Baby Yoda Is 2019’s Biggest Breakout Star

The Mandalorian, Baby Yoda
Baby Yoda, The Mandalorian (Disney+)

Every streaming platform tries to achieve viral success with its original programming. But Disney+ apparently followed Yoda’s edict: ”Do. Or do not. There is no try.” Its flagship show, The Mandalorian, quickly became the most in-demand streaming series among American viewers, thanks in no small part to a certain 50-year-old “child” known as Baby Yoda, who has become a bona fide cultural phenomenon in the past month.

For those who haven’t seen The Mandalorian, Baby Yoda isn’t the Yoda fans know and love from the original Star Wars trilogy: The show is set after the events of The Return of the Jedi. But “The Child,” as he’s officially known, is of the same species as the famed Jedi master. He makes his debut in the first episode of the series when he turns out to be—spoiler alert—the bounty target the titular Mandalorian (Pedro Pascal) is hired to track down.

Mandalorian creator Jon Favreau tells The Hollywood Reporter that he wanted to expand upon the beloved character from George Lucas’ films. “I think what’s great about what George created is that Yoda proper, the character that we grew up watching, was always shrouded in mystery, and that was what made him so archetypal and so mythic,” he says. “We know who he is based on his behavior and what he stands for, but we don’t know a lot of details about where he comes from or his species. I think that’s why people are so curious about this little one of the same species.”

And much of Baby Yoda’s charm, as Favreau explains, is that he’s portrayed by an animatronic puppet with CGI embellishments—in an industry where all-CGI aliens are the norm. And we have Werner Herzog to thank for that, it seems.

The famed German director—another spoiler alert!—plays the Client who hired the Mandalorian to retrieve Baby Yoda. And on the Los Angeles-area set of the series, Herzog objected when the filmmakers tried to remove the puppet to shoot a “clean plate” in case they wanted to opt to use a CGI version of the character.

“[Herzog] says, ’You are cowards. Leave it. Leave it,’” executive producer Dave Filoni told the crowd the show’s Hollywood premiere, per THR. “He was so committed.”

Deborah Chow, who helmed the third episode, tells Vanity Fair that Herzog’s affection for the puppet made for “one of the weirdest moments” of her directing career: “I was directing Werner with the puppet, and Werner had just fallen in love with the baby. Werner, I think, had forgotten it wasn’t actually a live creature, and started sort of…directing the baby. … Werner is talking to the baby as if it was a real thing. And I’m trying to direct Werner. And I’m just like, How did I get here? How did my life end up like this?”

But Chow can empathize: She found herself directing the puppet, too. “It was pretty magical,” she says. “I worked with the puppeteers and the visual effects [artists], and just worked with it like it was an actor. They’re the ones who gave it humanity, who gave it life. … I would just say, ‘Okay, here’s the scene: The door opens and there’s a scary thing, so he’s going to shrink back. He feels scared right now. He’s going to look to Mando for comfort.’ So we would do it that way.”

The puppet—and his surprise reveal in the the first episode—paid off big time. The Guardian calls Baby Yoda “2019’s biggest new character.” Vanity Fair observes Baby Yoda has “conquered the world.” The New York Times declares, “Baby Yoda Is Your God Now.” And Disney CEO Bob Iger cradles the character in artwork for his “Businessperson of the Year” profile in TIME.

“As soon as those ears popped up from under the blanket, and the eyes, I knew,” Iger tells the magazine, likening his introduction to Baby Yoda to his meeting a 16-year-old Leonardo DiCaprio on the set of Growing Pains.

NYT television critic James Poniewozik is equally enamored. “Just look at that punim!” he writes. “If you’re an adult, you want to nurture him; if you’re a child, you want to play with him. He is vulnerable—we are biologically wired to protect that tiny form and those big eyes—but also, from all we know of the Force and his look-alike who wielded it, almost unimaginably powerful.”

Boldly, Iger and Favreau kept Baby Yoda out of all pre-release marketing, even if it meant Baby Yoda merchandise wouldn’t hit shelves in time for the holiday season.

“That was just genius to have people be surprised over something they were already excited about, and now everybody is absolutely in love with this little baby,” Mandalorianstar Gina Carano told THR. “When you’re acting with it, you’re just like, ‘Oh, my gosh, it’s insanely cute.’ These puppeteers gave it its own personality; it’s a little actor. Jon once belly-laughed and was like, ‘No matter what, this little guy is going to steal the scene in every scene that he’s in. Just know that you’re all going to be number two to this.’ [Laughs.] That’s our little star of the show—100 percent. There’s no stealing a scene from Baby Yoda.”

Once Baby Yoda made his debut in the show’s November 12 launch, the cuddly, soup-sipping, nap-happy alien quickly saturated our cultural consciousness—inspiring bits on South Park and Saturday Night Live, Easter eggs at Disneyland’s Galaxy Edge, Etsy pages full of unofficial merchandise, and countless memes. He even ranks as the most-Googled baby of 2019.

And yes, official merchandise is coming: A $24.99 Mattel plush doll and a $29.99 10-inch Funko POP! figurine are both available for preorder, due for release in April and May, respectively.

It’s evident Baby Yoda will live forever in the zeitgeist of 2019—and probably the the 2010s as a whole. But it’s up to fans to protect his legacy, as C-3PO actor Anthony Daniels tells HuffPost. “Baby Yoda is cute, gorgeous, but I would warn the public that Baby Yoda is not just for Christmas,” Daniels says. “It’s a responsibility.”

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