Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai is much better than I expected

When I was about 8 or 9 years old, my father took me and some friends (neighbours) to Leicester Square to the first public performance of Back to the Future. To see the film on the biggest screen around (this was way before IMAX) was an absolute treat. Yet, for some explicable reason I wore a Gremlins sweatshirt despite never ever having watched Gremlins. I don’t think I saw it until AFTER Gremlins 2: The New Batch. I wasn’t a great fan of horror at the time. But I do remember loving Gremlins 2 enough to go back and watch the original film and loving it to bits. I lapped up the dark humour and gross jokes. It was absolute chaos. It was like the Muppets had ugly kids and they’d gone wild. And it was originally rated ’15’ before later being re-rated a ’12A’. Gremlins 2 was a ’15’ on video, but released as ’12’. Yes, it’s crazier than the films themselves.

So yes, I’m definitely a fan of Gremlins. I even read the novel of the first film which was even stranger than the original film. Its plot centered around an alien scientist who created the Mogwai to adapt to any environmental conditions. Things did not go according to plan, of course, and the Mogwai ends up on Earth, etc. etc. The whole thing sounds as if it was an early revision of Disney’s Lilo and Stitch.

Now available on BBC iPlayer (through CBBC)

Many, many, many years later there has been all manner of rumours about a third film, but nothing ever came to fruition. But a chap by the name of Tze Chun proposed a TV series which leaned heavily into the original movie’s Chinese roots (as Gizmo the Mogwai was originally found by Billy Peltzer’s dad in an old Chinese curiosity shop). It takes that and expands the backstory of Mr. Wing (the old man we see in the first film) and his family, growing up in 1920’s Shanghai (which isn’t a particularly fun time in Chinese history given the roots of revolution were being seeded, amongst many other problems). It also gives the Mogwai a decent origin story too – but I won’t spoil that, other than to say that it involves a lot of Chinese mythology (which I’m absolutely fascinated by – especially the incredible Journey to the West) that is heavily involved throughout the whole series. We meet all manner of strange and wonderful characters – human and otherwise – as our characters try to save the fate of the Mogwai and China itself.

The first thing to mention is that it’s animation. Just as well, really, as although I could absolutely see this as a live action series – the practical puppet effects and visual effects required would be a nightmare – not just in cost, but extremely labour intensive. I really love the style of the animation, it’s simple and yet complex, providing a lot of detail in the Gremlins and Mogwai alike. Great for kids and adults – which brings me to another point. This is a family friendly series, yet it does go into some serious John Carpenter territory – especially the main villain, Riley, who practices Chinese magic to the extent that he can absorb the knowledge of anybody by encasing them into a magical pearl, dislocating his jaw, and swallowing them whole. This is quite disturbing, and younger kids will definitely want their parents around in some of these darker moments (one of which is a Gremlin biting off the finger of a henchman and plays with it as if it were a cigar). But with these darker moments also comes the wonderfully dark humour of the first two films. The Gremlins, at their full chaotic madness, produce some genuinely good laughs.

Overall, the show has a decent antagonist in the form of Riley Greene and his henchmen (who he chides at one point for humanising themselves by telling him is name) AND the Gremlins. He has some responsible for some genuinely disturbing moments, but also is responsible for some of the lighter moments too. The voice cast features prominent Asian-American actors including the always wonderful James Hong, Ming-Na Wen (Fennec Shand in The Book of Boba Fett), BD Wong, George Takei (in an unexpected but so appropriate and wonderfully performed role), Randall Park, and Sarah Oh. All of them give great performances all round.

The music by Sherri Chung is phenomenal and provides a fantastic emotional backing to all the action that’s going on screen, and she provides the best version of the Gremlin Rag featuring traditional Chinese instruments that makes Jerry Goldsmith’s original piece feel right at home.

Overall, this is the story that we’ve been waiting for all these years and Tze Chun and his team (including executive producer Steven Spielberg who produces the show under his Amblin Entertainment banner and consulting producer Joe Dante, who directed the original films) have done an absolutely incredible job. And we’re getting a second season! It’s also gaining some very good reviews, too.

If you like this show, BTW, I also heartedly recommend Amercian Born Chinese on Disney+ – it too gives a big nod to Chinese mythology (and particularly Journey to the West) and as a bonus, also features Michelle Yeoh.

Gremlins: The Secrets of the Mogwai is currently available in the UK through BBC iPlayer, via their CBBC channel.

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