Review by C.J. Bunce
Aligned with the year’s Star Wars Celebration in Anaheim, California, Disney+ began its latest Star Wars series this week, Obi-Wan Kenobi. Or did it? Maybe they uploaded a Young Princess Leia series and inadvertently swapped the reels? The choices of subject matter to feature for the story are certainly interesting, as director Deborah Chow and the writing team take some surprising turns, especially with its focus not on Kenobi, but the Skywalkers again. With two short episodes past us–of only a six-episode series–as with the original Star Wars movie and the prequels, Obi-Wan Kenobi is a secondary character. Sure, he’s the glue that holds things together, but not the character who drives the action. Will we ever see that story?
But two camps should love this series: If you are a fan of the prequels and the animated Star Wars: The Clone Wars, this is your series. Also, if you like Disney fairy tales featuring the latest version of Ariel or Belle or Elsa this is also your series. As a pure Disney family show it works, and it works as a continuation of The Clone Wars as a “sequel to the prequel trilogy” mixed with significant elements and characters from the Dave Filoni-verse.
Don’t expect the fun of either The Mandalorian or The Book of Boba Fett. The story Lucasfilm chose to tell this time is a dark and gloomy one. The optimism and dreams of adventure of Luke staring off at the two suns of Tatooine is far, far away. Beginning with a long recap of McGregor’s Kenobi and key scenes from the prequels, we see what probably most fans expected immediately after Revenge of the Sith–Jedi Kenobi is laying low after the Emperor’s Order 66 killed off nearly all the Jedi. But this story begins ten years later, and Kenobi is still laying low. In the 45 years (to the date) many fans have pondered what Kenobi did in this window of time, and meditating in the desert was probably a common, if boring, conclusion. And that’s where Lucasfilm ends up. But do audiences really want to watch a depressed, dejected Obi-Wan Kenobi?
So the star of the first episodes is McGregor as Kenobi, right? Nope. The title was some kind of Jedi mind trick. The real star is Vivien Lyra Blair, a youngster playing ten-year-old Leia Organa. For the story that Lucasfilm chose to tell, Blair does a very fine job. She’s no Baby Yoda, but her performance is much better than most kid actors found in big franchise roles this century (Blair isn’t young Sabrina either, but runs circles around young Wonder Woman).
It turns out The Queen’s Gambit’s Moses Ingram’s character Third Sister Reva has some grudge against Kenobi for some secret reason, and will do anything to trick him into coming out of his cave (see this week’s episode of Star Trek’s Strange New Worlds)–including kidnapping this ten-year-old girl. Why can’t Kenobi summon a helpful Force ghost from Liam Neeson’s Qui-Gon Jinn? Will Neeson make a surprise appearance by the sixth and final episode? Viewers have four more episodes to find out.
The first episodes are sprinkled with some nostalgia, but the show so far lacks the tucked-into-every-corner Easter eggs fans have grown accustomed to in Rogue One, Solo, The Mandalorian, and The Book of Boba Fett. The struggle is real for franchises like Star Wars–finding that right balance (do you really need to explain every prop and how it got into each scene?). Fans are introduced to their first look at Leia’s adoptive mother, played by Simone Kessell (Xena/Hercules, FarScape, Terra Nova), and an older Jimmy Smits is back as Leia’s father. Kenobi has a few confrontations with young Uncle Owen Lars, again played from the prequel era by Joel Edgerton.
From the new cast, Fast & Furious star Sung Kang is unrecognizable under makeup as Fifth Brother, one of the Inquisitor’s henchmen, and we meet the live-action version of Dave Filoni’s Grand Inquisitor himself, with a more horrifying makeup than we’ve seen in the Star Wars franchise, played by an also unrecognizable Rupert Friend (Hitman: Agent 47, Pride & Prejudice). Hayden Christensen gets barely a glimpse as Vader in the first third of this story. Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers stands out–he plays one of Reva’s henchmen–some people just can’t hide in a show and they pull you straight out of the make-believe and Flea is one of them. After lots of movies, series, novels, and comics, is anyone else tired of the Imperials and Sith? Other big franchises have the benefit of multiple villain factions, but the umpteenth update to an Imperial officer uniform is getting old–perhaps in part the lesser reliance on the Empire is why The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett and Solo were so refreshing.
The “A long time ago…” opening message is back, consistent with the core original through-line of the Rebellion/Skywalker storyline. The all-black end credits, too tiny even on the biggest screens to be read, feel lacking after the gorgeous concept artwork and music of the previous Star Wars series end credits. I’m sure someone at Lucasfilm has reasons for each of these differences. The series certainly could use an “after show.”
Those who cringe at the word “prequel” because of the Star Wars prequel trilogy will probably not be excited about the choices here. But they’ll watch it anyway if only to search out something to like, or notice, like the fact that Kenobi doesn’t seem to have anything to hide in but his brown hooded Jedi robe out in public in plain view of everyone. And there are multiple continuity glitches to ruminate about–like how Leia’s message delivered via hologram in the original Star Wars doesn’t reflect the message of someone Leia actually had met in her youth in a memorable and important way. So far this Kenobi looks very much like the Luke Skywalker of The Last Jedi–a great hero who makes a mistake and contrary to everything, inexplicably kicks the sand and walks away when he’s needed the most. But the young Leia story really is cute and entertaining–really the only reason to show up for the first two episodes–and will no doubt present Disney with the opportunity for some successful merchandising campaigns.
The second episode doesn’t feel much like original trilogy Star Wars, and looks more tech noir, like Blade Runner, but also like Attack of the Clones. Like The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett, this is another space Western, but only loosely–more The Searchers or Big Jake than The Magnificent Seven or 3:10 to Yuma. Can director Chow turn this into High Noon or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance by the end of episode six?
A lot can happen in the next 2.5 hours of television, no doubt leading up to a confrontation between Kenobi and Vader where Vader gets his high ground. So far it’s good enough science fiction, but Star Wars is best when it sticks to its origins as space fantasy with Kenobi as chief wizard–Star Wars’s Gandalf–and we haven’t seen that this time. The first two of six episodes of Obi-Wan Kenobi are now streaming exclusively on Disney+, with the remaining four episodes coming weekly in June.