There is a moment near the start of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace that lets you in on what type of film you’re about to watch. In it, Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn (an anaesthetised Liam Neeson) and his padawan Obi-Wan Kenobi (a spritely Ewan McGregor) are hiding from the Trade Federation, looking on as their droid army prepares to launch an invasion of the peaceful planet, Naboo. Obi-Wan turns to Qui-Gon with a twinkle in his eye and says: “You were right about one thing, master… the negotiations were short.”
As far as quips go, it's an absolute groaner: tonally incongruous with what’s meant to be a terrifying discovery, and delivered in a way that bounces off Neeson’s dead eyes with a muffled splat. It is a moment that’s as odd as a nest of Gundarks is tense, one of many in a trilogy that’s packed full of dialogue, delivery and decisions that leave you thinking why on Endor you’d choose to do this like that.
It is everything that Star Wars should be, but won't be again: weird.
Where George Lucas’s films feel like a only child entertainingly introducing you to their favourite action figures one by one before putting them in the microwave, the Disney films and series – including Solo, The Mandalorian, The Book of Boba Fett and Obi-Wan Kenobi on Disney+ – feel like a 36-year-old ad exec bragging about how they’ve diversified their portfolio by investing in Funko Pops.
Say what you want about the oft-maligned prequel trilogy, they are at least memorable. Lucas’s habit of spilling his unconscious neuroses into Star Wars’ every nook, cranny and gynocentric Sarlacc pit really bubbled over in the prequels, where he had had more time and control of this thing that had expanded beyond the bounds of franchise and out into the twinkling imaginations of two generations of fans and a forever altered cultural zeitgeist. Free of the cowardly bet-hedging of big studios, Lucas was able to make films that were resolutely his, and he has always been nothing if not a very weird little guy.
This is why the prequels, more so than the original trilogy, have an air of what I can only describe as “autistic camp” (note: I’m autistic, don’t freak out on me please) about them. These films are the product of one person honing in on their very special interests – street racing, dog fights, a hatred of American imperialism, digital filmmaking, Jar Jar Binks etc – and requiring their collaborators to meet them in their own personal Dagobah, as opposed to halfway. The result is a film language that is truly unique to this individual’s incredibly honed and earnest peculiarity.
It’s an approach carried by McGregor – who was only 27 when he was cast as the young Obi-Wan Kenobi – across the course of the films. In Phantom Menace, the actor is a tad stiff and seems petrified. By The Clone Wars, equipped with his iconic mullet and beard combo, he seems to have sensed a disturbance – a secret that Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and his role’s original actor, Alec Guinness, were aware of from the start: Star Wars is… kinda stupid. Spending the majority of the film talking to CGI wackadoos like Dexter Jettster and Yoda, you can literally see McGregor’s eyes struggling to find purchase in a sea of green screen.
By Revenge of the Sith, there is a great shift within McGregor and how he treats his role. He’s having fun. You can tell right from the moment he mutters “flying is for droids!” in the film’s frantic opening, right on through to his iconic “hello there!” when he confronts General Grievous. By the end of the trilogy, McGregor has realised that Star Wars is indeed kinda stupid – and pretty dang weird, to boot. But like Yarael Poof and Sifo Diaz, that’s what makes it so interesting.
Disney’s take on Star Wars doesn’t feature anything close to a performance like McGregor’s, even with the Scottish actor ostensibly reprising his role in Obi-Wan Kenobi. Hemmed in by focus group double-think, streaming service logic, and a (very valid) fear of a berserk fan base, actors perform as if they’re scared to step outside the bounds of their character’s Wookiepedia page. This is because, under Disney, Star Wars isn’t allowed to be stupid or weird. As such, it isn’t allowed to be Star Wars at all.
