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Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai Reignites Beloved Property

After decades of Joe Dante and Chris Columbus’ iconic creations being dead in the sunlight, writer/developer Tze Chun pours fresh water with the animated family prequel, “Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai,” a delightful return to form for the franchise and new fantastical ground for exploration.

Set in 1920, decades before the events of the original, Gizmo (A. J. LoCascio, picking up the reins from Howie Mandel) and his fellow Mogwai live in peace and harmony in their Jade Garden valley. When a hawk attacks his village, Gizmo sacrifices himself to protect his community, leaving him on a bog floating down a river and through China. He’s found by a traveling circus ringleader who snatches him up and forces him to act.

Enter young Sam Wing (Izaac Wang), an ordinary kid who loves to make tea at his family’s shop with his cautious parents, Fong (Ming-Na Wen) and Hon (B. D. Wong). However, Sam’s adventure-seeking grandfather (James Hong) implores him to leave his comfort zone. Grandpa takes Sam to a circus where they see an enslaved Gizmo perform; Grandpa instantly recognizes the Mogwai and tells Sam about the danger his species brings. The two rescue Gizmo and take him under their hospitality. 

But Gizmo also catches the attention of Riley Greene (Matthew Rhys), a black magic wizard who wants to use Gizmo in his quest to become immortal. With the help of a no-nonsense street-smart thief named Elle (Gabrielle Nevaeh Green), Sam and Gizmo trek through the countryside and face spiritual entities that stand in their path. Meanwhile, Greene and a set of rambunctious Gremlins trail behind as they race against the main protagonist to reach the Valley first. 

The Mogwai has always been part of Chinese folklore. If you look up images of the Chinese-rooted design of the Mogwai, they look more aligned to their gremlin counterparts than the cute, fluffy, and cuddly creatures Joe Dante shaped them to be. “Secrets of the Mogwai" expands the Gremlins' mythology by doubling down on the supernatural side of Chinese folklore. Each episode follows Sam, Elle, and Gizmo facing off against Chinese folklore figures, from shapeshifting demons to hopping zombies. 

While intended for a family demographic, “Secrets of the Mogwai '' retains its source material’s tonal sensibilities, mixing well-earned TV-PG horror with hilarious dark humor. Just like I was as a kid watching Dante’s "Gremlins," I was flabbergasted by the disturbing imagery and destruction that made its way into this series. I was here for all the rambunctious chaos and mayhem caused by the despicable Greene and the Gremlins that effectively raised the stakes for the young heroes. 

The series is well-driven by the development of Sam and Elle’s character arcs and their budding friendship. It may be another family show that addresses the importance of teamwork, but the writers cleverly use supernatural entities as a catalyst to drive the leads to heroic distances. Voice leads Izaac Wang and Gabrielle Nevaeh Green are completely delightful in their designated roles and bring many vibrant personalities to their performances.

The series also benefits from a central Asian voice cast, including “Mulan” veterans Ming-Na Wen and B. D. Wong, the legend himself, James Hong, and guest voices Sandra Oh, Randall Park, George Takei, and Bowen Yang. And Matthew Rhys is on another level, hamming it up with a slimy British accent as the venomous Riley Greene. Greene leans into the archetype of the classic '80s villain that matches the show's classic adventure narrative: obnoxious, comedic, and maniacally evil.  

The series has been in development for a long time, predating the pandemic. With all of that time to cook, the show looks more scrumptious than many other CG-animated series. "Secrets of the Mogwai" boasts stellar CGI with a cel-shaded style reminiscent of the feel of the Disney animated short "Paperman." The movement is unique; the textures are detailed; there are unique tints of blue and green for lighting, and the character designs are all incredible. The artists craft a unique fantasy that meets a naturalistic portrayal of China with attention to scope. Even though there’s an overarching story, each episode has an individual style and atmosphere.

A beautifully animated family series, “Gremlins: Secret of the Mogwai” features the same dark and chaotic tone of Dante’s films while paying tribute to its Chinese folklore culture.

Whole series was screened for review. Premieres on Max today, May 23rd.

 

Rendy Jones

Rendy Jones (they/he) is a film and television journalist born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. They are the owner of self-published independent outlet Rendy Reviews, a member of the Critics' Choice Association, GALECA, and a part time stand-up comedian.

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