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 back on this era of pop culture from a distance, we may come to realize that Baby Yoda — Grogu to his friends and padawan learners — may be the single most important character of the last 20 years. He’s certainly one of the most financially lucrative; my midi-chlorian count isn’t high enough to calculate how much money Disney has made just from Baby Yoda toys and dolls. But beyond his retail ubiquity, Baby Yoda seems to have had an even larger impact on the way Star Wars — and really all of Disney — tells their stories.
For proof, just look at the debut episode of the latest Star Wars series, Obi-Wan Kenobi. As advertised, the show features the return of Ewan McGregor as the famed Jedi Knight who fought alongside the young Anakin Skywalker — and then against Darth Vader — in the so-called Clone Wars. But the ads for Obi-Wan Kenobi suggested the show was about the former Jedi undertaking some mission to protect the young Luke Skywalker, who lives in hiding with his aunt and uncle on Tatooine.
In a major twist, Luke only appears briefly in a single shot of Obi-Wan Kenobi’s first two episodes. Instead, the entire 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. Her father Bail Organa (Jimmy Smits, another surprise returning 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 removed from the point in the story where Carrie Fisher first played her in 1977’s Star Wars; the 10-year-old Leia is portrayed by child actor Vivien Lyra Blair. And you could cynically suggest that this is a “Baby Leia” to serve the role of “Baby Yoda” in Obi-Wan Kenobi’s story: The precocious, adorable, wise-beyond-her-years child who warms the heart of a cynical warrior and teaches him some valuable lessons about life. At least through Obi-Wan’s first two episodes, those 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 the way these characters were revealed. Instead of using their presence to hype the show, Lucasfilm hid them until the series actually premiered on Disney+. The involvement of a Baby Yoda or a young Princess Leia would definitely be a selling point to a big segment of the Star Wars audience. But rather than promote the show that way, they allowed these characters’ roles to be total surprises.
This goes well beyond hiding a brief surprise cameo or a post-credits scene. In the case of The Mandalorian with Baby Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi with Leia, these are central characters; arguably the second-most important people (or Yodas) in both series. Grogu and Leia each give their respective show’s heroes their mission and their purpose. Not even alluding to 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 Kenobi, were largely conducted with journalists who hadn’t even seen the show yet.
It remains to be seen how fans will take to the young version of Leia. With The Mandalorian and Baby Yoda, the tactic was a huge success. Audiences immediately responded to the adorable creature. They were sucked into the surprise of his sudden debut, and then engrossed in the mystery of his origin and purpose. By the end of the show’s first season, he was arguably The Mandalorian’s true star. At that point, the character didn’t even have a real name yet.
After Baby Yoda appeared, fans clamored for merchandise with the character — but keeping his role secret meant none could be manufactured in time for The Mandalorian’s premiere. Now, of course, you can own almost any Baby Yoda product your heart could desire and your brain could dream up. You want a life-sized Grogu to sit on your shoulder? No problem! Baby Yoda shampoo? The Force is strong with its dermatologist-tested, tear-free formula. Or how about a Baby Yoda weed pipe? You got it! (Sample review from satisfied stoner: “It’s so cute I feel bad smoking out of it lol.”)
But when demand was at its most fever-pitched in the fall of 2019, there wasn’t a Baby Yoda plush or pot bowl to be had. And fans have become so savvy to the nature of corporate studio filmmaking, that many know that Disney legitimately left millions of dollars on the table by waiting to exploit its new green superstar. I wonder if those that recognize that see that decision as a risky storytelling choice, because it suggests that this character exists for the sake of the show and its impact, rather than for the sake of Disney’s licensing department and their profits.
Since Baby Yoda’s debut we’ve seen a similar approach to highly secretive storytelling in the second season of The Mandalorian — which concluded with a surprise appearance by a young Luke Skywalker — and The Book of Boba Fett — which featured large but unannounced roles for the Mandalorian and Grogu. Meanwhile, Marvel movies have begun operating similarly in films like Spider-Man: No Way Home, where the presence of two of the most beloved comic-book characters of all time wasn’t revealed until viewers were in the theater on opening night, and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, where the film’s villain was never mentioned a single time in any of the trailers or commercials. Marvel shows do it too; all of Loki built to an unbilled appearance from Jonathan Majors as Kang, the latest super-villain in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, while Hawkeye’s bad guy was Vincent D’Onofrio’s Kingpin from the canceled Daredevil series, another big surprise.
Shows like The Mandalorian and movies like Spider-Man: No Way Home are quickly conditioning fans that they need to see things as soon as possible, because there may be secrets and surprises that will get ruined if they wait too long to buy their ticket or sign up for Disney+. In a sense, Disney has learned to leverage their customers’ fear of spoilers into making them an even more loyal audience than ever before. See it now, or risk never seeing it the “right” way.
And it’s working; at present, Spider-Man and Doctor Strange are the biggest movies of 2021 and 2022, respectively. Now Obi-Wan Kenobi is here, and it’s sure to be the talk of Star Wars fandom this weekend and beyond. Powerful, that Baby Yoda was.
New episodes of Obi-Wan Kenobi premiere weekly on Disney+; sign up for Disney+ here.