Like said Funko Pops, each branch of Disney’s Star Wars feels cast from the same mould, despite their varying licks of paint. The Mandalorian, The Book of Boba Fett, and now Obi-Wan all have the look and feel of a YouTube fan film made by wealthy kids in Pasadena in 2007. What interesting elements there were to Dave Filoni’s animated series The Clone Wars – originated pre-Disney in consultation with Lucas, and subsequently adopted as the basis of Disney’s iteration of the Star Wars universe – have been stretched to their limits by current showrunner Jon Favreau and co., who have lost something intangible in their attempt to “mature” the material without making a decent case as to why.
Disney has attempted to give Star Wars the same gruel-like consistency of the MCU, but their attempt to clone the MCU’s trajectory has succeeded only in so much as they have smoothed Star Wars down to resemble the MCU’s blank-faced death march, leaving it with as much personality as a powered down droideka.
In Obi-Wan, this amounts to McGregor’s long awaited return being stymied by the brand’s insistence on a universal tone, feel, and texture. The Star Wars shows all follow a strict (and literal) guidebook, and share the same cameras, editing, prop makers, writers, and directors. This gives them all the sameness of a tribe of Jawas, one that rubs up against a Star Wars fan’s lifetime of imagining the outer rim of this galaxy’s potentialities.
Nowhere do we see this more than in each show’s looming seriousness. Yes, I’m aware that Ben Kenobi now has as much, if not more, PTSD as Ben Quadinaros, but you can’t help but feel like Disney has force-choked McGregor with the same aura of sacrosanctity which rattled him in Phantom Menace.
So much of Disney’s Star Wars feels like it was made by an algorithm as dithering and fussy as C3PO. It’s frozen Star Wars in the carbonite that is “content”, and wheels it out like it’s just another bounty hoovered up in its ongoing quest to Mickey-fy the world. To paraphrase Kenobi himself: content is for droids. By trying to make Star Wars feel the same across the board, Disney fails to grasp what makes Star Wars so compelling for fans and creators alike, and the best way to engage with it, which is as a playground.
It’s not like we don’t know this. Pre-Disney, the best Star Wars stories were being told in novels, comics and video games. To me, the most exciting Star Wars adaptation remains Genndy Tartakovsky’s Clone Wars cartoon from 2003. Tartakovsky, perhaps best known for Samurai Jack, Dexter’s Laboratory and his current animated masterpiece Primal, shares with Lucas an obsessiveness that shoots beyond a text’s content and on into its form. Like Lucas, Tartakovsky is as much a technician as he is an artist, and his spin on the franchise was one grounded by his particular passions, hang-ups, motifs and inclination for experimentation. Under Disney, that inclination is as good as bantha fodder.
Perhaps the irony of Star Wars in part being responsible for the death of the auteur in the studio system is that the franchise cannot thrive without them. Disney seems at least vaguely aware of this. The nine anime films produced in 2021 as part of Star Wars: Visions felt like an acknowledgement of the universe’s infinite possibilities, but it was also marketed and positioned like a paddy frog snack to be washed down with their ubiquitous blue milk – just another side dish in Disney’s unending content buffet.
It doesn’t help that Star Wars stans have taken it upon themselves to operate like a kind of nerd culture gestapo, stamping on anyone or anything that tinkers with the thing that tethers them to their eternal childhoods. Obi-Wan seems like one more attempt to appease the unappeasable: another morsel hurled down into the Rancor pit to duke it out with these eternally cranky monsters who want nothing more than to devour and roar their disapproval.
Being someone who – sadly – still loves Star Wars for all it was and all it could be, I still watch this guff hoping against hope that it’ll get weird and get good again, but deep down meesa knows that isn’t going to happen. Whenever I engage with Disney’s Star Wars, I’m left feeling like Obi-Wan when he’s chained to the column in the coliseum on Geonosis and he turns to Anakin and says: “Well, I hope it doesn’t take too long. I have work to do.”
I don’t know what Disney can do to make Star Wars feel like Star Wars again. They could try spinning, I hear that’s a neat trick. Until then, it's poodoo all the way down, okeyday?