This Star Wars: The Mandalorian review contains spoilers.
Star Wars: The Mandalorian Episode 1
The Mandalorian executive producer and “Chapter 1” director Dave Filoni drew from myriad inspirations for The Clone Wars, and his first live-action Star Wars foray is clearly no different. A flashback sequence is so energetic and the use of color so deft that it feels like it could have come from the animated series. Sweeping shots and marching music evoke the Westerns that also influenced George Lucas. And above all, this is Star Wars, with crowded cantinas and monster-plagued spaceports. The first 40-minute episode of the Disney+ series isn’t a technological marvel or a totally unexpected divergence, but it is very entertaining, and the title character will please fans who want both a masked rogue and a relatable person.
The first episode introduces Pedro Pascal as the unnamed Mandalorian. He’s judicious with his words, but not silent, and motivated primarily by the money he needs to cover his expenses. One pivotal part of his backstory is revealed early on: he is an orphan and brings some of his profits back to a Mandalorian enclave to benefit other orphans. This history could have been treacly, but works well enough for me in the flow of the overall episode. He sits right on the line of good and evil, and I’m curious to see if this characterization ever gets deeper than “man with sad backstory murders for a living.”
His big job in the first episode comes from a mysterious client (Werner Herzog) with Imperial ties. He doesn’t want the hunt on the record, and hires the Mandalorian because he’s the best. Herzog spits every word, and feels utterly suited to the scene. The emphasis he places on every single word would probably decrease in entertainment value the longer the conversation went on, but for now, he could be straight out of classic Star Wars.
The show is quick to reassure you that this is the Star Wars you know and love with a trip to a shady cantina. The bar fight opening is unremarkable, the alien designs notable for their technical prowess (you can very clearly see their eyes!) rather than the creativity on the design side. The first few lines of dialogue are in Huttese, setting the scene immediately. Dialogue is goofy at times, suited to the characters’ weird surroundings, but the actors deliver it gamely.
In the first two-thirds of the episode, I felt like I had seen this all before: dirty hovercraft and even impressive CGI monsters are old hat in 2019. Star Wars was cutting edge in its time, but I’m not sure it is now. But the final third of the episode adds the warmth the first two-thirds were lacking. Going back to the Mandalorian himself, far from being untouchable, he’s occasionally stymied by such simple activities as calling a cab or stepping onto an alien planet. He gives the impression of being both a capable warrior and a kid in over his head. Pascal’s soft voice adds to that impression, as does his meeting with an old mentor type later in the episode. He must by necessity do a lot of physical acting in that armor, and the difference between his usual poise and moments where he almost jumps in surprise are impressive and charming.
Not all of the humor works. The Mandalorian’s first captive, a chatty alien fond of talking about his own bodily functions, doesn’t seem to fit. At best, he’s an audience surrogate; at worst, he’s an import from what feels more like Guardians of the Galaxy, a slightly different tone to the space adventure that makes all the difference.
The music adds a lot to the episode’s tone. In the beginning it’s pure space Western, a stripped-down march that shades into cliche at the same time as it injects fantastic atmosphere into wide shots. Later, the music tells us exactly how we’re supposed to feel about a scene: wonderment, not necessarily exultation. The Mandalorian has succeeded in this scene, but he’s not doing something intimidating. He has just learned to make friends with an animal, a potentially goofy scene that worked well for me in part because of the earnest delight of the music.
If this feels like a lot to pack into a 40-minute episode, that’s because it is. Adding this many plots is another thing Filoni excels at, and he continues to improve. The Mandalorian spans three planets, but never quite feels rushed. The planets aren’t differentiated quite enough — each of them has a cantina or a town, and each feels like classic Star Wars, but not like a distinct planet except for a change in terrain and fauna.
Production overall is impressive. While initial trailers made the Mandalorian’s armor look flimsy and the scene trappings generic greeblies from a low-budget film, the reality is … mostly, better than it looked in promos. Not flimsy or lavish, the scene setting falls in a comfortable but unexciting middle. The exception is the Mandalorian blacksmith’s office, which, while the setting around it is rather empty, leans full into hardware worship in the best way.
By the third act, I had bought into the setting and was ready for the big finale. Taika Waititi is blessedly well-used as the droid IG-11, but primarily as a vehicle for situational humor rather than the clever dialogue he’s known for. The final shootout is neither muddled nor particularly hard-hitting; it accelerates predictably but effectively. That might be a good summary for the episode overall.
I found The Mandalorianto be a fun Star Wars adventure, with plenty of room to grow. Where it fails, it fails by leaning too far into familiar tropes: the Mandalorian being sympatheic because his family was killed might be far too easy a backstory to carry the character through seven more episodes. I both recommend the show so far and hope for it to improve.