HBO Max’s prequel animated series “Gremlins: Spirit of the Mogwai,” which premiered worldwide on June 16 at the Annecy Animation Festival in France, kicks off with a dash of “The Sound of Music.”
A young Gizmo is in his bucolic homeland, hidden in a huge hole in the high Himalayas covered in snow, singing from a circular stone days, filled with mysterious engravings. As his fellow Mogwai sing back, positioned on grassy hills around them, suddenly the hills are alive with the sound of Mogwai.
Then a shadow falls from the sky – a huge hideous eagle falling towards the Mogwai. The scariest. Plucky Gizmo, however, hurls rocks at the eagle and, turned on her back, is transported out of her house, as the eagle leaps through the hole in retreat.
Falling into a boat on a young Yangtze River, Gizmo is discovered by a traveling circus and taken to Shanghai in the 1920s.
Joe Dante on Steven Spielberg’s Game-Changing Decision
The opening is a literal origin story, giving a partial explanation of how Gizmo ended up in a Chinatown antique shop at the beginning of 1984’s “Gremlins”.
It will also serve to delight a new generation of audiences for Gizmo, a skin-colored, bat-eared Mogwai with a heart of gold – possibly the cutest furball in movie history.
On Thursday, 38 years after bringing Gizmo to the world, “Gremlins” director Joe Dante received a hero’s welcome as he took the stage at Annecy’s Bonlieu Grand Salle for a post-show Q&A. HBO half-hour series airing in 10 parts. produced by Steven Spielberg’s Amblin and Warner Bros. Animation. He was joined on stage by Tze Chun and Brendan Hay, the show’s executive producers.
“No one is more surprised than we are that this franchise is still popular after 40 years,” confided Dante. But credit should be given where it’s due, he argued.
“In the original script for ‘Gremlins’, the character Gizmo turned into a bad Gremlin after half an hour. We plan to make the movie a little darker,” Dante told a silent audience, awed by the presence of this movie legend.
“But Steven Spielberg decided in his wisdom that Gizmo should stick around and be the hero’s friend. If we had made the movie any other way, no one would remember. The addition of Gizmo made the difference. In his own way, he is the star of the movie.”
“Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai”: the setting
Gizmo is also one of the stars of “Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai”. The other, from a first episode seen in Annecy, appears to be the snub-nosed 10-year-old Sam Wing, the future store owner Mr. Wing in the 1984 film.
The first season explains how Sam and Gizmo meet and finally bond as, with street thief Elle, they fight to return Gizmo to his family and discover a legendary treasure spanning much of China.
Upon receiving the first draft of the script, “What I liked the most was the idea of doing a prequel, especially after having made the sequel to ‘Gremlins’ sequel-proof. It’s a brilliant way to get back on the show by going back to the roots,” Dante said.
If Episode 1 is anything to go by, “Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai” weighs in highly as Amblin, a great premium piece for the whole family – kids 8+, co-viewing parents, and adult fans of original films, says Warner Bros. Animation – which frames a coming of age tale into an epic adventure, exploring themes of family and friendship.
A special attraction for Chun, the show’s writer and showrunner, was seeing the friendship between Sam and Gizmo develop over the course of the season, he said. “It was very important to us that they didn’t immediately become friends because they come from two different worlds.”
Amblin and Warner Bros. Animation were also very excited to explore Gremlin mythology, Chun noted. The program adds a fourth rule on how to treat Mogwai, Hay added.
Launching Steven Spielberg, producing in confinement with France
Making “Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai” took four to five years,” recalled Hay.
A milestone was releasing Steven Spielberg. “I was incredibly nervous. I knew I was nervous when I was stressed in the parking lot,” Chun admitted, laughing at the audience. “We launched and it worked. And Steven Spielberg’s first question was, ‘Is Joe happy?’
The first images started coming in when COVID-19 hit, Hay recalled. “Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai” was produced with French studios Blue Spirit, who provided the animation. Notably, working across two continents, the rest of the show was very well produced in lockdown.
“One thing we kept coming back to throughout the entire production in every department, from storyboarding to animation, was keeping the feel of an Amblin film,” Hay said. “So the scares have to be really scary, the laughs have to be really funny and you have to really care about the characters.
There was a hint of the scares at the end of Episode 1, when Elle meets the English industrialist whose eyes unnaturally glow.
The look and the techniques
A visual reference to “Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai” was “Spirited Away” and other “painter” films, Chun said. The CG can sometimes get old. We wanted to make a show that didn’t age so quickly: we wanted it to feel like if you actually paused the frames, you could see the brushstrokes,” he added.
The backgrounds are painted, the characters, however, are CG: “We wanted to move the camera in a very cinematic way, like the original films and the Amblin films,” Chun said.
Captured on a big screen like Bonlieu’s, one of the biggest visual impacts of “Secrets of the Mogwai” is the kinetic power of long dolly-style takes, the camera moving down the backstage passages of the circus or gliding across the Himalayan peaks and ice walls, adopting the eagle’s point of view.
Each episode has its own visual concept, offering different types of scares, Chun anticipated.
The Importance of the Series to the American Community of Asia and the Pacific Islands (AAPI)
“I remember the first day, when I was writing the pilot, and I started writing on the first line: ‘Note to the reader. Unless otherwise noted, all characters are Chinese,’” Chun recalled.
“I honestly never thought I would live long enough for this to happen, that I could write this in a script for a show for a studio that would be distributed on a major network,” he added.
“Behind the camera, many storyboard artists and directors [of departments] are Chinese Americans. We have an amazing Chinese and Asian voice cast,” Chun continued.
The series is immersed in Chinese culture and mythology, producers, writers, directors and artists conducting extensive research to accurately portray 1920s China, while also introducing audiences to the spirits and monsters that cradle Chinese mythology. Sam’s grandfather was originally envisioned, for example, as having a queue cut – shaved off with a long ponytail – but this was ultimately dismissed as historically inaccurate. Mythological figures include fox spirits and inhabitants of a Spirit Market, based on old watercolors of underworld ghosts.
1984’s “Gremlins” was made into a dark comedy, hats off to the ’50s B-movies. These numbers are an indication that the prequel animated series will indeed get darker.