Sunday, May 21, 2023

Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai, on HBO Max

The word "Mogwai” roughly means “evil spirit” or “demon” in Cantonese, but the CCP does not want Cantonese spoken anymore, especially not in Hong Kong. Of course, they wouldn’t accept a Chinese villain either, even though the prequel under consideration is set in 1920 Shanghai. Yet, evil criminal mastermind Riley Greene is by far the funniest character in this animated series, so do not even try to root against him when showrunners Tze Chun & Brendan Hay’s ten-episode Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai premieres Tuesday on [HBO] Max.

Before Gizmo the Mogwai ended up in Mr. Wing’s Chinatown curiosities shop, he was unceremoniously plucked out of the Valley of Jade and literally dropped into the human world by a bird of prey. Young Sam Wing’s irresponsible adventurer grandfather recognizes the dangers Mogwai represent to humanity, especially if they get wet and eat after midnight, so he prepares his grandson to return Gizmo to his fabled home. Unfortunately, Greene and his henchmen get to the Wings first.

Most of his goons show little initiative, but Elle (who is ambiguously "anime"-looking) is the exception. She will help Sam and Gizmo escape, but young Wing remains distrustful of the “Mary Sue” street urchin. However, he needs Elle’s street smarts to elude Greene and return Gizmo to his home. He is also worried about his parents, whom Greene holds hostage, for leverage. His grandfather will not be able to help either, because Greene ingested him, using “pearl magic.”

Poor Sam Wing could not inspire any less confidence as a hero, which is a problem, considering has the most screen-time of all the human, non-Mogwai characters. Anybody we have to spend this much time with should at least be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. Likewise, Elle’s relentlessly abrasive attitude quickly becomes grating.

Of course, little Gizmo is still cute, but let’s be honest. He is a terrible “father.” As in Joe Dante’s original film, his offspring are never as sweet-tempered as he is, even during their furry stage, and they seem to want the evil transformation caused by a post-midnight snack. Why can’t he ever pass along his adorable genes?

The one thing Chun and Hay generally get right is the tone. Like the films, they combine a “gee-whiz” sense of wonder with some outrageously over-the-top mayhem. This show has a high body count, produced in extraordinarily violent ways. Even though Dante joined as a “consulting producer,” real fans will be disappointed that no character in
Secrets of the Mogwai resembles his late, beloved crony, Dick Miller.

Frankly, Matthew Rhys gets almost all the goods lines exclusively to himself as Greene, but since the magical mastermind is always talking, there are a lot of them. In
Secrets of the Mogwai, it is definitely more fun to be bad than good—and badness is way more fun to watch. It is also nice to hear veteran character actor James Hong voicing Grandpa Wing. Sadly, Keye Luke (Mr. Wing) is no longer with us, but Zach Galligan (Billy Peltzer, who received Gizmo as a fateful Christmas present, in the 1984 film) turns up in a small cameo later in the series. Plus, George Takei (technically Japanese) voices Noggin, a magically verbal, scaly Mogwai.

Chun, Hay, and the other writers throw in some cool mythical elements, including Jiangshi, the Chinese hopping vampire-zombies. Unfortunately, the chemistry between Sam Wing (the doormat) and Elle was flawed from conception. Honestly, it is a chore watching their bickering, while Greene’s mugging and scenery chewing always steal the show. Despite the carnage, the series is obviously deathly afraid of the franchise’s 1980s origins, because it embraces some of the worst cliches of the present moment. Recommended with reservations, purely for the villain,
Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai starts streaming Tuesday (5/23) on [HBO] Max.