The Mandalorian review: The force is 'meh' with this one
Classic Star Wars setting and Easter eggs in Disney Plus series cover up story waiting to jump to hyperspeed
It's a decent start — but nothing quite like the epic imaginings of the first Star Wars films.
George Lucas filled the screen with city-sized spaceships; the space opera functioned on a scale few had imagined.
But for The Mandalorian — the first live-action series in the franchise's history — executive producer Jon Favreau focused on the other aspect that made Star Wars stand out.
The dirt. The grime. The lived-in vision of a rusted world that seems both futuristic and ancient.
Speaking about the new series for Disney Plus, Favreau — who directed Iron Man for Marvel Studios and 2019's The Lion King for Disney — cited the cantina from the original 1977 Star Wars as an inspiration.
Favreau wondered what happened there, in this intergalactic backwater. And in a way, that's where the new series begins. Another cantina, on another planet, where a collection of species gather in a dark musty tavern.
As the local toughs hassle a slippery blue-skinned Mythrol, the Mandalorian enters, striking a Boba Fett silhouette.
The Mandalorian returns Star Wars to the pulpy B-movie roots that first inspired Lucas, with the opening episode clearly inspired by spaghetti westerns, with the Mandalorian as the lone gunfighter facing down a gang of outlaws with nothing but grit and derring-do.
Game of Thrones regular Pedro Pascal stars as the eponymous bounty hunter.
While much of the premiere episode is shrouded in mystery, most fans will be too busy gobbling Easter eggs to mind. Look! A snoot with a flute. Rotisserie-style Kowakian monkey-lizards for sale in the market. GNK, the power droid, lives!
With a reported budget of at least $130 million US, the series is the perfect way to revisit the Star Wars universe for those who can't afford a trip to Galaxy's Edge.
But this is no amusement park. Although it's set five years after the victory in The Return of the Jedi, times are tough. When the Mandalorian meets his bounty-hunting broker, Greef Carga complains there's barely enough jobs to sustain the guild.
There is, however, a special assignment.
The new commission fortunately leads to a scene that hints at the series potential: An encounter with a group of battle-worn stormtroopers, led by the singular Werner Herzog.
While some characters look like cosplay fans, with little more than the Empire insignia and a cape, Herzog instantly comes across as the most formidable man in the room.
He offers the Mandalorian a job suited to his abilities.
Now at this point, if you're not deeply immersed in Star Wars lore, you're probably (as I was) wondering what is a Mandalorian? Turns out, there's a very good reason to set the series around this character.
The Mandalorian were a warrior race that, over time, became natural enemies of the Jedi. In fact, their distinctive helmets and combat weapons were developed to counter the effects of the Force.
While the helmet protects the wearer from Jedi mind tricks, it also acts as a shield to any audience engagement with Pedro Pascal. It's difficult to form a connection with a character who only mutters a few choice bits of dialogue.
Watch a clip where The Mandalorian discovers the surviving stormtroopers:
In the first episode, there's a brief glimpse of Mandalorian culture, complete with traditional armour and the hero's own tragic history as an orphan. Considering co-executive producer and director Dave Filoni explored Mandalorian culture in the animated Rebels series, it's a safe bet much more will be revealed.
After all the hoopla of the Disney Plus launch, The Mandalorian is supposed to be the crown jewel of the new streaming service. The series is ambitious — but it's difficult to adjust from the action-packed feature films to an episodic narrative that dribbles out in 40-minute increments.
Tonally, the first episode struggles, swinging from dramatic shootouts to lighthearted vignettes, such as when the Mandalorian tries to ride a blurrg — a round, two-legged creature with a mean bite — with Nick Nolte as the voice of Kuill — a stout, pig-like creature — urging the warrior on.
Luckily, the blurrg-taming leads to a showdown with more scum of the galaxy and our first view of IG-11, an assassin droid on the trail of the same bounty as the Mandalorian. Although much has been made of the fact Taika Waititi voices the distinctive droid, its autotuned voice filters out much of the hilarious New Zealander's personality.
But the first episode saves the best for last: A stunning reveal which pivots the plot from the western genre to something closer to a samurai tale.
The consequences suggest a collision course between the Mandalorians and the Jedi — which would be welcome, because at this juncture, the only real power source pulling us forward is nostalgia.
Part of the pull of the original trinity of Star Wars films was the archetypal appeal of the characters: Han Solo's swagger, Princess Leia's undaunted spirit and everyone's favourite space farmer, Luke Skywalker.
With The Mandalorian, Disney is once again banking on our built-in affection for the franchise, but without the classic characters and distinctive music of John Williams.
This is not the same Star Wars we were raised on.
It's too soon to say whether The Mandalorian can succeed on its own merits. But a good start should begin with giving us more of a glimpse of the man behind the mask.