The Mandalorian’s second chapter brings together unlikely elements—a bounty hunter and a baby—that work brilliantly together for a whole episode, resting on a solid core that respects the fundamentals of filmmaking in ways that, for Star Wars especially, are refreshing and much needed.
Spoilers through Chapter 2
Combining the gritty and cute ain’t easy. Attempts are often cringeworthy and controversial, and, to be fair, doing so is almost always a bold attempt to reach vastly different audiences, invoke vastly different emotions, or a combination of the two.
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The two best examples to ace this in very recent memory are Logan—pairing a mostly mute little mutant girl with Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine—and Arya Stark and Sandor Clegane “The Hound” in Game of Thrones. In recent decades, the Cohen brothers’ True Grit remake (the John Wayne original from 1969 also succeeds), and Luc Besson’s The Professional pairing a young Natalie Portman with Jean Renoir as an hitman, come to mind to round out other fairly recent examples.
More under the radar but with within the Star Wars canon universe and in Mandalorian co-showrunner Dave Filoni’s work, we have my favorite episode of Season One of Star Wars: The Clone Wars, the emotional “Innocents of Ryloth” (episode 20), where two clone troopers come across and team up with a young Twi’lek girl separated from her family in a war zone.
Apart from the remarkable storytelling I noted in my last piece, my biggest takeaway from Chapter 1 of The Mandalorian was, obviously, the little green blob of cuteness we saw at the very end that has been dubbed since as “baby Yoda” (who is not Yoda and, sorry fan theorists, is most likely not Yoda’s lovechild, with Yaddle or anyone else).
There is no way I anticipated anything like this happening in the series, let alone the first episode, but there it was.
The design of our very little green friend was absolutely going to be crucial, and The Mandalorian design team and producers absolutely nailed it to the degree that I can say I think baby Yoda is perhaps the cutest thing I have ever seen in film or TV.
They managed to make him cute without making him silly and to infuse in him an intelligence, caring, and calm that fits with what we know of his species, doesn’t at all seem gratuitous or overdone, and is totally believable within the Star Wars universe (as opposed to, say, Luke Skywalker disappearing for decades and living off Star Wars walrus milk).
But our (yes, I feel a sense of ownership like many of you!) baby Yoda works as much for his authenticity and believability, then, as his cuteness.
Most importantly of all, the Chapter 2 demonstrates that he interacts extremely well with our main character—the Mandalorian himself—and gives us our first real glimpse into his soul, allowing his emotions, including feelings of selflessness and tenderness, to seep through his tough armored exterior.
For a character whose face has been hidden by his helmet to us for the whole series up through this second episode, the moments of interaction between our Mandalorian bounty hunter and baby Yoda are especially effective character development scenes for the actual Mandalorian, which is also a testament to the incredibly effectiveness of our baby Yoda as a character.
Mainly a physical animatronic puppet (with some CG), baby Yoda’s small gestures, emotive eyes, subtle facial expressions, and few and far between noises are all effective at conveying deep emotion and sellable reactions to all the tumult going on around him.
During many of the close-up and point-of-view shots, we are all baby Yoda, seeing things from his wide-eyed, awed point of view, just trying to take it all in, but we are also the Mandalorian in that, no matter how tough we think we are, our hearts melt for baby Yoda.
Yet our bounty hunter doesn’t turn into a blubbering pile of emotion. The subtle vocal inflections and body language for a character ensconced in armor and whose face we cannot see are surprisingly effective as showing the star character’s softer side (thanks to Pedro Pascal’s solid acting!), but he still maintains a toughness and grittiness throughout the second episode, silently cleaning what must be a painful wound with baby Yoda looking on in concern.
While the green youngling brings out some of the best in the titular Mandalorian, the reverse is also true: what may be baby Yoda’s first use of the Force in his life comes with him trying to help the Mandalorian, and the little green guy shows repeated moments of humanity (for lack of a better term) trying to connect with and help the same Mandalorian.
They make a good team, which is the success behind every other gritty-cute duo of the past. What I love most of all about this new series, then, as I noted before, is that this show is a return for Star Wars to the fundamentals of storytelling: a good plot, good characters, good pacing, good writing, good execution.
Hundreds of millions of dollars and trendsetting special effects cannot make up for a lack of these things, and The Mandalorian exemplifies and supplements, not replaces, these things with awesome special effects that do not distract from the solid core of the show.
If we go back to Ashoka Tano in TheClone Wars, it definitely took her time to grow on her overall audience to become one of the most beloved Star Wars characters since the original trilogy and, therefore, in Star Wars overall (I don’t say that as a criticism: the rough-reception-to-iconic-status journey I think was intentional and certainly mirrors her own growth as a character).
But with baby Yoda, even just a few seconds at the end of the Chapter 1 seemed to launch him into this iconic status, if not then then certainly by the second episode’s conclusion. He hasn’t only won the internet, but real-world fans, critics, and cast alike are smitten, and it’s not hard to understand why.
Cute hasn’t always worked for everybody in Star Wars (even Ewoks were/are apparently controversial), but there’s no question and very little dissent here: baby Yoda is an overwhelmingly well-received addition to the Star Wars universe, just like the show in which he is featured, and in case you thought the first episode was a fluke, the second proves we are clearly in good hands with showrunners Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni.
Yes, baby Yoda is no shoehorned-in porg or some gimmick designed to sell toys that is tangential or unrelated to the plot; rather, he’s a serious character in his own right in very real danger that important remnants of the Galactic Empire’s hierarchy want to use and dispose of for some yet-to-be-revealed nefarious purpose, a joy to watch on screen, and a natural fit for Star Wars that works with, not in spite or to the detriment of, the show’s grittiness.
Pleased with baby Yoda, we are.