“The Mandalorian” challenges what “Star Wars” can be, pays respect to its foundations

A year ago, the first season of the hotly anticipated live-action “Star Wars” television series “The Mandalorian” launched on Disney+ alongside the new streaming platform. Just over a month before the release of the final movie in Disney’s sequel “Star Wars” trilogy, “Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker,” the hype was real for the next entries in George Lucas’s storied property, and for good reason. These first eight episodes of the story about the rogue Mandalorian warrior and his adventures across the galaxy prove to be worthy additions to the “Star Wars” canon, even garnering a second season, which premiered Oct. 30.

“The Mandalorian” follows a member of the ancient warrior society of Mandalore known simply as The Mandalorian on his journey to protect The Child, a tiny green-skinned creature with black, beady eyes, dubbed “Baby Yoda” by the internet for its likeness to the classic “Star Wars” character. This journey includes visits to, and escapades in, various familiar locales, like the desert planet of Tatooine, as well as some new ones, like the volcanic world of Nevarro. The bounty hunter Mandalorian more colloquially referred to as “Mando,” a term that is at times endearing and at others seemingly derogatory — picks up a number of bounties as he learns more and more of The Child’s abilities and explores his role in the Mandalorian order.

“The Mandalorian” excels in its scope and atmosphere. While other stories in the iconic “Star Wars” universe are commonly grand in their plots and story arcs, this series from directors Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni takes a step back and appreciates a more grounded approach akin to old Western serials. Several of the episodes in this first season tell standalone stories — a mission to protect a helpless village from Imperial control in “Chapter 4,” a standoff between Mando and a fabled warrior in “Chapter 5,” and a prison breakout, packed with all the hijinks you’d expect of a heist, in “Chapter 6.” Certainly, Favreau and Filoni mean to pay homage to this serial type of storytelling.

This approach isn’t perfect, however. While I can appreciate the respect for a more classic mode, “The Mandalorian” is simply too short to warrant it. A story of eight episodes needs to make every moment count, so it’s unfortunate that the middle three chapters feel so skippable. Were the series of a longer format, these episodes’ dip in quality from the meat and potatoes of the season’s central narrative would be more forgivable.

My saying this is not to detract from the quality of the season overall; those meat-and-potatoes episodes certainly feel as such. The drama at play in Mando’s quest to doubly figure out the true nature of The Child and his own purpose as a Mandalorian is consistently engaging, and opens up the potential for a far more grounded tale than the melodrama of the nine-film saga. The story is gritty, but still manages to have fun.

Moreover, the production value of “The Mandalorian” is exemplary; settings feel ripped from the original trilogy, enhanced by the series’s higher budget, and evoke the sense of a minimalist “Star Wars” story, free from traditional green screens. This sense further lends to the excellent cinematography and framing.

“Star Wars” has never been known for its acting, and “The Mandalorian” both challenges, and succumbs, to this blemish. Pedro Pascal as the titular Mandalorian is as minimalist as the story itself; this is not a bad thing — Mando is a notably distant character whose lifestyle depends on the next payment. It is only as he begins to adopt the responsibilities of guardianship over The Child that he adapts a more expressive persona. Carl Weathers as shifty client Greef Karga is also well-realized, while veteran actor Giancarlo Esposito brings his acting chops from “Breaking Bad” to the forefront as the villainous Moff Gideon. Gina Carano as warrior Cara Dune leaves much to be desired, however, in a role that demands more than Carano’s short-ranged monotone, while Jake Cannavale as gunslinger Toro Calican is likewise incapable.

In all, “The Mandalorian” is refreshing and experimental in its minimalism, especially within a universe that often cherishes the grand and garish. The creators manage to tell a story that is both new and old, pressing the borders of what “Star Wars” can be while paying respect to its foundations. With season two releasing episodically these next few weeks, I cannot recommend “The Mandalorian” enough for both newbies and lifetime fans of Lucas’s galaxy-spanning epic.