HomeTechReview: Obi-Wan Kenobi debuts with prequel redemption in its scope

Review: Obi-Wan Kenobi debuts with prequel redemption in its scope

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Ewan McGregor shines in <em>Obi-Wan Kenobi</em>.
Enlarge / Ewan McGregor shines in Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Lucasfilm

While the Disney+-ification of Star Wars has mostly been good for fans, last year’s The Book of Boba Fett saw the franchise move into a coasting period. It landed somewhere between The Mandalorian and Clone Wars without either the compelling, Western-homage atmosphere of the former or the fist-pumping fan service of the latter.

The best thing I can say about Obi-Wan Kenobi, whose first two episodes debuted last night on Disney+ (out of a six-episode series), is that it feels like its own distinct Star Wars show, perhaps somewhere closer to a 1970s detective procedural. You know the kind: The haggard cop is tired of this crap, hangs up the badge, says he’s moved on, yet is still stuck on a lingering failure that keeps him one hair-trigger pull away from getting back into the fight.

That formula needs the right lead actor and world-building team to get fans to watch another attempt at the formula—which, let’s be clear, isn’t that many steps away from how The Mandalorian ropes its lead into a life-changing adventure. Thankfully,  Ewan McGregor remains on board as the titular character in Obi-Wan Kenobi—and sees him steer his Obi-Wan performance closer to the charm and gravitas of the character’s original actor, Sir Alec Guinness.

Inconsistent tone—yet it’s consistently entertaining

Obi-Wan, seen here waking up terrified about his Midi-chlorian count. (Kidding. He's reliving past Anakin-related trauma.)
Enlarge / Obi-Wan, seen here waking up terrified about his Midi-chlorian count. (Kidding. He’s reliving past Anakin-related trauma.)

Lucasfilm

I point to a “’70s procedural” vibe for an important reason, and it’s less of a criticism and more of a clarification. Obi-Wan Kenobi, only two episodes in, is in no way beholden to a single tone, and it can apparently flip on an episode-by-episode basis. Really, the series’ promotional flurry, full of intrigue-filled trailers and interviews with the likes of McGregor and Hayden Christiansen, has pulled off an incredible misdirect, as if Lucasfilm spent the last month telling fans, “This isn’t the plot you’re looking for.”

The spoiler-free way of telling it is that the first two episodes generally follow three plots: Obi-Wan’s personal journey, which has grown all the more somber 10 years after the events of Revenge of the Sith; a diametrically opposed hunt conducted by Inquisitors, eager to fulfill their Order 66 orders and kill all remaining traces of Jedi; and a previously unspoiled character introduction, which drags the other plotlines’ orbits together like a megaton magnet. In each case, the camera generally follows one major character, with a few peeks into other characters’ lives to help build the storytelling.

Things start slowly on the suns-scorched surface of Tatooine, where Obi-Wan has taken up residence since the events of Episode III, and most of the TV series’ trailers thus far have focused on this unsurprising event. Obi-Wan has built a life of solitude and routine, and the first overlong episode arguably spends a lot of time lingering on this—though such a focus is helped by an impeccably edited summary of the prequel trilogy’s events, meant to sear the seeming death of Anakin Skywalker into Obi-Wan’s brain. The series does a solid job clarifying that its audience must work through that trauma as much as Obi-Wan does, and this sells the moments when he’s forced to talk to anyone else on Tatooine and basically admit he’s not the Jedi he once was.

In other words: If you struggled with how a certain Jedi changed over the decades in a certain modern feature-length sequel, this slow-burn return to a lapsed Jedi’s struggles was probably made for you.

Yes, this review is vague—because it’s spoiler-free

Obi-Wan gestures toward a new friend.
Enlarge / Obi-Wan gestures toward a new friend.

Lucasfilm

Yet the third aforementioned plot, the one I’m leaving unspoiled, is a firm reminder that Lucasfilm wants to deliver for fans of the prequels, and it does so more on a tonal basis than in the form of cameos or other blink-and-you’ll-miss-it fan service. (Though there’s still plenty of that, which I generally blame on Dave “I co-created Clone Wars” Filoni making sure the world built in his CGI animated series gets lip service whenever it’s appropriate and tasteful.) Obi-Wan is eventually forced to confront his demons about working as a protector and guardian, something he’s clearly still screwed up about, and he needs a great co-lead to make this process both believable and fun to watch.

We absolutely get that as far as the casting and writing are concerned. Obi-Wan Kenobi‘s “new” character is sweet, touching, and believable in all the ways they need to be, and McGregor packs discomfort and trauma into negotiations with this co-lead while also jumping across rooftops and contending with comically one-dimensional foes.

The best thing about these first two episodes is how it makes space for very different characters to interact with each other in a slow-burn fashion—and how it gives audience members young and old alike the screen time and capacity needed to empathize with each. This is where I always felt like George Lucas failed with the prequels, as he was more keen on telling a jam-packed, lore-building story than buffering it with the relatable conflict, laughs, and cheese that bond us to the stars of an intergalactic journey.

Director Deborah Chow immediately delivers a better vision of balancing character development, drama, antics, and laughs inside a very prequel-adjacent universe, even if she’s clearly working within the constraints of a limited budget. Thus far, Obi-Wan Kenobi suffers a decent amount from constrained soundstages and reliance on green screen trickery to make environments look bigger and more alive than they really are. But, again, ’70s procedural stuff here. Slow burns over cinematic bombast. I’m okay with the trade—especially since Chow cleverly works around it by letting guest stars spread their wacky wings (which, again, I will not spoil here). McGregor is an incredible straight man in these scenes, and he delivers some of the series’ best laughs without cracking a single joke.

But this series is clearly steering away from laughs in one crucial aspect, as teased by the last seconds of the second episode. I’m looking forward to how that crucial moment of darkness will emerge and play off the prequel-like whimsy established thus far, and I’m optimistic based on how the two premiere episodes have already juggled darkness and light.

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