On the morning of Nov. 12, 2019, while most of the world was going about its daily routine, audiences in the U.S. were crashing servers as they feverishly scrambled to install Disney+.
The long-awaited debut of Disney’s direct-to-consumer streaming service happened with the usual technological hiccups expected with a major, multiplatform launch — but with plenty of delightful surprises. What no one expected was that the biggest surprise of them all was hiding at the end of the flagship series premiere of The Mandalorian: a 50-year-old, toddler-esque version of a beloved Star Wars character that the internet deemed “Baby Yoda.”
Caught off guard by #BabyYoda
Within hours, #BabyYoda was a trending topic on Twitter. With little regard for spoilers, the web was buzzing with news of a creature who was of the same species as Jedi Master Yoda, but it couldn’t possibly be Yoda, could it? “The Child,” as we’d learn to call him in the second chapter released on Nov. 15, was a global phenomenon before most of the world even had formal access to the Disney+ service.
The first-ever, live-action TV series to be set in the Star Wars universe, The Mandalorian falls into a new era of storytelling set five years after the events of The Return of the Jedi (1983). In that film, Yoda died, becoming one with the Force at the age of 900. While the arrival of The Child was a surprise to the audience, it may have been a bigger shock to a group of Lucasfilm partners who usually have early access to such information: the consumer products and toy licensees.
Dolly Ahluwalia, vice president of licensing and business development at Funko, discovered The Child on launch day just like any other fan. “I was watching The Mandalorian at 8 a.m. when Disney+ premiered,” she says. Funko already had four Mandalorian Pop! Vinyl figures on the market in time for the series launch, but The Child was hidden from Funko, as it was from Hasbro, Mattel, and all of the other licensees — a conscious decision to put art above commerce at the request of The Mandalorian showrunner Jon Favreau (Iron Man, The Lion King).
“It was important to us that the reveal of the new character, The Child, be a special moment for fans,” says Paul Southern, senior vice president of licensing and franchise at Lucasfilm. “We could not be more thrilled with the response.”
That response moved beyond the Twitterverse into an explosion of global media coverage, and fans were demanding merchandise that not only wasn’t available, but hadn’t even hit the design stage yet. The character immediately began uniting the Star Wars fandom — which has been somewhat divided in recent years — while simultaneously pulling in casual fans and many people new to Star Wars.
“When I first saw the baby in motion on screen, I was elated to say the least,” says Jason Ward, editor-in-chief of Making Star Wars, a leading Star Wars fan site. “You could tell they captured lightning in a bottle with that little critter.”
MOBILIZING A CREATIVE FORCE
The Child also kicked off a swirl of inspiration for artists and creatives well outside the official channels.
Singer-songwriter Parry Gripp first hit the scene in the mid-1990s as frontman of the pop-punk band Nerf Herder. In recent years, Gripp has hit viral gold with dozens of kid-friendly pop songs and videos. Gripp found himself pulled toward The Child as a Star Wars fan, but an outside force inspired some creative output.
“I instantly loved it,” Gripp says. “It was so surprisingly cute, especially in the context of the action and violence of that first episode.”
Mere days after The Child levitated a Mudhorn to save the Mandalorian’s life, Gripp referenced the heroic act in a new single, titled “Baby Yoda (Floating in a Pod).” The song is an update of Gripp’s 2010 hit, “Baby Monkey (Going Backwards on a Pig),” which racked up nearly 30 million views on YouTube alone.
“I never would have done a Baby Yoda song, but all of a sudden I was besieged by people on Twitter requesting a version of ‘Baby Monkey’ about Baby Yoda,” he says. “Mark Hoppus from Blink-182, who periodically posts the ‘Baby Monkey’ video, tweeted a verse of ‘Baby Monkey’ substituting ‘Yoda’ for ‘Monkey,’ which kicked up the requests a notch. So I figured, why not?”
With the Pro Tools session for “Baby Monkey” still living on his computer, Gripp says all he had to do was re-sing the vocals. “Bam! It was done. I probably spent 30 minutes on it,” he explains. A music video featuring animated artwork by Nathan Mazur was online just two days later.
