Gateway Horror Gets Animated in ‘Gremlins: Secret of the Mogwai’

The original Gremlins films are one of the best gateways to horror. While the titular creatures are terrifying to watch as they terrorize the screen, it’s all balanced out by its cute, cuddly, and courageous hero Gizmo. And it was that mix of adorable kid-friendly humor with the gruesome murders that reminded us of what made it such a cult classic.

Of course, that was a different time back then. So what passed as a PG-13 horror-comedy back then may not be suitable for today’s generation. But Gremlins: Secret of the Mogwai showrunner Tze Chun not only captures the spirit of the original films, he expands upon its mythology while reclaiming the toxic Chinese stereotypes that were depicted in the first films through authenticity, exploring relevant themes, and the use of beautiful animation.

The 22-minute 10-episode inaugural season is a prequel to the 1984 film. Set in 1920s Shanghai, the entire season shines a bright light on how ten-year-old Sam (Izaac Wang) and 12-year-old Elle (Gabrielle Nevaeh) meet the mysterious and adorable Mogwai Gizmo and embark on a lush and perilous quest to return him home in the Valley of Jade. Along the way, they will meet various people, and confront evil gremlins, the nefarious Mr. Green (Matthew Rhys), and characters from Chinese folklore.

Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai comes from showrunner Tze Chun, who co-wrote episodes with fellow writers Peter Chen, Anna Christopher, Brendan Hay, and Sarah Nerboso. These episodes have a fine mix of nostalgia and mythological expansion that dives deeper into Mr. Wing and Gizmo’s back stories while reclaiming the Chinese culture after it was negatively depicted in the first films through ugly stereotypes. And much of that representation also comes alive in the visual language. 

Using a mixture of 2D and 3D techniques, many of the visuals are reminiscent of “The Art of Books,” where it feels more like concept art than anything else. The thing about that simplicity is that it accentuates the period piece setting as well as makes Gizmo a lot cuter. Fabrics and hair aren’t refined, but that suits what the series aims for visually.

And those cute visuals are contrasted by the show’s darker narrative tones. It’s fun to see how much Chun pushes the limits of what can be a kid-friendly horror comedy while also paying homage to the original. There are jump scares, scary monsters other than the creepy gremlins, and even a few deaths. But that is balanced with a few fun moments that remind us what makes animation so wonderful. There’s a lightheartedness to Sam and Elle’s adventure, which is not only about saving the world but also a journey of self-discovery.

Wang is a shy kid who has his life all planned out. He adores his parents (voiced by BD Wong and Ming Na-Wen) by helping mix all sorts of medicinal remedies. He is fascinated by the stories of his elderly treasure-hunting grandfather (James Hong). The bond between the four that’s surprisingly modern for a period piece. That subversion is welcomed and makes it easier for the audience to connect with the characters because they can see themselves in them. Sam’s father is a strong man who is the husband of a strong human. He works around her passion for concocting medicine and feeds off her energy. While Sam’s mother is fiercely protective of him. But the two are also co-parents to Grandpa, who is very mischievous and has a habit of getting Sam into a bit of trouble. Sam’s relationship with his family is a foil to Elle and Riley Green’s toxic relationship. Elle is a streetwise kid whose talents of pickpocketing is exploited by the the nefarious Riley Green. The evil entrepreneur utilizes mysticism to further his goals, and makes quick work of useless henchmen when he finds out that the wildly unpredictable gremlins give him an advantage.

So Sam and Elle serve as our guides on this adventure across China, where they learn much more about themselves and each other. And because the series is long-form storytelling, it explores the emotional nuances of grief, betrayal, and friendship with greater depth. While these are the kind of themes that audiences of all ages can connect with, the series is a fun entry to the original films for those who have yet to see it. It gives this expansion of the Mogwai mythology more humanity.

While Gremlins: The Secrets of the Mogwai expands upon its lore through Chinese folklore, food, and even music, it remembers what made the original so much fun. That combination of good old-fashion scares with sweet humor made the cult classic unforgettable. And Chun honors and enhances its mythology by having a few nods from the films and using Sam and Elle’s quest to tell the story about family, self-discovery, bravery, and resiliency while reclaiming the Chinese culture through positive imagery. Above all, it’s an exciting new story for those who fell in love with the Mogwai and a colorful entry into a franchise that has reached cult status. 

Grade: A

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