walked onto set fully painted, all the men present went very quiet and some even averted their eyes, as if it had ‘touched on something dark in man’s unconscious’ – even if accidentally. It may have been a long time between The Cage and The Mandalorian, but in terms of green aliens who play on our most primal instincts, there’s a straight and clear line between them.
Disney, it must be remembered, aren’t a fly-by-night operation run out of Walt’s garage. At this point they’re past simply being a corporation and are bordering on some kind of secular religion. More Americans will make pilgrimage to Disneyland this year than Muslims will to Mecca (how many Muslims will choose Disneyland over Mecca? Tremble to think). The point here is, they’ve been doing this for a long time, they’ve had nearly a century to refine their art. And refined it has been.
Have you ever seen the earliest versions of Mickey Mouse? They’re recognisable, just, as the cartoon rat whose imprint is stamped on everything from coffee cups to ocean liners, but to modern eyes they’re distinctly wrong – a long-snouted, beady-eyed beast you’d expect to see dealing speed to Fritz the Cat. A great deal more like a mouse, in other words, than the round-eared assembly of circles the whole world knows. So what happened?
If you compare the different stages of Mickey’s evolution over the years, you’ll notice a clear trend in the direction of his nose becoming smaller, his eyes and head becoming larger, and his body becoming plumper. The common phrase for these kinds of physical traits is ‘neotenous’, and the giveaway is that these are traits usually associated with childhood and infancy. (As Francis Masse pithily put it, “While aging, Mickey became young again!”) We are hardwired to be drawn to creatures with these traits, to nurture them, to want to protect them, to find them cute.
It was this magic bullet which Disney used to fire Mickey Mouse into the vulnerable underbelly of our species. Now, with The Mandalorian, they have applied the same trick to Yoda, and you must admire the brazenness of fusing ‘wizened old sage’ with ‘adorable infant’. To return to Herzog’s testimony – and he’s seen it live, remember – he very specifically pointed out how ‘convincing’ baby Yoda was. Of what did it convince him? As he’s not a Star Wars fan, it couldn’t have been that it looked enough like a Yodarian. Given that he also praised the technicians who operated the animatronic, it seems more like he meant its lifelike qualities – that it was its sheer verisimilitude which touched him so. That through sheer weaponised neoteny, it seemed as if he was starring opposite an actual adorable alien child.
What always set Star Wars apart, as a franchise, was the merchandising. That was what made George Lucas’s fortune, and ever since Return of the Jedi crash-landed on a planet of fluffy action figures, they’ve been fairly shameless about keeping that end of the business well-fed. Consider the Porgs in The Last Jedi, who didn’t actually influence the plot at all, but were cute and big-eyed in a way which, if you’ve been following me up until now, will be more than a little telling. You could consider them a test run for baby Yoda – whose smash-hit popularity has, as plenty of wags have pointed out already, neatly distracted everyone from the recent stories about Disney’s complicity with the totalitarian People’s Republic of China. Hey, did you know there’s a Disneyland in Shanghai now? I can guarantee you more of China’s Muslim Uyghur minority will be heading there than to Mecca.
Baby Yoda, though, isn’t just a ready-made plush doll that retails for $19.99. The memes betray something else about the little creature – that people don’t just find it unbearably cute, but can identify something of themselves in it. This is commonplace with memes, a great many of which appeal to a nudge-nudge understanding of the viewer’s own lower impulses. So, what does it say about us so many people are identifying so strongly with a tiny, helpless infant? Well, consider this – what does it say about us that so many people are lapping up cynically crafted appeals to nostalgia from a gigantic megacorporation?
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