Within a week or so, dozens of independent artists, makers, and creators were sharing photos of their own interpretations of The Child, often with wildly varying levels of success. From a design perspective, the character checks some emotional boxes that add to the appeal.
“It’s the way that it is obviously the same species as Yoda, except it has all the elements to make it cute,” says Russ Turk, a toy designer and art director who previously served as design manager for Toys “R” Us. “Short, chubby limbs, large eyes, a small mouth, and a very expressive face — it really resembles an infant.”
Turk, who works as a design consultant for Horizon Group and Buzz Bee Toys, among other companies, was inspired to create a version of The Child of his own. “I thought about doing some sort of figure or puppet for a few weeks, but I was in the middle of a few projects already,” Turk says. “Then, one Monday morning, I decided to make a puppet. I sculpted it on Monday, finished it on
Tuesday, molded it on Wednesday, and had the first rubber casting on Friday. I painted the puppet on Saturday and posted pictures that same day.”
“Whoever designed The Child should get some kind of award,” Gripp declares. “An Emmy? A Nobel Peace Prize? Baby Yoda has certainly brought people together. There is some emotional element to it that is indescribable.”
“I WOULD LIKE TO SEE THE BABY”
Echoing a quote from Werner Herzog as “the Client” — the mysterious Imperial Officer who issued the bounty on The Child — fans were lighting up retailers by the end of November, eager to get their hands on whatever they could.
“The Mandalorian himself was in super-high demand leading up to the series premiere — and he still is — but once The Child was revealed, the excitement about him was nearly instantaneous,” says Katie Stock, social media manager at Collector’s Outpost, a destination for pop culture collectibles in Gurnee, Illinois. “Within the first few days, ‘Do you have any Baby Yoda?’ became the most-common question every day.”
The first wave of official products depicting The Child hit the web to criticism for seeming rushed. An assortment of print-on-demand items, such as shirts, coffee mugs, and phone cases featuring concept art from The Mandalorian concept supervisor Christian Alzmann, went on sale on Nov. 26, but most viewed it as a reaction to the unlicensed market as official licensees worked to move through the design and approval process at a faster-than-usual pace to catch up. Noted for its speed in reacting to and delivering on pop culture trends, Funko was one of the first companies to preview licensed versions of The Child, just three weeks after becoming aware of the character.
“We are so fortunate to have a strong and long-standing relationship with our partners at Lucasfilm and Disney,” says Funko’s Ahluwalia. “They were amazing in making sure we [kept] the character integrity and also [honored] Funko’s design aesthetic. Even though we move as quickly as possible, something as high profile as this means there is a lot of feedback to make sure we get it right and end up in a position where everyone is happy.”
Another big surprise that accompanied Funko’s reveal was an announcement that Mattel will offer an 11-inch, vinyl-head plush doll — the company’s first foray into Star Wars licensing beyond collaborations for Hot Wheels and Barbie. By January, preorders for the doll — which comes specially packaged in a hover crib — had already sold out at retailers, including Amazon and Entertainment Earth.
On Dec. 12, exactly one month since the debut of The Mandalorian, longtime Star Wars master toy licensee, Hasbro, broke its silence to unveil its first offerings featuring The Child.
“We’ve been so enamored with the conversation and fan reaction surrounding The Child and we know Star Wars fans around the world will be thrilled to see this beloved character incorporated into our Star Wars collection of products,” says Samantha Lomow, president of Hasbro entertainment brands.
Stock says that at Collector’s Outpost, “the standard and oversized versions of The Child Funko Pop!s are the most preordered and talked about on a daily basis, with the Star Wars Black Series figure from Hasbro coming in a close second.” She also notes that T-shirts are in high demand and that a fine-art print from comic artist Dominic Glover has been “phenomenally popular” since its December release.
A 500-piece puzzle from Buffalo Games was one of the first items to hit stores ahead of the holidays. By February, the Funko Pop! Vinyl version of The Child had become the bestselling Pop! of all time, and it hasn’t even shipped yet.
