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At once fresh and familiar, The Mandalorian largely soars

The Mandalorian

Let there be no doubt, The Mandalorian is a Western.

When Disney spent more than $4 billion to acquire Lucasfilm — and thus, the rights to the Star Wars franchise — in 2012, you knew the media giant was serious about exploring the galaxy far, far away.

And, in the years since, that has proven abundantly true. The Mouse House has released four big-budget, heavily hyped Star Wars films since 2015, and, with the exception of 2018’s Solo — a perfectly suitable sci-fi adventure that could never overcome the negative publicity surrounding its behind-the-scenes production problems — they’ve proven enormously successful at the box office. Collectively, Disney’s four Star Wars flicks so far — The Force Awakens, Rogue One, The Last Jedi and Solo — have grossed $4.6 billion worldwide.

But we’ve actually reached a critical moment in the larger arc of Star Wars as a franchise. Dec. 19 will see the release of The Rise of Skywalker, the ninth and final film in the so-called Skywalker Saga that began in 1977. While the last four decades have been filled with troves of Star Wars comic books, animated series, video games, novels, breakfast cereals, TV movies and one much-maligned Christmas special, the main cinematic saga — the one with Leia and Luke and Anakin and Chewbacca and all the others — has always been the tether that held the whole circus together. And next month, that saga will purportedly come to an end. Wherever Star Wars goes from here, it will do so without the bedrock of the Skywalker Saga to fall back on.

But if The Mandalorian — the new series that recently bowed on the much-ballyhooed Disney+ streaming service — is any indication, there is plenty of room for Star Wars to branch off into new, yet still familiar, territory.

Created and written by Jon Favreau (director of the first two Iron Man films, The Jungle Book, and this year’s The Lion King remake, among others), The Mandalorian is an eight-episode series that is the linchpin of the launch of Disney’s new streaming behemoth. The first episode dropped on Nov. 12, with the second coming on Nov. 15. A new episode will land each week through Dec. 27. 

Tapping Favreau to helm the first foray into a Star Wars live-action TV series was a solid bet, as he’s proven quite adept through the years at putting a fresh spin on long-standing properties. That is certainly the case with The Mandalorian, a show that, through two episodes, feels like the most energetic take on Star Wars in years. It’s a peek into some of the darker, seedier corners of a galaxy we’ve long wanted to see a bit more of.

The series follows a bounty hunter — the titular, unnamed Mandalorian (Game of Thrones’ Pedro Pascal) — as he journeys from one planet to the next, tracking down people who don’t want to be found and collecting his rewards. The first two episodes have focused heavily on one particular bounty, and the lengths to which the Mandalorian will go to protect it. While there has been widespread online chatter about the bounty in question, I dare not spoil it here. Just know it will warm the heart of even the most leery, jaded Star Wars fan.

While Pascal does an admirable job — even covered in Boba Fett-like armor — in the lead role, the early episodes of The Mandalorian are buoyed by their supporting performances, perhaps chief among them being Nick Nolte’s turn as an Ugnaught named Kuiil. Nolte imbues the little alien with crusty, gruff charm, and his catchphrase — “I have spoken” — is already the stuff of memes.

At just more than 30 minutes each, episodes move along at a brisk — almost breakneck — pace, but leave you wanting more as the credits roll. And that, I believe, is certainly intentional. What Favreau has done here, essentially, is resurrect the old Western serials that were so popular decades ago. But instead of a lone cowboy riding a horse across the plains from town to town with a pistol on his hip, here we have a lone bounty hunter traversing the stars with a blaster on his hip. Let there be no doubt, The Mandalorian is a Western. A Western with Jawas and Kowakian monkey-lizards, but a Western nonetheless.

I could nitpick The Mandalorian in a few spots. For instance, the show, at least through two episodes, sorely misses any hint of John Williams’ familiar musical cues, instead opting for comparatively muted offerings from composer Ludwig Göransson (Black Panther). 

But the streaming series — filled with action and grit and mystery and plenty of tasteful callbacks to the saga we’ve loved for four decades — mostly soars. The Star Wars cinematic universe might be pivoting away from the Skywalkers, but with The Mandalorian, Favreau points toward a vibrant new path on TV. The Force is strong with this one.

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