The new season of "The Mandalorian" dropped its third episode last Friday. Having just watched it, I thought now might be a good time to talk about the current state of Disney's Star Wars franchise and how it might affect the theme parks.
Star Wars has been around for more than 40 years now, so it's no surprise that many fans' relationship with the franchise has changed over that time. I fell in love with "Star Wars" shortly after the first movie his theaters in May 1977. Many critics revere the 1970s as a golden era of American cinema, but "Star Wars" was the first big movie of the decade filmed for kids as much as adults. George Lucas might have been a protege of Francis Ford Coppola, but Lucas' films have always felt more inspired by old-time, youth-focused, action-adventure serials than adult-oriented works such as Coppola's "The Godfather," which loomed over all 1970s films until "Star Wars" prompted Hollywood to reinvent itself.
Why did that happen? Because kids such as me eagerly spent every dollar we had on "Star Wars" movie tickets, action figures, comic books, and everything else with the "Star Wars" brand. And Hollywood knows how to chase a buck. Steven Spielberg's "Jaws" might have been the first major modern blockbuster, but "Star Wars" showed Hollywood the economic power of the youth market, while also establishing the multi-media franchise model that drives this industry today.
But after "Return of the Jedi" opened in 1983 and no other Star Wars movies or TV shows followed, I — like many fans – moved on to other interests. I grew up and put my "Star Wars" action figures and comic books into storage, where they remain. (Make me an offer. ...Okay, I'm kidding. But maybe not. Depends upon the offer.)
Yet 16 years later, just when I thought I was out, Star Wars pulled me back in. The idea of George Lucas finally turning out the elusive episodes 1-3 charmed me with the prospect of my kids falling in love with Star Wars movies as I did when I was a child. But after watching "The Phantom Menace" on its opening night, I suspected that would not happen.
Yes, my kids fell in love with a multi-media entertainment franchise all right, but it was Harry Potter, not Star Wars. Episodes 2 and 3 left me more disillusioned with Star Wars franchise. Ewan McGregor did a great job with Obi-Wan, and "Duel of the Fates" is a kick-ass track, but that was not enough for me to climb back aboard the Star Wars train like I did as a kid. I never bothered with the TV shows or any of the Extended Universe, beyond taking my son to see "The Clone Wars" animated movie in the theater.
Yet when Disney bought Lucasfilm and announced that it would produce episode 7-9, I was back in, again. Surely Disney would not make the same directorial mistakes that Lucas did with the prequels. The company that was knocking it out of the park with the Marvel Cinematic Universe would be able to rekindle the Star Wars magic of my youth, right?
Episode 7 was a obvious reboot of the original "Star Wars," and Episode 8 seemed to be the same of "Empire Strike Back" and "Return of the Jedi" until director Rian Johnson blew everything up, leaving fans with an intriguing statement about the persistence of Force awareness throughout the galaxy. But then Disney ignored that in Episode 9 and delivered what I thought was a downright cringeworthy piece of filmmaking — one that I kinda enjoyed while I was watching it, but that fell apart like high school toilet paper the more I thought about it.
The only things I truly have enjoyed from the sequel trilogy era have been "Rogue One" and Walt Disney Imagineering's recent theme park attractions. Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance remains one of my favorite attraction experiences anywhere, and I thought the twist in the most recent Star Tours production was the only redeemable thing about "Rise of Skywalker."
And then Disney+ brought us "The Mandalorian."
Watching Friday's episode — mild spoiler alert — I realized when the "frog couple" reunited that I was more sold on their romantic chemistry than I ever was watching Anakin and Padme in the prequel trilogy. You can't tell me two performers in rubber heads are better actors than Hayden Christensen and the Academy Award-winning Natalie Portman, so let's give credit to director Bryce Dallas Howard here. (Yes, the lead from the Jurassic World movies — whose work on "The Mandalorian" is convincing me that maybe she ought to start directing the Jurassic World flicks, too. I doubt she would direct her character to run in heels from a dinosaur.)
I am enjoying "The Mandalorian" more than anything in the Star Wars universe — outside the theme parks — since the original trilogy. Framed like a classic television western — such as "Have Gun, Will Travel" and "Wagon Train" — the series has a long-term story arc involving the title character's quest to reunite "The Child" (aka "Baby Yoda") with its people, while each episode typically involves a stand-alone plot where The Mandalorian must right some wrong on whatever planet he is visiting in that episode. The show is so good that it's enticing me to check out "The Clone Wars" and "Rebels" TV series to learn more about the Darksaber and characters such as Bo-Katan and Ahsoka Tano, which are being woven into the show.
Under the guidance of the MCU's Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni, who helped oversee those TV series, "The Mandalorian" is making me wish that Disney would do to episodes 7-9 what it did to "Song of the South." Just forget that it happened, then let Favreau and Filoni have a go at drafting a new sequel trilogy, with Favreau or Filoni or Howard or Taika Waititi (who directed the final episode of "The Mandalorian"'s first season) directing the films.
WDI's Scott Trowbridge, who oversaw the creation of Star Wars Galaxy's Edge, has said on multiple occasions that Disney is not done with its Star Wars land. But the pandemic and the resulting financial pressure on Disney — as well as the rest of the tourism industry — pretty much ensures that any major new developments won't happen for some time.
But perhaps that setback can become an opportunity, for Disney and for Star Wars. Give the people who know what they are doing with Star Wars the opportunity to win back more fans like me, with shows such as "The Mandlorian" and the upcoming Obi-Wan Kenobi series, starring McGregor. Put those creative leaders in a room with WDI and let them imagine next steps for Galaxy's Edge that celebrate the best of the franchise and invite fans to 'live their Star Wars story' in ways that WDI leaders have promised but the land — in its current state — does not fully deliver.
I would love to hear from you in the comments, but right now, I am as excited by the potential in the Star Wars universe as I ever have been. The state of Star Wars feels strong to me. As the theme park industry emerges from this pandemic into a new renaissance (I hope!), I would love to see Star Wars play a leading role in that revival.
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