'Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai' Review: Much Better Than Expected
The animated prequel series, debuting on Max, takes a kid-friendly approach, but not entirely.
Now Streaming: The idea of an animated prequel to Joe Dante's immortal Gremlins (1984) sounded blasphemous, at best, when it was first reported in 2019 by Variety. It was headed for WarnerMedia''s then-unnamed streaming service, which sent further shivers of doubt down my spine.
But I missed the news that Tze Chun is involved. I was mighty impressed by his independent dramatic feature Children of Invention when I saw it at AFI Dallas in 2009: "Note perfect in its depiction of a family slowly edging toward disaster, Tze Chun's Children of Invention balances precariously between horror story and children's fantasy. Yet it's rooted in such unassailable reality that it feels like it's taking place right under your nose." (My complete Screen Anarchy review here.)
I also enjoyed his followup feature, Cold Comes the Night, an above-average crime thriller, but then I lost track of his career when he pivoted to broadcast television (Cashmere Mafia, Once Upon a Time, Gotham). He wrote and serves as an executive producer for the new series, which wisely moves the action to Shanghai in 1920, introducing the gremlins as legendary creatures whose origin dates back centuries.
By 1920, the "rules" -- "don't get them wet" and so forth -- have become well-established, with the creatures themselves relegated to the stuff of legend. The action kicks off in Shanghai, where the Wing family -- whose Chinatown antique store plays the starting point for the 1984 film -- has a shop. One day, Grandpa Wing (James Hong) accompanies Sam Wing (Izaac Wang), age 10, on a ingredient-shopping excursion for the shop, where they encounter a unhappy mogwai, named Gizmo -- yes, as in the 1984 film -- passed off as an attraction by the shady owners of a circus.
In reality, as the opening scene reveals, the mogwai has been kidnapped from his people. Freed from the circus by Sam, the two quickly bond and soon are off on an adventure to return Gizmo to his people, along with Elle (Gabrielle Nevaeh Green), a quick-witted street thief who quickly proves her value.
The big bad comes in the form of Riley Greene (Matthew Rhys, The Americans, Perry Mason), who hired Elle to find the mogwai and intends to take him for his own evil purposes. He's so evil that he kidnaps Sam's parents, holds them captive, and has a fateful encounter with Grandpa Wing, sending Sam, Elle and Gizmo in flight to get Gizmo home before he gets wet.
Oops! We know what's going to happen here, don't we?
Of course we know that Gizmo will get wet! That's the fun of the series for adults who saw and adored Joe Dante's original, as well as its purely anarchic and wildly entertaining sequel, and may have been looking askance at this series.
Maybe it's because my expectations were dramatically lowered, or maybe because it's the beauty of the animation, which looks to be high-quality, or maybe it's the high quality of the voice acting, or maybe it's because the series appears intent on returning Gizmo to his roots in Chinese folklore and exploring accompanying legends.
It's a smashing start to the series and far exceeded my expectations. The first two episodes are now streaming. Subsequent episodes will debut weekly. [Max]