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Baby Yoda: the Mandalorian’s adorable alien co-star, explained

We would die for this adorable lil’ guy.

Baby Yoda! Lucasfilm/Walt Disney Pictures via Disney+

Baby Yoda is perfection, and I won’t hear otherwise. Not that I’m worried anyone will disagree, because this is one take the world seems to stand behind.

The TV show that birthed him, the Disney+ Star Wars series The Mandalorian, got off to a slow start, in part because it’s full of big-name character actors playing unfamiliar intergalactic heroes and villains. But the final moment of its otherwise unexciting premiere gave many Star Wars fans a sign that The Mandalorian would be more than an expensive exercise in bringing the franchise to streaming TV.

When the Mandalorian saved an infant in a floating bassinet from certain death at the end of the episode, the infant was revealed to be a lot more recognizable — and adorable — than the rest of the show’s new heroes and villains. Because that infant looked a heckuva lot like Yoda, in especially cute baby form.

As far as we know, this character is not the 900-year-old green wiseman that Star Wars fans have long revered; Yoda himself died at the end of Return of the Jedi, which is set five years before the start of The Mandalorian. But the youngster appears to be from the same species as Yoda. And as we learned in episode two, there’s much more to him than his resemblance to one of Star Wars’s most beloved characters: Referred to on the show as “the Child,” he is 50 years old, so still a baby in Yoda years. But he’s shockingly powerful for someone who appears to be just an infant, able to use the Force to take down giant beasts.

Baby Yoda in Episode 2.
We all want to protect Baby Yoda. He’s baby!
Lucasfilm / Walt Disney Pictures via Disney+

This makes him a great companion for the Mandalorian, who’s committed to protecting Baby Yoda from the dangers of the galaxy after members of what remains of the evil Empire offered him a hefty bounty for bringing the Child to them. The Mandalorian quickly fell in love with the sweet, cooing infant, and refused to let him become little more than a trophy for unfeeling villains.

So did viewers. Predictably, the fact that this big-eyed, big-headed, pure-hearted alien isn’t actually Yoda hasn’t stopped people from dubbing him Baby Yoda. And Baby Yoda has since become an online phenomenon.

Memes, odes to his cuteness, and fanart have spread widely across Twitter and other corners of the internet since The Mandalorian’s November 12 debut, especially after he was granted more screen time in episodes two, three, and four. The character seems to have broadened interest in the show immensely. He clearly appeals not just to Star Wars fans, but a bigger demographic: lovers of all things tiny, baby, wholesome, and adorable.

To many, Baby Yoda is a bright spot in a slow-going series

If The Mandalorian hadn’t leaned into Baby Yoda as hard as it has — by giving him plenty of screen time in the episodes following the premiere — there’s a chance no one would even be talking about him right now.

Disney hyped up the series ahead of its debut as a live-action Star Wars TV show of grand scale, a first for the franchise. Previous efforts to translate Star Wars for live-action television have notoriously fizzled out, like the aborted Star Wars: Underworld project of the mid-aughts. But The Mandalorian had much more promise from the start.

Disney assembled a team that gave the show immediate credibility: Jon Favreau (Iron Man) as showrunner, a cast that includes Carl Weathers and Werner Herzog, and episode directors like Rick Famuyiwa (Dope) and Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok; Jojo Rabbit) among them. Early promotional photos teased a project reminiscent of the Star Wars movies themselves: There were sandy dunes, a variety of aliens, and plenty of droids. And the mysterious main character (played by Pedro Pascal) was shown to be a bounty hunter in the vein of fan-favorite villains Boba and Jango Fett. What wasn’t to love?

A poster of The Mandalorian.
Early promotional photos released for The Mandalorian focused on making the title character look badass af.
Lucasfilm / Walt Disney Pictures

But critics raised plenty of complaints when The Mandalorian debuted as the crown jewel of Disney+’s original programming lineup. Vox critic at large Emily VanDerWerff called the first episode “fundamentally empty entertainment and not a great harbinger for many Disney+ original programs to come.” Slate described it as “truncated and half-sketched.” Entertainment Weekly wrote that “this was a very strange debut, merging grim toughness with mawkish softening twists.”

