‘Lots of Dismemberment’: Animating Gizmo’s Origin Story in ‘Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai’

Fans of Joe Dante’s “Gremlins” (1984) wanting to know how mysterious shop owner Mr. Wing (Keye Luke) first met Gizmo (Howie Mandel) and the rest of the mogwai creatures finally get an answer in the new animated prequel “Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai” (now streaming on Max). In this new origin story from showrunner Tze Chun (“I’m a Virgo”) and executive producer Brendan Hay (“Robot Chicken”), 10-year-old Sam Wing (Izaac Wang) and young Gizmo (AJ LoCascio) attempt to transport the mogwai from 1920 Shanghai to their ancestral home in the Valley of Jade.

The pair are accompanied by teenage street thief Ellie (Gabrielle Nevaeh) and pursued by sorcerer/industrialist Riley Greene (Matthew Rhys), who knows how destructive the mogwai can be if exposed to water or fed after midnight and wants them for his own army of assassins.

“I think that what Joe did with those original ‘Gremlins’ movies is so iconic, and we really wanted to honor the tone of those original movies that were genuinely scary but also funny and weird,” Chun told IndieWire. “And also the Amblin movies that we grew up with. We wanted to create a show that could feel like a modern take on an Amblin movie in the ‘Gremlins’ universe.

“Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai”Screenshot/Twitter

“And the fact that we got to do this in the backdrop of 1920s China and weave in all the spirits, creatures, and monsters from Chinese mythology that I grew up with [including the jiangshi Chinese vampire/zombies] was an added bonus, but something that was really meaningful to me,” continued Chun.

But it was daunting at first. Fortunately, Chun and Hay had the blessings of both executive producer Steven Spielberg and Dante, who they invited to serve as consulting producer. “When Joe came to speak to the creative team, it was a lot of telling of stories about the original ‘Gremlins’ movies and what production was like,” Hay said, “and he was happy that we were doing it in animation. So we could do things like have Gizmo walk around and run and do things that were very hard to do with the puppet.”

“Very early on, once we had the scope of the season, we pitched Spielberg, and that was obviously a lifelong dream for me and Brendan,” Chun added. “And I was really touched that the first thing that Spielberg said after we were done pitching was, ‘Is Joe happy?’ And that was a real testament to his support of other filmmakers decades later.”

“Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai”

The task of translating the 10-episode series to CG animation with a 2D look fell to Blue Spirit Productions. The goal was to attain a handmade quality without sacrificing the puppet DNA of the mogwai. “Everything is textured and we occasionally use 2D backgrounds, so you still have a more hand-drawn quality to it all,” added Chun. “And the whole thing I kept aspiring to — to use a phrase borrowed from our supervising producer, Dan Krall, who was involved in a lot of the look of the show — was an ‘Art of’ book because it’s not super polished.”

At the same time, they wanted the dynamic camera movements and direction that you get from CG. The best example is the opening tracking shot into the medicinal shop run by Sam’s parents (Ming-Na Wen and BD Wong), assisted by his grandfather (James Hong). “It’s our little ‘Tales From the Crypt’ homage and a way to connect to the movies,” Hay said. And, over that shot. they have Jerry Goldsmith’s jaunty score performed with Chinese instrumentation by composer Sherri Chung (“Riverdale”), the first woman governor of the TV Academy’s music branch.

The most fun, though, was coming up with original Gremlin fighting gags. Hay was the best at brainstorming all day on a whiteboard. He has two favorites. The first is a jazz club full of chaotic Gremlins that could only be done in animation. The second is a standalone gag of a man versus a Gremlin: “One of the favorite things for me about this show is that we get to do kid-friendly [violence]. No blood, but lots of dismemberment,” Hay said.

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