Star Wars: The Last Jedi is out on digital, and we need to talk about porgs. No, not about how ridiculous you think they are, or how cool it is that they came up with a bird-creature to CGI over Skellig Michael's overabundant puffins. But about how callous it was for Disney to serve porgs up to the next generation of baby Star Wars fans, and then to serve one up to Chewbacca.
My kids are young — the oldest is three — but they have seen most of the incarnations of the Star Wars universe. They've got at least a dozen different SW books, Pops, Big Figs, and plush toys of most of the characters, and a deep, deep attachment to Ezra Bridger. Besides an annoying tendency to make lightsaber noises all day, the lessons and habits they've taken away from their love of the franchise have generally been positive. I'm getting a little tired of explaining about various characters becoming one with the Force, but those dead Jedi will end up being my boys' first thoughtful encounters with death and grief. Every night, the three-year-old takes two plush toys to bed: Chewbacca and his porg. He loves Chewbacca. But that porg is his thing.
It makes perfect sense for the children of two Gen-X-ers to be Star Wars babies. The franchise was made to share with our kids, to pass on the fanaticism that carried us through the late '70s and early '80s to our children. One of the great thrills of Star Wars: The Force Awakens for me was knowing that my sons' intergalactic heroes would be a socioeconomically disadvantaged woman and a Black man, instead of more rich white dudes. Like all major, decades-long entertainment properties, Star Wars is built for parents and kids. Every incarnation has a character kids love — R2-D2, Ewoks, Jar-Jar Binks, porgs — and every kid-friendly character has come in for ridicule and disdain from "true" (read: adults acting possessive about a kid-oriented property) fans. The lion's share of merchandising has always targeted children and nostalgia purchases by grown-up fans of the original trilogy are a big driver of sales.
So that one-off joke about Chewbacca roasting a porg turns out to be pretty disruptive to the family dynamic, largely because of the way in which children were actively recruited to being attached to the creatures and related merchandise. First, we get Chewbacca and a porg in the initial Last Jedi trailer, looking for all the world like a team, the porg letting loose an annoying squawk that is basically sound-candy to a noisy pre-schooler. Then we begin seeing incarnations of the porg everywhere, most notably in toy aisles. The 14-inch plush at Target, in particular, is all but irresistible—we bought one in October. Porg Pop Vinyls, a new Chewbacca Pop with a porg in his hand, porgs in the world, like porgs on the island, everywhere.
Inevitably the franchise's purist fans whinge about the porgs, just as they did about Ewoks and Jar-Jar Binks (okay, this last with reason), as though the entire Star Wars legacy wasn't built on the intergalactic longings of young fans. Appeasingly, concept designers explain that porgs exist because Skellig is littered with puffins, and they needed something to put over them. Never mind that this explanation is ridiculous on its face — rocks would've been quite a lot easier to CGI in. If it shuts up the porg-haters, I'm in.
But of course, the ultimate satisfaction for the porg-haters is the image of Chewbacca roasting one over a spit. Somehow he has abandoned his predilection for raw meat and managed to find butter for basting (I don't imagine he churned green milk) plus some way to make that thing look like it was baked in a perfectly temperature-controlled oven, proving that Rian Johnson will belabor a joke well beyond the bounds of believability in order to flip a middle finger at the franchise's bread and butter. Surely the vulptices could have been the marquee creature for kids — and their role in the story is directly plot-relevant. Instead, via pervasive marketing and a narratively pointless mini-scene, Johnson gets to have his porg, and eat it, too, giving Disney merchandising gold while planting his flag all over the galaxy.
The joke shot of Chewbacca with a porg over a spit is funny if you're one of those original-trilogy fans who demand that Star Wars is yours. It's a clever wink and nod to the fanaticism that makes a franchise a franchise. The teary-eyed, quivering-lipped porg looking on pushes the joke further — it is literally a big baby. As a bonus, we get to confirm Chewbacca's essential humanity when, after hunting, killing, and cooking the creature, he doesn't eat it, despite the fact that, unless you're a vegetarian, it looks delicious.
But when I see that emotionally overwrought porg, I picture the same expression on my son's face. The joke, after all, is on him. I had hoped these new Star Wars movies would be his movies, but the callousness required to cultivate his attachment to a creature, then perpetrate such a cruel joke, means that The Last Jedi was always for the cynical fans, even if it hasn't won them all over.