The negative response hinged on the concern that The Mandalorian would inch toward its meaningful reveals, a questionable approach to a story whose hero’s primary trait is how little is known about him. (It didn’t help that Disney+ chose not to screen the series for critics ahead of its debut, which didn’t give them anything to go on beyond the first episode.)

Baby Yoda, at least, was a point of interest. Some spoiler-y reviews of his surprise introduction made mention of the baby’s appearance more dismissively, writing off the character as an obvious marketing ploy or cheap and unoriginal twist. Alan Sepinwall of Rolling Stone wrote that “Even the twist at the very end — that the Mandalorian’s latest target is a baby from the same species as Yoda — echoes the plot of the Clone Wars film.” VanDerWerff suggested at Vox that “You’re probably just seeing the big-eyed, big-eared baby alien as yet another merchandising opportunity.”

He’s baby! Baby Yoda in Episode 2.
He is beauty. He is grace. He’s ... a toy for anxious parents to chase?
Lucasfilm / Walt Disney Pictures via Disney+

Indeed, right before the release of episode three, reports emerged that Baby Yoda merchandise would be hitting shelves soon, apparently after a purposeful delay intended to help “preserve the surprise of the character’s reveal.” As it turns out, “soon” may not arrive until May 2020, according to product pages for dolls and other merch inspired by the character — but they are at least in the works.

And when they do hit shelves, those toys will land in a world where Baby Yoda is already a more fleshed-out character than some critics expected.

Ever since the twist of the character’s introduction, The Mandalorian has worked to ensure that Baby Yoda is more than a merch tie-in. In episode two, fittingly called “The Child,” the show made it clear that this baby is a meaningful part of its story.

The Mandalorian is ostensibly focused on its title character, but in “The Child,” every move the title character made was followed by the camera holding on Baby Yoda’s reaction, with clear affection for his emotive blue eyes and goofy oversized coat. When the Mandalorian boarded his ship, Baby Yoda waddled along behind him. (The character was brought to life through a combination of animatronic puppeteering and computer-generated graphics, lending a nice sense of practicality to his movements.) When the Mandalorian got roughed up in a fight while trying to protect his ship, Baby Yoda outstretched his little arm to reach for his new friend. When the Mandalorian was busy fighting some bad guys, the show paused to let us know what Baby Yoda was up to, and it turned out he was eating a frog that made him sick. (He’s even cute when he’s sick!)

All of these scenes added lighthearted moments to a series that had initially come off as meditative, if not quite dour. The addition of a pure-hearted baby alleviated the solitude and tension that inevitably accompanies a story of a silent bounty hunter.

It also made The Mandalorian instantly more memorable and evocative. So few events occurred in episode one that it quickly escaped recall, but “The Child” began to properly introduce this likable mystery character with an apparent tie to one of Star Warss most beloved figures. Episode three, “The Sin,” further balanced Baby Yoda’s extreme cuteness with intrigue well enough to prove that his appeal is no fluke — by putting him in real danger and introducing life-or-death stakes that forced the stoic Mandalorian into full-on Good Dad mode to make sure the kid stayed alive.

And then came episode four, “The Sanctuary,” which focused on the father-son dynamic between the Mandalorian and Baby Yoda. Having this paternal role to play has made the bounty hunter a much softer, even occasionally lighthearted character. Consider the moment when he orders Baby Yoda a cup of soup and instructs the child to stay put while he steps away to track down an adversary ... only for Baby Yoda to appear in the middle of the fight, sipping his beloved hot meal.

Baby Yoda’s wide eyes and cute quirks have won over not just viewers, but The Mandalorian’s cast and crew. Bryce Dallas Howard, who directed episode four, called the character “the light of all of our lives,” adding that “it’s so exhilarating to be able to share my love and obsession with him with others.” And Werner Herzog, who plays a man known as the Client, has admitted that Baby Yoda made him “cry,” which encapsulates his power better than anything.

