Obi-Wan Kenobi review: Ewan McGregor’s Star Wars return needed more prequel trilogy style strangeness

Ewan McGregor returns as Obi-Wan Kenobi in a Disney+ series that lacks the idiosyncrasy and strangeness of the Star Wars prequels

This review contains discussion of Obi-Wan Kenobi’s basic premise, which some may consider a spoiler.

The smartest thing about Obi-Wan Kenobi – and, in turn, the most encouraging thing – is that it builds itself out of a gap in Star Wars’ emotional storytelling rather than its plot mechanics. At the end of Revenge of the Sith, Obi-Wan believes his protégé Anakin Skywalker is dead, killed in their duel on Mustafar; when they meet on the Death Star in A New Hope, Obi-Wan recognises Darth Vader as his former apprentice. Obi-Wan Kenobi the series is situated in the space between those films – after the fall of the Republic and during the early rise of the Empire, before Luke Skywalker had ever picked up a lightsabre – and asks how Obi-Wan the character came to that realisation.

As a result, the series seems to have some claim towards a purpose – it’s still fundamentally an extension of the Star Wars brand, another managed property in Disney’s portfolio, but Obi-Wan Kenobi at least has more substance than The Book of Boba Fett’s origins as a fannish footnote. Asking a question about the character – what does it mean for Obi-Wan, already at his lowest point, to learn that Anakin Skywalker is still alive? – suggests some thought has gone into making this series function as a piece of drama in its own right, not just spinning wheels between films but a genuine bridge.

The series opens with Obi-Wan Kenobi in hiding on Tattooine. He’s dejected and downbeat, visibly weighed down by past failures; he works as a fishmonger, carving up slabs of space-whale meat, punching in and out of a job that’s worlds away from the life of a Jedi on Coruscant. When people ask him for help, he refuses: the fight is done, he insists, and they lost. It’s only a personal appeal from Bail Organa (Jimmy Smits) after the kidnap of a young Princess Leia (Vivien Lyra Blair) that finally moves Obi-Wan to cautious, tentative action, grappling with his own self-doubt as much as anything else.

At the same time, Obi-Wan is pursued by Imperial Inquisitors, ruthless Jedi hunters hell bent on extinguishing the last remnants of a dying era; the most zealous of them, Reva (Moses Ingram), seems to know Obi-Wan from a former life. She’s aggressive in pursuit of what’s clearly a personal grudge, following him to the grimy neon underworld of Daiyu as he searches for the missing princess (Obi-Wan Kenobi borrows, smartly, from a space-noir subplot in Attack of the Clones, building that brief detective jaunt into an engine for a full series).

Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan Kenobi, his hood pulled close to his face, hiding in a purple-lit street corner (Credit: Matt Kennedy/Lucasfilm)

What works about the series is, broadly, exactly what you’d expect to work. Ewan McGregor (one of the few actors to escape the Star Wars prequels essentially unscathed, both professionally and in terms of his treatment by Star Wars fans) takes to the role again with aplomb, his arch delivery tempered this time by something wearier. Moses Ingram, meanwhile, makes a strong impression as a scenery-chewing villain, and Vivien Lyra Blair is good as a precocious young Leia. The building blocks of this series are simple, and they’re executed more than well enough here.

If Obi-Wan Kenobi struggles at all, oddly, it’s for its dissimilarity to the Star Wars prequels. Admittedly, that’s a strange critique to make, because for all the many things there are to appreciate about the prequel trilogy (genuinely), it’s also true that they’re not actually brilliant films. Why should this series aim to mimic them? In part, Obi-Wan Kenobi is already an exercise in prequel trilogy nostalgia – why cast Hayden Christensen to wear Darth Vader’s mask if it’s not? – so it might as well try and mine them more effectively, making more liberal use of the bits of those movies that worked beyond just Ewan McGregor.

More than that, though, the Star Wars prequels are if nothing else distinct. They’re not straightforwardly ‘good’ films, but they’re strange, and in a lot of ways that makes them more interesting than they would’ve been otherwise. A brief appearance here from Kumail Nanjiani, playing the same character he always does, is indicative of the shift: Obi-Wan Kenobi is calling back to a brilliantly idiosyncratic space opera, but it’s filtered that through the lens of something much more generic, much more Guardians of the Galaxy. It has its own appeal, but it’s hard not to feel like something was lost too.

Ultimately, Obi-Wan Kenobi stands as a vast improvement over The Book of Boba Fett, and there’s plenty of reason to believe it’ll maintain this early quality over the coming weeks. It benefits, as already established, from a smartly positioned premise, and a more-than-game performance from Ewan McGregor. The series has the potential to stand as an effective reclamation of the interesting-but-flawed Star Wars prequels – so long as it remembers what about them genuinely did capture the imagination at the time.

Obi-Wan Kenobi begins on Disney+ on Friday 27 May, with the first two episodes available to stream immediately and new episodes airing weekly on Wednesdays. I’ve seen the first two episodes before writing this review.