Joe Dante’s Gremlins has been a beloved franchise for four decades, with its iconic characters Gizmo and the nefarious gremlins captivating audiences of all ages. Now, a new animated prequel series, Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai, has been released on HBO Max, exploring the origins of the beloved mogwai creatures while also telling a standalone story with an all-star vocal cast and eye-catching animation.
From its lizard-brain appeal of Gizmo’s cuteness and the gremlins’ Chuck Jones-inspired mayhem to its cautionary tales about conscientious stewardship of nature and the encroachment of technology, Gremlins has always been simultaneously elemental and malleable. The series’ critique has been extended to capitalism and the chaos that runs amok when attempting to commodify what is not fully understood.
Created by Tze Chun, the 10-episode animated series has dedicated itself to giving Gizmo and his companions a backstory that they probably didn’t require yet still manages to capture the tones and themes of the original films. Set in Shanghai circa 1920, the story follows young Sam Wing, sheltered by his parents who run a medicinal shop, on his quest to protect Gizmo from the evil Riley Greene, who is half-sorcerer and half-industrialist and aware of some particularly wicked uses for mogwai.
The series offers explanations for where the mogwai came from and expands on the rules for mogwai maintenance. While the expanded mythos may not add much to the overall enjoyment of the series, the infusion of Chinese culture – including the use of goji berries and jiangshi, as well as the costumes and architecture of 1920s Shanghai – helps to avoid Orientalist exoticism that pervaded the films.
What makes Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai stand out is its solidly aspirational characterizations and clever dialogue, driven by nods to the original movies but without over-reliance on contemporary pop culture references and meta humor. The series exists in its own particular flavor – one that highlights both the primal appeal of the mogwai and gremlin characters and the emotional gravity of the series’ themes.
While not as scary or giddy as the original Gremlins film, Secrets of the Mogwai has its own appeal, with the cel-shaded animation style and versatile score popping. The animated format makes it easy to just giggle at the spectacle of a pulverized gremlin, and the series has less emotional impact than the original films. Nonetheless, the franchise-correcting authenticity and heart with which Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai is done is enough to capture the spirit of the original movies, and fans can’t wait for more.