Entertainment outlets are eager to celebrate the Baby Yoda goodness. Vox is not immune to that impulse, clearly! Because at least one staffer (me) would die to protect Baby Yoda, in an instant. He’s a new friend who is feeling out a world that evil bounty hunters didn’t want him to survive in. How could anyone not love a creature this cute?

The desire to protect Baby Yoda at all costs has been the dominant response from Mandalorian viewers and non-viewers alike, as fans have waxed poetic about the character’s button nose and shining eyes online.

Actress Elisabeth Moss of The Handmaid’s Tale and Mad Men fame said that Baby Yoda has “united the country, while Vulture’s Jen Chaney wrote after episode two that “the bottom line is that Baby Yoda is the best part of The Mandalorian so far, and right now, the main thing persuading me to watch more episodes.”

At Wired, Emmy Grey Ellis acknowledged that a contingent of haters are protesting against Baby Yoda as nothing more than marketing — and then argued that “Baby Yoda is, in fact, so lovable that its lovability is evidence of storytellers and character designers at the peak of their powers.”

Ellis continued: “Typically, building a character out of elements people are sure to adore is a ticket to Try-Hardsville. ... Baby Yoda is different. The character is simply a mashup of the most beloved being in the Star Wars universe, Disney’s cuteness formula, and a superbaby.”

Baby Yoda has definitely cemented The Mandalorian as one of the cutest shows on streaming, against all odds. But his cuteness is only one reason why Baby Yoda fever has exploded. Another reason is that Disney made a very smart move in choosing to unveil the character the way it did, and meting out his development by releasing The Mandalorian one episode at a time.

Baby Yoda’s secret weapon: The Mandalorian’s release schedule

Disney+ launched on a Tuesday, along with the first episodes of its initial wave of exclusive original programming. The most advertised of the lot was The Mandalorian, what with the weight of Star Wars and a $100 million budget behind it.

Disney had announced in late August that it would release new episodes of its original Disney+ series weekly, rather than drop the season all at once.

But the company did launch The Mandalorian (and other Disney+ originals) on a slightly compressed schedule, with the second episode premiering just three days after the first. Subsequent new episodes have premiered on Fridays, a schedule that will continue through the rest of season one. This ended up being a smart play by Disney, especially in the wake of critics’ reactions to The Mandalorian’s first episode.

By launching the show’s first two installments so close together, Disney encouraged viewers to at least give The Mandalorian’s first two episodes a shot. It’s hard to say whether skeptics who raised an eyebrow at Baby Yoda’s surprise appearance would have returned for episode two if they’d been asked to wait a full week (or longer) to see it. The episode’s arrival in quick succession helped make a case that The Mandalorian has more charm than the first episode implied — namely because of Baby Yoda, but also because of a more exciting story and brighter set design in general.

The show’s more traditional release schedule has continued to fuel the excitement around Baby Yoda. While streaming services Netflix and Amazon Prime Video typically release their original series one full season at a time, encouraging viewers to consume all of the episodes as quickly as possible. Disney+’s decision to release episodes weekly allows each one more time and space to drive individual conversation. And Baby Yoda has certainly given viewers plenty of moments to be charmed by, whether it’s the frog he’s eating in episode two or the soup he’s sipping in episode four.

As Vox sister site The Verge has noted, “Tying new content to beloved franchises, then doling it out a bit at a time is a way for Disney, in particular, to keep subscribers hooked.” Making sure viewers have continued to learn more about Baby Yoda in episodes two, three, and four has helped to assuage any early fears that The Mandalorian would be all style with little substance, or that Baby Yoda himself would be a cash grab trotted out by the show to sell merchandise. Now, many viewers are in love with the lil’ cutie. And for Star Wars fans who want to know every inch of the franchise’s expansive canon, the mystery of what Baby Yoda will teach us about the Yoda species is alluring.

With each passing episode, those fans will have to subsist on the latest Baby Yoda developments until the next episode arrives. And they’ll have to stay on Disney+ to do so, to make sure that Baby Yoda is A-OK.

Because if something ever happens to him, Disney, y’all will have thousands of Baby Yoda Stans knocking on your door with pitchforks.

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