‘Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai’ Is Enchanting and Terribly Cute
In 1984 a promising director named Joe Dante unleashed Gremlins. It was a horror-comedy that played like a polished-up version of something he might have worked on for his mentor, B-movie king Roger Corman, who shepherded Dante’s first solo feature, Piranha, in 1978. Dante already had The Howling to his name, but this was bigger. Goopy and bloody, scary and funny and endearing, Gremlins was a massive hit that spawned an even bloodier sequel. Corman-esque in spirit, with a dollop of Eighties niceness courtesy of young screenwriter Chris Columbus, its success was more in line with its executive producer, Steven Spielberg.
If Gremlins were made today, they would have done six of them, foisting them onto the world like the self-reproducing Mogwai. Now, Max has delivered an animated prequel series of sorts, Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai, and truth be told it’s kind of adorable.
Secrets of the Mogwai, which enlists Dante as a consulting producer, tells the story of what Gizmo and his brethren were up to back in China, before their reign of cuteness and chaos in America. It is at heart a hero’s quest, rife with the kinds of detours that give such tales shape and character. The M.O. is uttered early on by a treasure-hunting grandfather (the great James Hong): “Magic is all around us.” Secrets of the Mogwai is at its best when it distills that magic into episodic adventure, overflowing with detail and imagination. It’s a series that Gremlin-nostalgic Gen Xers can watch with their kids without worrying about exposing them to toxic stupidity. And it maintains the anarchic spirit that was never far from the surface of the original movies.
When the mogwai we know as Gizmo shows up in 1920 Shanghai in a “circus of the “uncanny” — the ringmaster passes him off as a “catdog” — the aforementioned Grandpa sees trouble ahead. The mogwai, he understands, can sow destruction if it falls into the wrong hands, and sure enough, the evil magician Riley Greene (Matthew Rhys, camping it up with brio) arrives with his henchmen — one of them voiced by original Gremlins star Zach Galligan — to snag the little critter. Grandpa has instructed his grandson Sam (Izaac Wang) to protect the mogwai at all costs. And so the kid, joined by the young thief Elle (Gabrielle Nevaeh), takes the precious cargo on a trek to Gizmo’s native home, The Jade City.
On train and on foot, with Greene and an assortment of green, snarling gremlins in pursuit (yes, they went and ate after midnight), Sam, Elle and Gizmo confront a series of foes rich in mythological detail. There’s a shapeshifter, voiced by Randall Park, who embraces every façade as an opportunity to play a different theatrical role. An army of hopping zombies can be stopped only when someone places a handwritten talisman on their foreheads. A half-human, half-snake “Goddess of Creation (Sandra Oh) guzzles booze served by a headless bartender. A teahouse owner (Amy Hill) serves a brew that makes wayward travelers cough up their memories in green swirls and become docile servants.
The Secrets creative team, including executive producers Tze Chun and, yes, Spielberg, wears some worthy influences, including Hayao Miyazaki and Henry Selick (Coraline). The series has ample wit and shadow to go with the requisite cuteness; as it makes its way through enchanted lands, it more often than not becomes enchanting. The bad gremlins, meanwhile, have dreams of empire, as illustrated by their crude drawings of the Empire State Building and Eiffel Tower. Their ambition impresses even Greene, their evil overlord. They are the embodiment of id — like green, mean, slimy Minions.
One could argue that Secrets of the Mogwai treads into what the author and critic Edward Said would call “orientalism.” In short, it exoticizes the East. From the vantage of these eyes, however, it does so with warmth and respect, embracing Chinese myth and making it accessible. It also includes a great deal of Asian and Asian American talent behind and in front of the camera (or, more accurately, the microphone), including, in addition to those mentioned above, Ming Na-Wen and BD Wong as Sam’s parents.
Secrets of the Mogwai has a human touch, and a sense of humor and adventure that spans generations. It doesn’t rewrite any books, but it’s better than an animated prequel series to a 39-year-old live-action movie has any reason to be.
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