Disney+ is off to a shaky start

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Reaching for his weapon, an armored, helmeted, raspy-voiced bounty hunter tells a green-faced guy with gills, “I can bring you in warm. Or I can bring you in cold.” The bounty hunter is the title character of The Mandalorian, and although the series is set in the Star Wars universe (see: the fish-faced criminal) it is essentially an old-fashioned space Western, which owes as much to Clint Eastwood as to Han Solo.  

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The show is the headline series for Disney+, the brand-new streaming service which launched Tuesday in the US, Canada and New Zealand (and is scheduled to arrive in the UK next March). And if you’re wondering, quite rightly, what in the world a Mandalorian is, take a deep breath and be grateful – maybe – that Disney+ has a wealth of non-Star-Wars films and series too.  

The Mandalorian takes place five years after the evil Empire was defeated in Return of the Jedi, sending the galaxy into political chaos. The title character is from the planet Mandalore, but like Clint Eastwood’s character in all those spaghetti Westerns, he is a man with no name. So far, he also has no face because he has yet to remove his helmet, but we’re still in episode one. The first series will feature seven more instalments, which will drop weekly.

The character is played by Pedro Pascal, perhaps best known for his stint as Prince Oberyn Martell in Game of Thrones, but really anyone might be behind all that armour. The whispery voice and laconic delivery, though, clearly evoke Eastwood. Just as the original Star Wars trilogy was inspired by Westerns and samurai movies, The Mandalorian goes back to those sources, right down to music which echoes Western scores. The series also evokes the original trilogy with its many bars filled with weird creatures.

The story really begins after The Mandalorian delivers his first prey, driving him in a rickety old spaceship. He gets a new, off-the-books assignment from the head of the bounty hunters’ guild, Greef Carga (Carl Weathers). Yes, the series is loaded with names that make you roll your eyes. The new client, known as The Client (what, no ridiculous name?), is played by the great film director Werner Herzog. It’s a hoot to see him leaning into a chilly, German-accented character who wears the insignia of the Empire. The Mandalorian doesn’t care; he’s a mercenary.

As he goes after his next target, there is a brief, feeble attempt at humour as he learns to ride a Blurrg, one of the big ugly, sharp-toothed creatures that will be familiar to serious Stars Wars fans from the canon.

It’s hard to imagine that anyone without an emotional attachment to Star Wars will care

He then teams up with his bounty-hunting competitor, a droid voiced by Taika Waititi. On dusty streets with crumbling stone buildings, they engage in shootouts with blasters. The series was created, and the first episode written, by Iron Man director Jon Favreau, who knows how to make this kind of high-octane entertainment. So does the first episode’s director, Dave Filoni, who is behind some of other the Star Wars television series. Action sequences are choreographed well and the CGI is mostly smooth and efficient as the story zooms through the galaxy from one planet to another. But for all that, The Mandalorian doesn’t have the scope or the impressive visuals of the Star Wars movies.  

The first episode ends when The Mandalorian finds his target, who has a most familiar face. The story’s place in the Star Wars chronology lets us know that this person is not the one they resemble from earlier films but is definitely from the same species. It’s hard to imagine that anyone without an emotional attachment to Star Wars will care about this, or the series as a whole, though. It’s the familiarity of the world that is most likely to appeal. The series isn’t flashy or gripping enough on its own.

What about the rest?

As for the rest of the Disney+ launch roster? Its archive of Marvel and Stars Wars movies, and Disney classics ranging from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs through Mary Poppins to Frozen, is certainly a big draw. But the original shows available now are unfocused and bland. A live-action remake of Lady and the Tramp inexplicably keeps the story in the early 20th Century. Tessa Thompson is the voice of Lady and Justin Theroux is Tramp. He has lines like, “Don’t worry, I got this,” but the small-town, old-timey setting is not likely to charm small children.

The holiday film Noelle works better, treacly though it is. Anna Kendrick plays Santa’s daughter, while her older brother, Nick (Bill Hader) is meant to take over the Kringle family business but would rather teach yoga. It’s easy to see who the true Santa is, and harder to know whom this slight but likable film is meant for. Tweens? Their grandparents may be impressed that Shirley MacLaine plays an Elf, and their parents may laugh at Billy Eichner as cousin Gabe, the high-tech Kringle who wants to deliver presents by drone.

The one series clearly meant for the very young is Forky Asks a Question, a series of three-minute films featuring the popular spork from Toy Story 4, who wonders things like, “What is a friend?” The series is not very clever, but it has Forky, which may be enough. The Disney library alone will likely keep parents paying for the service for years. One of Forky’s questions is, “What is money?” and if anyone knows, it’s Disney.

★★★☆☆

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