If you know Grogu, you have already fallen in love with him. The star child of The Mandalorian took our hearts by storm and became one of the most wholesome parts of the Star Wars universe. We had seen beings like him before, but none quite like him. Yoda (Frank Oz) and Yaddle (Bryce Dallas Howard) surely are peculiar in their own way, surprising everyone with their lightsaber skills and wisdom, what with being Jedi Masters of old. Their differences with Grogu go way beyond the fact that they could fight, though, the clearest one being the child’s beady black eyes.
When we first met Grogu, we all marveled at our new little green friend, some sort of “baby Yoda.” Although his youth meant he was physically different from his peers, most of the physical traits were there already, like being short, having those cute big ears, and being Force-sensitive. But his eyes have always been one of his cutest attributes, while also being what sets him apart among his species. Why are they all black and so different from Yoda and Yaddle’s more “human” eyes? There are in-universe reasons, but, as everything in Star Wars, it all starts in the studio production.
How ILM and ‘The Mandalorian’ Avoided the Uncanny Valley
The Uncanny Valley is an interesting concept of production design. First introduced by Japanese robotics professor Masahiro Mori in 1970, the Uncanny Valley theory refers to the uncomfortable, sometimes eerie, feeling when you see a humanoid object that looks just a little too human. It consists on trying to make something look as close to reality as possible, but not too much, otherwise it risks looking strange before looking perfect. Grogu was a challenge for the Lucasfilm art department, because he dances on the fine line that separates the cute from the uncanny.
At Star Wars Celebration 2022, Lucasfilm executive and design wizard Doug Chiang gave a panel called “Doug Chiang: Designing the Mandalorian,” in which he spoke at length about the challenges of making this “little Yoda-like creature,” paying special attention to the child’s eyes. According to him, designing Grogu was the trickiest part of their work, precisely because of how strange the character could look if not done right. Again, the challenge was walking the “very fine line of not going too cute,” Chiang says, while also coming up with something “that the fans would love.” And true enough, we do love Grogu, but it was a long way until he became what he is today. “Jon [Favreau] kept describing him as ‘ugly cute,’ something that was not designed to be cute,” Chiang says. This was the moment when they realized the eyes were the key for Grogu’s perfect look.
Early designs for the character showed him with human-like eyes, with a well-defined pupil and whites around it. They tried to have Grogu look like a gnome, even, but settled on something more Yoda-like. Still, the eyes were a challenge. “When they’re human eyes, you can see the white color of his eyes, it gets very strange very fast.” (One could even say uncanny!). Chiang continues, “This is really curious, because Yoda has human eyes and it looks great for him, but, oddly, when we gave Grogu human eyes, he just looked creepy and psychotic.”
So, maybe it wasn’t about trying to have Grogu look like Yoda, but rather figuring out a specific design for himself. “Jon wanted them to be dog-like, with giant dark pupils,” Chiang continues, and, lucky for us, that’s what we got — the alternative being a psychotic samurai baby gnome, from the concepts shown. “We were all circling something, we knew we were in the zone, but none of these were hitting the perfect note for Jon.”
The current design didn’t take long to come along after that, though. It was visual effects artist Christian Alzmann who cracked it and first gave Grogu his signature look. “Like a puppy dog, there’s just enough white in his eyes visible to make him look adorable,” Chiang completes. “Seeing that tiny bit of white gave his eyes a very charming, sympathetic look, then dressing him in his oversized sack completely captured that ‘ugly cute’ factor.” So, that’s how you make a baby Yoda — or, even better, Grogu.
Will Grogu Eventually Look More Like Yoda?
We don’t know much about Grogu’s species yet. In fact, we know next to nothing, and even Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) himself asks the child if he remembers anything from “home” in The Book of Boba Fett. Ahsoka Tano (Rosario Dawson) is another being who met Yoda in the past and is extremely curious about Grogu. Yoda and Yaddle’s species didn’t matter when they first appeared because they weren’t central characters, but Grogu’s identity is one of the central plots of The Mandalorian, so we should get more information about him in the future.
What we do know is that there is a huge age gap between the two individuals of this unknown species. When Yoda died in Return of the Jedi, he was 900 years old. Grogu is much younger, being a little older than 50 by the time of Season 3 of The Mandalorian. There even were some people trying to establish what would be the human equivalent, but, in the end, it boils down to what IG-11 (Taika Waititi) mentions upon meeting the little guy: species age differently. Grogu is just now learning to express himself and still has a long way to go in terms of biological growth before he can fully achieve his potential and take his final form.
What can be expected is that, eventually, Grogu’s eyes will adjust to his adult proportions and take a more Yoda-like appearance instead of the puppy eyes he currently has in his childhood. Right now, his black eyes are not only a biological feature, but they do serve a narrative purpose, making him sympathetic to viewers and characters. That’s what made his surrogate father, Din Djarin (Pedro Pascal), grow attached to him in the first place, for example, and what makes him so easily likable by other characters, even tougher ones like Bo-Katan Kryze (Katee Sackhoff) and the Armorer (Emily Swallow). But there’s no way of knowing when exactly that will happen, so we might as well sit back and enjoy the ride while it lasts. After all, children grow so fast…
The Mandalorian is streaming on Disney+ with new episodes releasing every Wednesday.