25 Years Later, Gremlins 2: The New Batch Is Still The Best Live-Action Cartoon
By: Jeremy Sollie
“Gremlins? In this theater? Now?”
Like most rational people not blinded by nostalgia, Joe Dante hates Space Jam, which takes characters that can do anything and imprisons them on a basketball court. When it came time to make another Looney Tunes film, Looney Tunes: Back in Action, Dante signed on to direct, and called the project the “Anti-Space Jam” during production. It isn’t hard to see what enticed Dante to make a Looney Tunes film; he has a clear and abiding love for the characters and their zany style of comedy. But even more, he probably wanted to ensure they were treated better here than in 1996. Still, it was a little unnecessary, as Dante had already made a live-action Looney Tunes film (and an excellent one at that) thirteen years earlier, Gremlins 2: The New Batch, which was released in theaters twenty-five years ago today.
The six-year gap between Gremlins and Gremlins 2: The New Batch was supposed to be much smaller, only Dante initially wasn’t interested in making a sequel to the surprise hit, and Warner Bros. had a hard time developing one without him. After proposed sequels that would’ve sent the Gremlins to Las Vegas and even Mars never panned out, the studio returned to Dante, who agreed to make another Gremlins film, with the condition that he could do whatever he wanted. Boy, did he.
Gremlins 2: The New Batch actually opens with a Looney Tunes short (directed by Chuck Jones), which features Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck arguing over Bugs’ placement atop the Warner Bros. shield. It’s a brief bit of animation that’s main purpose is to celebrate Bugs Bunny’s fiftieth birthday, but it also sets the tone for the cartoon craziness that follows. The original Gremlins begins as a Capra-esque Christmas story before becoming a horror film, and the deranged second half is so effective because it takes place in an idyllic studio back-lot town that’s carefully set up at the start. After Bugs and Daffy disappear, Gremlins 2: The New Batch heads to New York, and the Chinatown store from the original film. Gizmo, the adorable mogwai (and true hero of the series), is back in the protection of store owner Mr. Wing, at least until Wing dies and his shop is demolished and the land taken by Clamp Enterprises. That sends Gizmo – and the film – to the streets of New York City, a very different setting than nearby Kingston Falls.
Eventually, Gizmo winds up in a laboratory, one of many operations running inside the towering Clamp Enterprises building. Also working there are Billy, Gizmo’s owner from Gremlins, and his girlfriend from the first film, now-wife, Kate. The tower is the headquarters for Clamp Cable Network, which is so clearly modeled after CNN that the network has a video ready to air were the world to end (something Ted Turner actually had commissioned, and which recently surfaced on the Internet). Aside from news, CCN is home to a cooking show, a film review show, and pretty much everything. Instead of taking on Frank Capra’s ‘America’, this time the Gremlins attack 1980s excess, with the Clamp Enterprises building being the perfect representation of it (“You make a place for things… things come.”).
Once again, the rules for keeping a mogwai (no bright light, don’t get them wet, and never feed them after midnight) are broken, and poor Gizmo unwillingly spawns a legion of mischievous demons that take over Clamp Enterprises. Unlike the first film, which had Billy front and center, the Gremlins are the stars here, with their antics taking up much of the film. Once the Gremlins are introduced, the film abandons all logic. Gremlins invade the laboratory where Gizmo was kept and ingest concoctions that makes one Gremlin sprout wings (when he crashes through the wall, his outline is the Bat symbol) and turns another into pure electricity. The heavy drinking host of a cooking show has her studio destroyed and film critic Leonard Maltin is attacked while reading his negative review of the first film. The antics rapidly accelerate to the point that the Gremlins actually break the film, and Hulk Hogan has to demand that the Gremlins in the projection booth restart the film (the home release replaces this with a lesser version where the viewer’s television is taken over, and instead of Hogan, old footage of John Wayne is incorporated).
Gremlins 2: The New Batch is a much different film than the first, whose craziness looks tame compared to this unrestrained madness. Gremlins takes time to set up a story and characters before the little monsters attack, whereas Gremlins 2: The New Batch has no interest in Billy or his job and relationship with Kate. But I’m fully on-board with the film, because what Dante was interested in – making a surreal live-action cartoon with plenty of dark humor and fourth wall-breaking moments – is exactly what I’m interested in. Watching “Duck Amuck” as a kid, there was a thrill in seeing a cartoon do things I didn’t know a cartoon could do. Watching Gremlins 2: The New Batch now, I get that same thrill. Gremlins 2: The New Batch is the special type of film that results from a director being given free reign by a studio and taking full advantage of it. Looney Tunes: Back In Action has fun moments, and it’s leagues above Space Jam, but it’s also Dante making a studio film within the studio system (it stars Brendan Fraser and puts the cartoon characters in supporting roles). Gremlins 2: The New Batch might also be a studio film, but like the recent Mad Max: Fury Road, it’s a studio film that plays like the studio had one pulled on them. With Gremlins 2: The New Batch, Joe Dante made the ultimate Saturday morning movie. Even though the social commentary of the film refers to a certain period in America, like the works of Chuck Jones and Tex Avery that influenced it, the humor is timeless.