How Baby Yoda Changed the Way Disney Tells Stories
The following post contains SPOILERS for the first two episodes of Obi-Wan Kenobi. This is not a Jedi Mind Trick. Proceed with caution.
When we look at this era of pop culture from afar, we can realize that Baby Yoda – Grogu to his Padawan friends and learners – is perhaps the most important character of the last 20 years. It is certainly one of the most financially lucrative; my midi-chlorian count isn’t high enough to calculate how much money Disney made from Baby Yoda toys and dolls alone. But beyond his ubiquity in retail, Baby Yoda seems to have had an even bigger impact on how Star Wars – and really everything Disney – tell their stories.
For proof, just watch the first episode of the latest star wars series, Obi-Wan Kenobi. As announced, the show features the return of Ewan McGregor as the famed Jedi Knight who fought alongside young Anakin Skywalker – and then against Darth Vader – in the so-called Clone Wars. But the advertisements for Obi Wan Kenobi suggested the show was about the ancient Jedi undertaking a mission to protect young Luke Skywalker, who lives in hiding with his aunt and uncle on Tatooine.
In a major twist, Luke only briefly appears in one shot of Obi Wan Kenobithe first two episodes. Instead, the whole show is about Obi-Wan coming to the aid of another famous star wars character — the young Princess Leia — who, in Obi Wan Kenobi Episode 1, is kidnapped from her home by bounty hunters. His father Bail Organa (Jimmy Smits, another surprise cast member) calls Obi-Wan and begs him to help. Obi-Wan initially refuses, then relents and sets off across the galaxy to find the missing girl.
The Leia of Obi Wan Kenobi is about a decade away from the point in history where Carrie Fisher first played her in 1977 star wars; Leia, 10, is played by child actor Vivien Lyra Blair. And you might cynically suggest it’s a “Baby Leia” to star as “Baby Yoda” in Obi Wan KenobiThe story of: The precocious, adorable, wise child beyond his years who warms the heart of a cynical warrior and teaches him valuable lessons about life. At least through Obi WanIn the first two episodes, these narrative parallels between Baby Yoda and Leia are pretty strong.
But the comparison that’s even more crucial here – and suggests just how influential Baby Yoda has been since his debut in the first episode of The Mandalorian – is how these characters were revealed. Instead of using their presence to build hype, Lucasfilm hid them until the series aired on Disney+. The involvement of a Baby Yoda or a young Princess Leia would certainly be a selling point for a large segment of the star wars spectators. But rather than promoting the show that way, they allowed the roles of these characters to be complete surprises.
It goes way beyond hiding a brief surprise cameo or post-credits scene. In the case of The Mandalorian with Baby Yoda and Obi Wan Kenobi with Leia, they are central characters; arguably the second most important person (or Yodas) in both series. Grogu and Leia each give the heroes of their respective show their mission and purpose. Not even hinting at their presence in marketing materials means you can’t really tell people what their shows are about in commercials and trailers, or even in publicity interviews – which, in the case of Obi Wan Kenobiwere largely conducted with reporters who hadn’t even seen the show yet.
It remains to be seen how fans will enjoy the young version of Leia. With The Mandalorian and Baby Yoda, tactics was a huge success. The public immediately responded to the adorable creature. They were sucked in by the surprise of its sudden beginnings, then absorbed in the mystery of its origin and purpose. By the end of the show’s first season, he was arguably The Mandalorianis the real star. At that time, the character didn’t even have a real name yet.
After Baby Yoda’s appearance, fans clamored for merchandise featuring the character – but keeping his role a secret meant none could be made in time for The Mandalorianis the first. Now, of course, you can own almost any Baby Yoda product your heart could desire and your brain could imagine. Want a life-size Grogu sitting on your shoulder? No problem! Baby Yoda shampoo? The Force is strong with its tear-free formula tested by dermatologists. Or how about a Baby Yoda weed pipe? You got it! (Sample review from a satisfied stoner: “It’s so cute I feel bad smoking on it lol.”)
But when demand was most feverish in the fall of 2019, there was no Baby Yoda plushie or bowl to be had. And fans have become so savvy about the nature of corporate studio cinema, that many know Disney has rightfully left millions of dollars on the table waiting to exploit its new green superstar. I wonder if those who recognize this see this decision as a risky storytelling choice, as it suggests this character exists for the show and its impact, rather than Disney’s licensing department and their profits.
Since Baby Yoda’s debut, we’ve seen a similar approach to top-secret storytelling in the second season of The Mandalorian — which concluded with a surprise appearance by a young Luke Skywalker – and Boba Fett’s Book – which featured important but unannounced roles for the Mandalorian and Grogu. Meanwhile, Marvel movies started working the same way in movies like Spider-Man: No Coming Homewhere the presence of two of the most beloved comic book characters of all time was only revealed when audiences were in the theater on opening night, and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, where the film’s villain was never mentioned once in any of the trailers or commercials. Marvel shows do too; all Loki built for an unbilled appearance by Jonathan Majors as Kang, the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s latest super-villain, while Hawk EyeThe Villain Was Vincent D’Onofrio’s Kingpin of Cancellation daredevil series, another big surprise.
Shows like The Mandalorian and movies like Spider-Man: No Coming Home Quickly condition fans that they need to see things as soon as possible, because there can be secrets and surprises that will be spoiled if they wait too long to buy their ticket or sign up for Disney+. In a way, Disney has learned to capitalize on its customers’ fear of spoilers to make an even After loyal audience than ever. See it now, or risk never seeing it the “right” way.
And it works; now, Spider Man and strange doctor are the biggest movies of 2021 and 2022, respectively. Now Obi Wan Kenobi is here, and it’s sure to be the talking point for Star Wars fans this weekend and beyond. Powerful, this Baby Yoda was.
New episodes of Obi-Wan Kenobi weekly premiere on Disney+; sign up for Disney+ here.
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