Max’s Animated Origin Story Captures the Spirit of the Films

Joe Dante’s Gremlins It was released on the eve before my 7th birthday, and it instantly captured me. 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.

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You can’t resist the lure 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. Dante’s film is like the cinematic offspring of Frank Capra, Roger Corman and others. Gremlins The elemental is also malleable. Mogwai is a manifestation of a repressed ego. Gremlins are the embodiment of an 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 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.

Are mogwai magic creators? Extraterrestrials? Adorable hybrids or biological mutants? 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 Mogwai It has an all-star voice cast, an animation style I liked more and more as the season of 10 episodes continued, and enough unique backstory details to create a world.

The story opens in the Valley of Jade. A mountainous glen filled with 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 (A.J. Locascio, who saves the village of Locascio from an attack by a bald eagle, is then separated from his family.

We meet Sam Wing (Izaac) in Shanghai circa 1920. He is sheltered by Ming-Na Wen (his mother) and B.D. Wong runs a pharmacy. 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 tells Sam that he must return the mogwai back to the Valley of Jade to both protect Shanghai, and to prevent Gizmo falling into the wrong hands of Riley Greene, who is a half-sorcerer and half-industrialist, and knows some wicked uses of mogwai.

Traveling via train and ship and foot, Sam and scrappy orphan Elle (Gabrielle Nevaeh Green), formerly Greene’s indentured servant, look to transport Gizmo to safety, encountering supernatural and spiritual forces along the way. Gizmo does get a bit damp, and some snacks are served after midnight, so gremlins are also involved.

The series 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. The series is also probably a bit weakened by its over-reliance on magical elements and things that are only possible through magic.

It’s still a welcome replacement for the Orientalist exoticism that permeates the movies. The humans in Secrets of Mogwai We should understand the mogwai in a mystical and cultural context, rather than fetishizing it. 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.

I enjoyed the show despite the lack of concrete revelations about the titular secrets. However, the Chinese culture was infused throughout, beginning with the portrayal of Shanghai in the 1920s, including the costumes and architecture. It’s in the little things like the use of sweet goji berries to accompany tea and big things like an entire episode set in a mystical afterlife station. Chun and company’s evident research and embrace of Chinese folklore, including the hopping vampire/zombie creatures known as jiangshiMake the question as to why it was necessary to revisit this property easy.

Secrets of the Mogwai is not as dependent on pop culture references or meta humor than the second film because the writers have pushed the series back into 1920. 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.

But the show also appreciates the primitive appeal of the mogwai, gremlin and other 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. The gremlins take a while to show their personalities but, once they do, it’s easy to enjoy their slapstick anarchy and sadistic sense of humor.

Cel-shaded style animation is intended to reduce the traditional 3-D aesthetic in computer animation. It initially appears rudimentary, rough, and, God forbid it, cheap. It was either that I grew to like it, or it got better. I really enjoyed the texture at 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 Mogwai isn’t as scary as the first Gremlins The movie is not as cartoonish in its depiction of the havoc the gremlins cause, but there are still plenty of green visceras when the creatures are sliced or squashed. 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 It was so important to me that I prepared myself for the resulting ad hominem. Fortunately, Secrets of Mogwai Gets the spirit of movies. It fills gaps, but they are not really necessary. Instead, it is filled in with humor, heart and welcome authenticity. I’m ready for more.

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