33 years after the last feature film, the Gremlins franchise returns with this decent animated prequel.
Plot: Takes viewers back to 1920s Shanghai where the Wing family first meets the young Mogwai called Gizmo. Sam Wing (future shop owner Mr. Wing in the 1984 Gremlins film) accepts the dangerous task to take Gizmo home and embarks on a journey through the Chinese countryside. Sam and Gizmo are joined by a teenage street thief named Elle, and together, they encounter—and sometimes battle—colorful monsters and spirits from Chinese folklore. Along their quest, they are pursued by a power-hungry industrialist named Riley Greene and his growing army of evil Gremlins.
Review: Gremlins remains one of the greatest franchises that never was. While the 1984 original was a box office smash, the 1990 sequel was only a moderate success. In the decades since we have seen the title characters appear in various forms but never in a feature film sequel. While a third film has been in development hell as both a reboot and a follow-up to Gremlins: The New Batch. While we await the live-action continuation of Joe Dante’s duology, Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai deepens the mythology of the cute Gizmo and his species along with their monstrous alter-egos. With a direct connection to the first film, Secrets of the Mogwai is a family-friendly expansion of the Gremlins series that will appeal to kids and die-hard fans but doesn’t do much for the average viewer.
Already renewed for a second season, Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai has had a long road to the screen. Originally announced as part of the HBO Max launch in 2019, the series’ first episode premiered last year at the Annecy International Animation Film Festival. Now, with the relaunch of Warner Bros service as Max, Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai gets a prime debut. With all ten episodes available for this review, Warner Bros has some confidence behind the fantasy-adventure series, which benefits from Steven Spielberg as producer, director Joe Dante as a consultant, and series creator Tze Chun assembling an all-star team of voice talent, including James Hong, Matthew Rhys, Ming-Na Wen, B.D. Wong, Bowen Yang, Randall Park, George Takei, Sandra Oh, and original Gremlins star Zach Galligan.
Set in Shanghai in the 1920s, Secrets of the Mogwai centers on Sam Wing (voiced by Izaac Wang), a teenager who comes across Gizmo during a shopping trip with his grandfather (voiced by James Hong). Kidnapped from his mountain home amongst the rest of the Mogwai, Gizmo’s origin is something we have never seen before. Much like not seeing E.T.’s species outside of the brief scene at the end of that iconic movie, the Mogwai on the big screen has been associated entirely with Gizmo and the brief rules we learned from Mr. Wing as an adult in the 1984 movie. Here, we learn much more about the species, their origin, and their connection to the Wing family. This series also illuminates a different perspective on the various rules and others we may not be familiar with as it builds the mythology of what the monstrous gremlins are capable of. All of this is told through a younger-skewing story that may have a cute animated style but boasts some dark and scary plot elements that will work for older viewers.
The first season of Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai introduces, in addition to the Wing family, some additional new human characters. Ellie, voiced by Gabrielle Nevaeh Green, is a street-smart kid who works for the villain Riley Greene (Matthew Rhys). While I will not spoil the story surrounding Greene, he is an adversary seeking the Mogwai to enhance his own special abilities. He serves as the primary antagonist of the entire season. Secrets of the Mogwai emulates Lucasfilm’s various animated properties by delivering a serial tale of over thirty-minute chapters connecting like an extended movie. The animated format allows for the Mogwai and Gremlins to be realized with minimal budgetary constraints, both a blessing and a curse.
On the positive side, seeing the Mogwai able to move more naturally than the animatronic versions we saw in the movies allows them more freedom of expression and movement. Still, it also takes away from the tangible nature of the creatures. Similarly, the Gremlins lose some of their menace in animated form as the series’ style is smoother and less textured than the scaly monsters in a physical environment. It is also interesting how this series feels far more PG than the 1984 film, which preceded the teen-oriented rating and remained one of the scariest “family” movies of all time (right up there with Poltergeist). Series creator Tze Chun imbues this series with mysticism and Asian mythology and is unafraid to showcase dying characters. However, even the scariest moments are still less impactful than the live-action violence of the two movies.
The involvement of Steven Spielberg and Joe Dante gives Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai a little more credibility than if they had washed their hands of the property, but the series still does not quite live up to the bar set by three decades of waiting for more Gremlins. Like Netflix’s Jurassic World spin-off Camp Cretaceous, Secrets of the Mogwai is better than I expected it to be and works for more than just little kids, but only true die-hard Gremlins fans will be satiated by this show. The potential for the second season and beyond gives me hope that this series will do more than tread water with a franchise that deserved to have multiple sequels and spin-offs in the years since it became a pop culture mainstay. At the very least, this series will introduce a new generation to the greatness that Gremlins has in store.
Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai premieres on May 23rd on Max.
Originally published at https://www.joblo.com/gremlins-secrets-of-the-mogwai-tv-review-embargo-5-17-2pm-est/