PROTECTING THE CHILD AND ECHOES OF THE PAST
“If we had given the design [of The Child] out, it literally would’ve gone out to hundreds and hundreds of people around the world, and we didn’t want to do that,” said Bob Iger, chairman and CEO of the Walt Disney Co., in an extended interview with The Star Wars Show. The supply chain for toys is a notorious source of leaks when it comes to licensed properties, with potential spoilers emerging when designs, product shots, or even finished items hit the web months before release. The Star Wars fandom is even more unusual, with spotters around the world looking for leaks at all points in the chain — including shipping manifests, docks, and ports — and the POS systems of major retailers. Because of this, licensees often use code names for each character in a product assortment.
“On one hand, it was smart to keep the character a surprise. If any toys or concepts had been leaked, it would have ruined the surprise of the show,” Turk says. “On the other hand, they would have made all the money this past Christmas season with The Child products.”
A season with in-demand but nonexistent Star Wars products is familiar to those who were around when George Lucas’ Star Wars hit screens in 1977. The late licensing deal led to the famous “empty mailer” — Kenner’s Early Bird Certificate package — an envelope containing a cardboard display stand for action figures that didn’t exist yet, with a note promising delivery in 1978.
Favreau told The Hollywood Reporter that by holding back The Child, Disney knew it might be at a disadvantage by not having toys available right away, but that what they received in exchange was “an excitement surrounding the character because everyone felt like they discovered him together.” Favreau says that experience emulated his own growing up — elements of mystery and surprise that can be hard to keep a lid on these days.
Ward, of Making Star Wars, says he thinks that holding back merchandising was “a questionable choice,” as the series didn’t debut simultaneously in countries worldwide. “No one watched the show at the same moment as they would on opening night in the theater for a new Star Wars film,” he says. “Star Wars has never been about shocking audiences; it’s been about staying power.”
Had The Child been sent to licensees, there is absolutely no doubt that it would have leaked, but still, there were rumblings that creatures of Yoda’s species would be making an appearance on The Mandalorian. Ward reported as early as October that he had seen photos of “five or six unfinished Yoda species puppets in various states of completeness.”
After fans took time to get invested in the series, protecting The Child moved from cloaking the existence of the character into a sense of genuine attachment and worry for what would become of him on screen. Thousands of memes emerged in which fans expressed the desire to give their own lives to protect that of the green one.
“The scene in the third episode when Mando delivers the baby [to the Client], and they take it away, was one of the most unsettling things I have ever seen on TV. I was genuinely upset,” Gripp explains.
UNITING A FANDOM AND LOOKING AHEAD
Following the divisive release of Rian Johnson’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017), the below-expected box office performance of Ron Howard’s Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018), and further fan friction following December’s Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, The Mandalorian seems to be one element of Star Wars content that everyone seems to agree is fantastic. The “precious little creature,” as Carl Weathers’ Greef Karga called it, is a central figure that is reaching audiences beyond the typical borders of the fandom. “My mother is in her 80s living in Florida, and even she knows about Baby Yoda,” Turk says.
THE CHILD IS CHANGING THE CONVERSATION OVERALL
“It’s been overwhelmingly refreshing,” says Stock of Collector’s Outpost. “Fans are taking pride in Baby Yoda, celebrating everything from The Mandalorian, and translating that enthusiasm into the overall Star Wars Saga. It feels like the ‘Baby Yoda’ unity has given everyone the confidence they needed to become a lot more relaxed about praising Star Wars as a whole. The daily conversations have become incredibly positive,” she says.
“We’ve loved Yoda for so long. To have this tiny version that is powerful and also vulnerable — it’s magic!” Gripp says. “Like so much of what we feel, we can’t explain it, but the feeling of love for this creature is an undeniable force.“
Audiences will have to wait until this fall to experience more adventures with Mando and The Child as they traverse the galaxy as a newly minted “clan of two.” Perhaps the second season will even reveal The Child’s real name?
“Even though the first season of The Mandalorian has finished, the series is still engaging many new viewers every day, and even more international fans will get the chance to discover the story when Disney+ launches in additional countries in March,” says Lucasfilm’s Southern. “There are also characters and vehicles from season one that will make their consumer product debut this year. In general, Star Wars fans will have a lot to look forward to all year.”
This article was originally published in the Pop Insider’s Winter 2020 Issue No. 6. Click here to read more!