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Joe Dante’s Gremlins came out on the eve of my seventh birthday, and I was instantly smitten. I saw the movie multiple times, read various adaptations and wore out the grooves on the series of tie-in records that were distributed through Hardee’s.
Gizmo, the seemingly innocent mogwai who, through modern humanity’s inability to follow three very basic rules, helped unleash a chaotic surge of nefarious gremlins, has been a constant companion over four decades, serving as my frequent social media avatar.
Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai
Cast: Izaac Wang, Ming-Na Wen, James Hong, BD Wong, Matthew Rhys, Gabrielle Nevaeh
Developed by: Tze Chun
If the allure of Gremlins to Young Daniel was something primal — the lizard-brain appeal of Gizmo’s cuteness and the gremlins’ Chuck Jones-inspired mayhem — the subsequent appeal in countless rewatches has been different. As directed by Dante, like the cinematic spawn of Frank Capra and Roger Corman, Gremlins is simultaneously elemental and malleable. Mogwai are manifestations of repressed ego, gremlins the embodiment of untethered id. It’s a cautionary tale about proper treatment of animals and conscientious stewardship of nature, a warning about the encroachment of technology and the fragility of human civilization. In The New Batch, the far funnier if less emotionally resonant 1990 sequel, the critique was extended to capitalism and the chaos that runs amok when you attempt to commodify anything you don’t fully understand.
Were mogwai magical creators? Extraterrestrials? Adorable mutants or biological hybrids? I didn’t know I was supposed to care, so I didn’t.
Created by Tze Chun (who executive produces along with Brendan Hay), Max’s animated prequel Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai succeeds because although it’s dedicated to giving Gizmo and his friends — both furry and scaly — the origin story they probably didn’t require, it’s more invested in telling a stand-alone story that captures the array of tones from the films. Secrets of the Mogwai has an all-star vocal cast, an eye-catching animation style that grew on me as the 10-episode season progressed, and enough distinctive backstory details to effectively expand the world.
The story begins in the Valley of Jade, a mountainous glen populated entirely by happy mogwai. “Oh, so they’re Smurfs,” was basically my first response to the Valley of Jade, followed by flashbacks to the mid-’80s animated Ewoks series. Fortunately, the show doesn’t linger or pander in this all-mogwai world. In no time, intrepid Gizmo (AJ LoCascio) saves his village from an eagle attack, but ends up separated from his community.
In Shanghai, circa 1920, we meet young Sam Wing (Izaac Wang), sheltered by his parents (Ming-Na Wen and BD Wong), who run a medicinal shop. Out shopping for ingredients with his adventurous grandfather (James Hong), Sam first encounters Gizmo, who is being presented as a mystical “cat-dog” in the circus’ freak show. Grandpa, however, knows what Gizmo is and knows that bad things happen to people who aren’t ready for mogwai.
Grandpa urges Sam to return the mogwai to the Valley of Jade, both to protect Shanghai and to keep Gizmo from falling into the hands of the evil Riley Greene (Matthew Rhys), who is half-sorcerer, half-industrialist and aware of some particularly wicked uses for mogwai.
Traveling via train and ship and foot, Sam and scrappy orphan Elle (Gabrielle Nevaeh), formerly Greene’s indentured servant, look to transport Gizmo to safety, encountering supernatural and spiritual forces along the way. Oh and yes, Gizmo gets a little damp and there are some post-midnight snacks, so there are very quickly gremlins involved as well.
The series — hailing from Warner Bros. Animation and Amblin Television, with Steven Spielberg as an executive producer and Dante as a consulting producer — offers explanations for where the mogwai came from and expands on the rules for mogwai maintenance, but I’m ultimately not sure how much the expanded mythos really adds. It even probably loses a little from an over-reliance on magic and things that can only be justified by or through magic.
It’s still a welcome replacement for the Orientalist exoticism that permeates the movies. The humans in Secrets of the Mogwai have a bit more understanding of mogwai within a cultural and mystical tradition, rather than fetishizing their otherness. The exoticizing of the mogwai in the movies suggests that it’s fin de siècle Western society that isn’t ready for mogwai. The series makes it clear that even with proper understanding and context, it’s general humanity that isn’t equipped to do anything other than exploit the fragile purity that mogwai represent.
The concrete revelations of the titular secrets of the mogwai added little to my enjoyment, but the infusion of Chinese culture adds a lot, starting with the depiction of 1920s Shanghai, the costumes and architecture front and center. The show finds its own particular flavor in little things, like the use of goji berries as a sweet accompaniment for tea, and in big things, like a full episode spent in some sort of mystical afterlife way-station. Chun and company’s evident research and embrace of Chinese folklore, including the hopping vampire/zombie creatures known as jiangshi, make the question of why this was a property that needed revisiting easy to answer.
Pushing the series back to 1920 helps the writers avoid making Secrets of the Mogwai as reliant on contemporary pop culture references and meta humor as the second film. Instead of winking-and-nudging for the duration, the series is driven by solidly aspirational characterizations — Elle has to learn selflessness and Sam has to learn courage — and clever dialogue that uses nods to the movies as an occasional spice instead of a crutch. It isn’t beholden, though. It’s like how Zach Galligan, star of the films, has several vocal cameos that you probably won’t even notice. His presence is a tacit seal of approval, while letting the young stars, Rhys and Hong and some great guest voices — George Takei and Sandra Oh were my favorites — be the real stars.
Yet the series also understands the primal appeal of the mogwai and gremlin characters. With his giant eyes and floppy, pointed ears and communication built around cooing, singing and rudimentary vocabulary, Gizmo has always been the seed without which Baby Yoda wouldn’t have been possible, and he’s presented here with those trademark expressive peepers and stubby, fast-moving limbs and inherent bravery intact. It takes a little more time for the gremlins to display their individual personalities, but once their anarchy is unleashed, their appetite for slapstick zaniness and a sadistic version of fun is easy to embrace.
The cel-shaded animation style, which is designed to diminish the more traditional 3-D aesthetic of computer animation, initially comes across as oddly rough and rudimentary and even, God forbid, cheap-looking. But either I became accustomed to it or it improved and I was really enjoying the texture by the end. The 22-minute episodes are all propelled along by Sherri Chung’s versatile score, punctuated by Jerry Goldsmith’s original Gremlins theme at key moments.
Secrets of the Mogwai isn’t as scary as the first Gremlins movie, nor as giddy in its treatment of the violently cartoonish havoc that the gremlins wreak, but it has some emotional gravity and no lack of lurid green viscera when creatures are squashed or chopped to bits. Of course, the animated format makes it easy to just giggle at the spectacle of a pulverized gremlin and harder to feel real concern for Gizmo or the human characters when they’re in jeopardy. That just means it’s less likely to traumatize younger viewers than the original movie did, not that it’s intended exclusively for kids.
I’ve never thought that any remake/reboot/revival was capable of destroying anybody’s childhood, but Gremlins was important enough to me that I was prepared for umbrage-taking. Fortunately, Secrets of the Mogwai gets the spirit of the movies. None of the gaps it fills in were quite necessary, yet the way it fills in those gaps is done with some heart, some humor and some welcome, franchise-correcting authenticity. I’m ready for more.
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