By making a few noticeable tweaks on Star Wars’ most mysterious species, Disney and Lucasfilm created a new pop culture phenomenon.
One can only imagine the anxiety during pre-production of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. A New Hope, while a critical and financial success that breathed new life into 20th Century Fox and gave Lucas the go-ahead for the planned sequels, also presented a creative challenge not yet faced in film. After the death of Obi-Wan Kenobi by the lightsaber of Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker needed a new mentor that would play a major role in Episode V. Not wanting the new Master to be compared to Sir Alec Guinness’s Obi-Wan, Lucas wanted a completely different look, one you would “find in fairy tales and mythology” he stated in Laurent Bouzereau’s book, Star Wars: The Annotated Screenplays.
While Lucasfilm was no stranger to developing interesting and eye-catching creatures, this character would have to emote more than any existing creation the studio had put on screen. After discussions on how this creature (Yoda will take it from here) could be brought to life and several rounds of concept art on what he could look like, Lucasfilm tapped the late Stuart Freeborn, the make-up effects artist extraordinaire behind 2001: A Space Odyssey and Dr. Strangelove. Working with a small production window and immense pressure, Freeborn and his team (including son Graham and make-up artist Nick Maley with Jim Henson’s Creature Shop staple Wendy Froud) were able to build three versions of Yoda to cover every type of shot needed. Famously, the mold and making Yoda’s face a combination of Freeborn’s own and Albert Einstein’s eyes and wrinkles.
In the end, Yoda’s concept came a long way and was able to be executed well enough for the little green guy to become one of the most loved characters in the Star Wars franchise more than four decades later. A character who was one of the most powerful force users but whose species was also shrouded in mystery.
It is an interesting coincidence that the two stars of Disney+ first original series, The Mandalorian, are a Mandalorian in full armor and another little green guy. The Mandalorian and
The Child Baby Yoda are like distant cousins of Boba Fett (another iconic character who made their theatrical debut in The Empire Strikes Back) and Yoda. Boba Fett is a merchandising juggernaut for a character that has a total of 2 minutes 45 seconds of screen time in Empire and Return of the Jedi combined and both Fett and Yoda are consistently in the top ten most searched Star Wars characters on the Internet. And now, so are Baby Yoda and The Mandalorian. In fact, Baby Yoda recently topped Darth Vader to become the most popular character with 4.7M+ searches in 12 months based on data from SEMRush. A character that doesn’t speak just makes baby sounds and motions and emotes on a whole other level from Yoda surpassed one of the most iconic villains in film history. And he did it purely on cuteness.
The original trilogy had interesting creatures like Banthas, Wampas, and Wookies (well just the one) but the real turning point was Return of the Jedi when the Ewoks first graced us with their presence. The teddy bears of Star Wars divided fans with some believing their prominent role in the film was solely to sell toys. A similar accusation was made against Lucasfilm and Rian Johnson for Porgs in The Last Jedi, but designer Jake Lunt Davies confirmed in an interview with Starwars.com that they existed as a workaround for the hundreds of puffins that inhabited Skellig Michael where they filmed a large portion of the film. The island was a wildlife preserve so the puffins could not be moved and, to avoid an extensive process of removing so many in post-production, decided to replace them with Star Wars puffins. Hence, Porgs. This did not stop Disney from plopping those little suckers on every single Star Wars product leading up to the launch of The Last Jedi.
Baby Yoda was a huge win for Disney+ which, with their first original show, had an instant pop culture moment. Baby Yoda dominated social media when The Mandalorian premiered and pretty much every week when an episode aired. More importantly, it created a demand for Baby Yoda merchandise for which Disney Consumer Products, for reasons best known to Disney Consumer Products, was not prepared to supply. In a rare misstep for Disney, or perhaps just out of caution to keep it a secret until the premiere, there was no Baby Yoda merchandise ready for launch…right before Christmas. It was a creative over a business decision and probably drove many Disney suits to pull their hair out when people were actually demanding toys to buy, going to third parties for unofficial merchandise.
Disney has since caught up with demand and there is now an abundance of merch from toys, clothes, stationery, mugs, and more. Just head to the ShopDisney website, click on the Star Wars section, and count the Yoda Babies.
While some might want to put Baby Yoda in the same category as Ewoks and Porgs because he came out of the Lucasfilm creature womb cute and prepped for instant mass appeal, it is not as easy a comparison. Unlike the Ewoks and Porgs, Baby Yoda is not a new species. He is not one of many. He is a rare species in the Star Wars universe that we know absolutely nothing about, which was intentional on the part of George Lucas (the jury is still out on whether it will be for Disney’s Lucasfilm). And that mysteriousness is a big plot point in the show. He is also a redesign of Yoda’s initial look clearly to max out cuteness…or maybe the species’ pupils and eyes shrink as they age and their ears stop growing so their heads can catch up?
It’s no secret that slapping big eyes and dilated pupils on things make them more appealing and one can’t help but wonder if putting a ridiculously cute face on a baby version of Yoda was in the head of a Lucasfilm Executive lurking over the shoulder of Favreau and the creature designers for The Mandalorian, plotting, and planning.
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