Franchise Killers: Gremlins 2: The New Batch
More often than not, movie franchises end on a low note. Sometimes one truly awful entry in a series can kill an audience’s appetite for any additional follow-ups. Other times, a series will follow a long, slow decline that ends in apathy. But every now and then, you come across a franchise killer that is actually worth watching. That’s what we have here with Joe Dante’s zany sequel, Gremlins 2: The New Batch.
The original Gremlins came out in the summer of 1984. The movie’s marketing material proudly proclaimed that it was produced by Stephen Spielberg which at the time was a seal of approval that practically guaranteed box office success. It also suggested that a movie would be appropriate for families which resulted in some controversy when the movie turned out to be darker and more violent than something like E.T.
The original Gremlins and the Spielberg-directed Raiders sequel, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, both shocked audiences that summer with images of beating hearts being removed from human chests and little green monsters exploding in microwave ovens. These two movies combined helped pave the way for the PG-13 rating.
Gremlins was written by Christopher Columbus. His original screenplay was about a sweet little town right out of a Frank Capra movie which is besieged by nasty, murderous beasts. It’s no coincidence the movie is set at Christmas. The town, Kingston Falls, was modeled after Bedford Falls from Capra’s classic, It’s a Wonderful Life. The tone of the script was more along the lines of a straight-up horror movie with Gizmo actually turning into the leader of the monsters instead of remaining a cuddly cutie.
Director Joe Dante had a very different view of the movie. He was bored by the human characters of Columbus’ quaint little town. He was firmly on the side of the monsters. Like the gremlins, Dante wanted to see Kingston Falls burn. The more chaos he could depict on the screen, the better. So he ended up imbuing the creatures with a sense of humor and unique characteristics.
As producer, Spielberg had the final say on the tone of the movie. He reigned in both the horror elements of the original script and some of Dante’s zanier impulses. Gizmo’s fate was altered so that he could remain a lovable child’s plaything, much to the chagrin of Dante who liked his Mogwaii green and scaly.
Of course Gremlins was a hit at the box office and probably more importantly, Gremlins merchandise sold very well. As expected, cute little Gizmo was on backpacks and lunch boxes and stuffed dolls. Warner Brothers wanted a sequel as soon as possible. When they approached Dante with the idea he turned them down flat. On a creative level, he didn’t feel there was any more story left to tell. But also, he found working on a big studio project to be exhausting and didn’t want to repeat the experience on a sequel.
Undaunted, Warner Brothers continued developing Gremlins 2 without Dante’s involvement. There were ideas to send the gremlins to Vegas or even into outer space. But none of these ideas gelled. Eventually, the studio went back to Dante and offered him pretty much anything he wanted to make a Gremlins sequel. The director couldn’t say “no”. Not only did Warner Brothers give Dante complete creative control over the movie, they also agreed to give him a much larger budget than he had on the first film.
You have to wonder if anyone at Warner Brother had even met Dante. Giving him complete creative control and a big budget is a lot like handing Wile E. Coyote the entire ACME warehouse and letting him go crazy. He’s probably not going to kill the Road Runner. But he will create a massive amount of chaos and destruction as he tries to do so.
Dante being Dante, he decided he wasn’t going to make a proper sequel to Gremlins. Instead, he decided to satirize his first movie and the concept of sequels. A life-long fan of the Looney Tunes, Dante began and ended Gremlins 2 with animated sequences featuring Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. He also used the movie to express his disdain for cute little Gizmo. Gizmo spends most of the movie being tortured by other Gremlins until he gets in touch with his inner Rambo.
The sequel moves the action to New York but brings back the first movie’s leads, Zach Galligan and Phoebe Cates. They have new jobs in a high-tech high-rise owned by a millionaire played by John Glover. Glover’s character is a thinly veiled send-up of Donald Trump named Daniel Clamp. Hopefully Dante is working on a spin-off movie in which Daniel Clamp runs for president. I’ll buy a ticket for that right now.
The movie was filled with satirical touches some of which may not land as well today as they did when the movie was originally released. Gremlins 2 spends a lot of time satirizing cable TV and technological advances that seemed silly then, but are kind of mundane now. As the movie goes on it becomes more and more cartoonish which all leads up to the monsters doing a big musical number.
You can see how that might not go over with fans of the first movie who just wanted more of the same. But for a kindred spirit like me, I found the off-the-wall humor to be refreshing. Most fans disagreed and many felt betrayed by the silly sequel. Many more stayed home. It had been six years since the original Gremlins and by the time the sequel was released there was no longer a lot of demand for Gremlins 2.
Warner Brothers decided that the failure of Gremlins 2 indicated that the series was dead. It’s been 25 years since the last Gremlins movie was released. But in the modern age when everything is rebootable, there have been rumors that the studio is trying to interest Spielberg in reviving the series.
Let’s break this down:
How many movies in the series? 2
How many of them were good? 2
Health of the franchise before it died? Old
Likelihood of a reboot? Probably just a matter of time
Any redeeming value? Tons if you like your Gremlins silly