Gremlins series Secrets of the Mogwai holds back on true critter chaos

The Gremlins get a more family-friendly, animated origin story in HBO’s Secrets of the Mogwai. Gizmo worshipper Eliza Janssen says the show is sweet, but fails to capture any of the franchise’s original anarchy.

It can be hard to forget that at the end of Joe Dante’s Christmas classic Gremlins, our hero Billy doesn’t get to keep his adorable pet Mogwai. Gizmo’s pesky, mutated brethren just laid waste to a small town, sure—but the adorable moppet himself remains as docile as ever. Is their boy-and-his-adorable-monster dynamic really doomed to fail? Chinese-American actor Keye Luke, wearing a big corny Fu Manchu moustache as Chinatown antique store owner Mr Wing, ends the film by wisely noting that until Billy is ready to properly take responsibility, Gizmo will be waiting.

Luckily, he’d only have to wait six years for the bonkers Gremlins 2: The New Batch, in which Dante would again mischievously lash out at consumerism and the commodification of living beings, no matter how insanely cute and merch-worthy they are. The message of these movies is always that humans bring out the worst in the covetable yet volatile beasties: without some dope around to flash bright lights or feed them after midnight, they’re perfectly fine doing their own thing.

Warner Brothers has not learned this lesson. The Gremlins made a soul crushing appearance in WB’s IP orgy Space Jam 2: A New Legacy, mugging in the big basketball game’s stands alongside Hogwarts students, Batman baddies, and, bizarrely enough, niche characters from A Clockwork Orange and The Devils. It hurt my heart to see Dante’s anti-materialist (and as per The New Batch, especially anti-corporate!) critters reduced to studio-contracted extras. I was likewise nervous about HBO Max’s new animated series that promises to expand upon the Gremlins non-existent lore with an origin story set in 1920s Shanghai. In terms of the canon’s own endlessly broken rules of pet ownership and the state of greedy ‘cinematic universe’ bloat, do we really need to mess with Gizmo one more time?

For starters, Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai admirably jumps on the trend of adapting a retro Hollywood product with the input of the creatives and performers whose heritage was originally (and most often problematically) depicted. And I think it does so far better than the updates of A League Of Their Own and Grease, shows which I’m convinced nobody else in the entire world watched. Gone is the hokey, stock-standard “exotic Oriental music” that Dante used to soundtrack Mr Wing’s shop: now composer Sherri Chung brings us a delicate erhu update of the iconically cheeky Gremlins theme.

The voice cast is a murderer’s row of Asian-American talent, with Mulan leads B.D. Wong, Ming-Na Wen, and James Hong (exuberant and show-stealing as always) as the parents and kooky grandpa of kid protagonist Sam Wing. (Izaac Wang) Yes, Wing!! As in the wizened old shopkeeper character I mentioned up top! Bet you never expected that vaguely racist caricature to earn his own sequel series. One bit of canon-fudging that cannot be explained is why Billy will randomly decide upon the name “Gizmo” for his pet 60 years later, when the characters in this show already know him by that same name.

We all know that by the end of the pilot, a newly CG-animated Gizmo is gonna get doused and spurt out a couple of Gremlins—and the road there is sometimes worryingly Disney-fied, with an awwww-inducing opening sequence of Gizmo getting wrenched from his lush mountain sanctuary by a predatory bird. Abducted by a travelling circus, Gizmo is soon rescued by scaredy-cat Sam and his grandpa, a rickety old treasure hunter who knows just how destructive these little guys can be when let loose in the human world.

By episode two, however, Sam is separated from his family and any oncoming Gremlin destruction, travelling back to Gizmo’s homeland with a streetwise urchin girl. It seems that his folks will be left to deal with the growing infestation on their own, splitting the show into parallel stories where our hero isn’t around to see his hometown get Gremlin’d. Billy was a likeable yet relatively bland protagonist in the 1984 film, allowing us to fully surrender to the chaos he’s unwittingly birthed without worrying about his arc too much: so far, it’s hard to say whether a stronger hero’s journey/coming-of-age narrative for Sam will be more than a distraction from the destructive fun we signed up for. If the characters of the original movies ever dared to monologue about overcoming their fears for too long, it would’ve only served as the set-up to a violent, Gremlin-induced punchline.

Episode two also reveals, to my disappointment, that the titular vermin are not the only powerful, mystical forces in this story. Magic is real, represented as red and green bolts of energy that Sam’s grandpa and villain Riley Greene (an incredibly game Matthew Rhys, basically doing Jafar) duel back and forth to one another. This does not bode well for any hopes of the series focusing solely on everyday humans dealing with their out of control pets.

Joe Dante and Steven Spielberg are on board as producers, and must have signed off on a project that broadens the boundaries of the Gremlins franchise with an episodic, more family-friendly focus. But after a sweet and relatively low-key pilot, later episodes are already threatening to pad out what worked in the 80s films with fantasy plotting that could really come from any kids show about an evil sorcerer, a kid hero, and their very huggable animal sidekick.

Which brings me back, regrettably, to Space Jam 2. The team behind Secrets of the Mogwai have lovingly centred Gizmo at the heart of their new story, getting him back into the imaginations of kids where he belongs: he and his nasty siblings are thankfully more than sidekicks or background texture. Voice actor A.J. LoCascio does a nice rendition of Gizmo’s trilled lullaby, and the jacked-up-looking Gremlins are blessed with quirky character designs, all wall-eyed and buck-toothed. Still, I can’t get past Sam’s initial description of Gizmo, dancing miserably for a circus crowd, and wonder if it won’t summarise Secrets of the Mogwai for me by the series’ conclusion: “it’s not magic but it is cute. And sad.” Just a bit.