‘Obi-Wan Kenobi’ Delivers Just Enough of the Force for ‘Star Wars’ Fans

Out of all the franchises that seem to never end, “Star Wars” lends itself the easiest to new additions. It’s such a mythic undertaking that there’s always been plenty of room to add a little more. Before Disney bought out George Lucas and began churning out the new assembly line of material, there was already a whole galaxy of spinoff “Star Wars” novels and comic books. “Obi-Wan Kenobi” is the latest Disney Plus series to bring back a fan favorite. It’s rather clever in figuring out how to deliver a whole show about iconic Jedi master Obi-Wan Kenobi, with Ewan McGregor reprising the role. Consider that McGregor first inhabited Kenobi’s robes in 1999 for “Episode I: The Phantom Menace,” the first of Lucas’s prequel trilogy. But as with the very first “Star Wars,” which premiered in 1977, the passage of time has no effect on those who grow up with this franchise. 

While Disney is indeed skirting the line of overkill with “Star Wars” as a whole, for the diehard fan, this show is satisfying enough thriller yarn. It is set ten years after the events of “Episode III: Revenge of the Sith,” when Obi-Wan was forced to brutally defeat his pupil Anakin Skywalker, who then became Darth Vader. Now the Empire rules the galaxy far, far away and Obi-Wan lives as a butcher making little on the desert planet Tatooine. He also stays here so he can keep an eye on one of Anakin’s offspring, Luke Skywalker, currently under the care of farmer Owen (Joel Edgerton) and his wife. But the Empire is now hunting down what’s left of the Jedi, who were so viciously slaughtered by Emperor Palpatine in “Episode III.” Hunting down the Jedi are the Inquisitors, who were once Jedis themselves before turning to the dark side. One Inquisitor in particular, Third Sister (Moses Ingram), is obsessed with finding Kenobi. Meanwhile on the planet Alderaan, a young Leia Organa (Vivien Lyra Blair), is being raised in the ways of courtly life. When she is kidnapped by thugs employed by Third Sister, Obi-Wan is called out of seclusion to rescue her.

By now these Disney “Star Wars” shows are merging into a particular standard in their storytelling. “The Mandalorian” and “The Book of Boba Fett” played around with the western genre. Both were also primarily set in desert vistas. “Obi-Wan Kenobi” is more of a high-octane chase thriller. In some ways this is its saving grace. As with the last three movies, there’s a tendency of trying too hard to make obvious connections to the original films, as if we need an explanation for multiple things we saw and are familiar with in the original trilogy. Obi-Wan tries to send young Luke (who remains offscreen in the first two episodes) a flying toy, which Owen angrily returns. He warns Obi-Wan to stay away and not consider training Luke as a Jedi when he’s ready. You see, now we can connect all this to that grumpy Uncle Owen in the ’77 movie. The most obvious choice in this direction was to introduce us to Princess Leia as a child, in order to give us the sensation of watching a kind of “secret history” involving these two we were unaware of all this time. It’s both obvious Disney merchandising but also an old “Star Wars” tradition going back to the spinoff novels like “Shadows of the Empire,” where we get fresh stories revealing what was going on in-between the movies. 

As a thriller the show works by building up tension. It’s designed as a classic kidnapping story, like “Taken” in space. Leia is snatched by creeps who look like cosmic traffickers, led by a thug played by Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea. The Inquisitors are a cruel group of hunters with Third Sister being particularly vicious, going so far as to chop off hands in Tatooine to get answers. Hiding his lightsaber, Obi-Wan makes his way to a gritty planet with neon signs taken out of some Hong Kong crime flick. He finds Leia and thus the real journey begins as they evade Inquisitors, trackers and get help from a fugitive Jedi played by Kumail Nanjiani. The big reveal comes at the end of the second episode, when Third Sister tells Obi-Wan that Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen reprising his famous role) is indeed alive and intensely searching for him. An effective, final shot reveals a scarred Anakin floating in a liquid chamber with a breathing mask on, emitting that iconic Darth Vader drone. As a plot point this makes absolute sense. Now that he’s the supreme Sith lord, Vader will want to track down the man who nearly destroyed him. If you need a refresh, the pilot opens with a lengthy recap of the prequel movies.

Ewan McGregor still fits the role nicely, playing Obi-Wan as a somber, haunted person who has nightmares in his sleep recalling the events of the prequels. Sure, “Revenge of the Sith” premiered 17 years ago, but for fans it’s history that could have occurred just yesterday. By setting the action ten years later, the show can slyly get away with a slightly older McGregor reprising the role. We first met him as a much more seasoned Jedi anyway in “A New Hope” played by Alec Guinness. If you are not a disciple of the Force, then you might just consider this to be another exercise in rehashing a famous brand. But for a “Star Wars” devotee, “Obi-Wan Kenobi” may not be as satisfying as the best in the franchise, but it may just be a good enough chase to revisit favorite faces.

Obi-Wan Kenobi” season one begins streaming May 27 with new episodes premiering Fridays on Disney+.