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‘The Mandalorian’ Revives Star Wars

Pedro Pascal plays the titular galactic mercenary in 'The Mandalorian.'
Pedro Pascal plays the titular galactic mercenary in 'The Mandalorian.' By Courtesy of Disney
By Lanz Aaron G. Tan, Crimson Staff Writer

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, “Star Wars” emerged as a consensus escapist favorite, blowing up box office receipts with unprecedented fervor, burgeoning into a stalwart staple of American pop culture, and somehow keeping George Lucas culturally relevant for over 40 years (despite his not having directed a film since 2005).

Since 1977, however, “Star Wars” has evolved into a divisive property. The prequels are infamous for their wooden approximations of human dialogue, and the sequels — while launching on a promising note with director J.J. Abrams’ “The Force Awakens” — managed to displease many fans. Rian Johnson’s “The Last Jedi” subverted too many expectations and Abrams’ conclusion “The Rise of Skywalker” subverted none.

The “Star Wars” franchise needs a savior — and it may have found it with “The Mandalorian.” After all, what can be a more unifying force than Baby Yoda?

Showrunner Jon Favreau (director of “Iron Man” and “The Jungle Book”) helms a series that pays tribute to the adventure serials that inspired George Lucas’ original film. Armed with a talented crew of directors, worthy themes, a refreshing score from Ludwig Göransson, and a new generation of cutting edge visual effects, Favreau’s series sends Star Wars to breathtaking new heights in (thankfully) unexplored territory.

“The Mandalorian” follows a lone, ruthless Mandalorian gunslinger (Pedro Pascal) who scours the galaxy claiming bounties and freezing them in carbonite. The series unfolds when the Mandalorian is tasked to capture an indomitable target, one that turns out to be “The Child” — lovingly and non-canonically dubbed by fans as "Baby Yoda". Favreau explores the unlikely relationship forged between such diametrically opposed characters — one a hardened killer, the other an innocent child.

The series delves quite naturally into more complicated themes. A central motif of “The Mandalorian” is morality. The titular Mandalorian character (unnamed and unmasked until the series' end) is bound by a strict honor code; he is confronted by a series of decisions between honoring that code, fending for his own interests, and eventually, fending for others'. In doing so, Favreau banks on some of the oldest Hollywood tropes, evoking themes of individualism from the western and the samurai genres that came before it (specifically a series of six films called “Lone Wolf and Cub”). "The Mandalorian" also questions what it means to belong to a group — Is one simply born with innate characteristics? Or can one still choose a path for themselves?

Granted, many story beats are predictable, and some episodes take a long pause from the overarching story. Episodes four and five in particular seem to act as filler episodes, and because they feel so tangentially removed from the main line, it's difficult to get emotionally involved in their stakes.

What keeps this series cohesive is the creative talent working behind the camera. Favreau deploys a talented group of directors, including Academy Award-nominated director Taika Waititi (“Jojo Rabbit,” “Thor: Ragnarok”) and Dave Filoni (show-runner for “Star Wars: The Clone Wars”) as well as relative newcomers Rick Famuyiwa (who directed the most tense, claustrophobic entry in Episode 6), actor Bryce Dallas-Howard (who made a rare directorial venture), and Deborah Chow (the sole director for Disney+’s upcoming Obi-Wan Kenobi series). Each director imbues their episode(s) with signature traits — for instance, Waititi's episode is marked by a touch more humor, such as the comical bickering between stormtroopers. But overall, "The Mandalorian'' maintains its tonal consistency as a gritty Space-Western — likely thanks to Favreau writing 6 of the 8 episodes.

Another standout is the score, written by Academy Award winning composer Ludwig Göransson (“Black Panther” and “Creed”). The titular theme highlights Göransson's strengths in layering musical textures; contrary to John Williams’ iconic Star Wars themes which resonated with a vibrant orchestral melody, Göransson is happy to go off the beaten path, emphasizing an eclectic mix of woodwind, a heavy rhythm on drums, and a melody on an electric guitar. Just as Göransson synthesized cultural roots (with choirs and talking drums) and modern techniques in his “Black Panther” score, he finds himself at his best crafting a unique science fiction score here.

George Lucas once criticized Disney’s sequel trilogy for not innovating in the realm of film production technology. The original “Star Wars” trilogy redefined attention to visual effects, and the prequels helped pioneer the digital age of cinema. Disney’s sequel trilogy films, as well-budgeted as they were, offered nothing new. Favreau sought to revert that trend in "The Mandalorian" with groundbreaking visual effects technology.

As a science fiction series with predictably other-worldly settings, production on “The Mandalorian” was understandably burdened by effects-heavy production. However, “The Mandalorian” didn’t resort to using green screen; instead, Favreau employed ‘virtual sets’ — a 180 degree, top to bottom sea of LED screens that surround the set while filming. Instead of a blank green canvas where visual effects artists render effects after filming, set backgrounds were often pre-rendered and projected behind and around the set. Actors could better react to their surroundings, and lighting adjustments in post-production were largely eliminated. Theoretically, a virtual set would prove burdensome to a dynamic camera — if the background doesn't move with the camera, it would be an obvious faux backdrop and the audience would be taken out of the illusion. But the virtual set accounts for parallax, adjusting the angle and view of the rendered background in real time and in sync with camera movements.

It’s not all new: “The Mandalorian” keeps the same production principles that made the original “Star Wars” films larger-than-life fantasies. For instance, many alien characters are brought to life by prosthetics rather than computer graphics, and Baby Yoda is a painstakingly detailed animatronic, controlled by a team of 50 puppeteers.

In many ways, “The Mandalorian” is exactly what Star Wars fans wanted: a standalone world set in a time period rarely explored. While it doesn't provide an original story by any means, the darker tone, resonant score, and industry-changing special effects have elevated Favreau's series to fan favorite status, even earning it a Primetime Emmy Awards nomination for Outstanding Dramatic Series.

Season One of “The Mandalorian” is currently streaming on Disney+ and Season Two is set to premiere on October 30.

—Staff writer Lanz Aaron G. Tan can be reached at lanzaaron.tan@thecrimson.com and on Twitter @LanzAaronGTan1.

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