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12 films of Christmas #9: Gremlins

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Gremlins (1984)

It’s hard not to take some pity on parents at Christmas time who feel pressured into getting their kid some must-have toy as a present, often to be left by Santa Claus. My own children are not yet old enough to where I have to concern myself with such, but I know a day will come when I’ll find myself lined up outside a department store four hours before opening in hopes of scoring the latest holiday fad.

Gremlins isn’t quite a film about getting some hard to find toy, like Jingle All The Way, but it does feature a father looking for something unique for his son Billy. Randall Peltzer (Hoyt Paxton) thought he found such a present for his teenaged son when he stumbled into a little shop in Chinatown and bought a gremlin. Gizmo (voiced by Howie Mandel) was his name, and though the shop keeper was reluctant to sell him to anyone (Peltzer makes a deal with the guy’s grandson), Gizmo seems from all angles to be an easy to manage and perfect pet. And he is! He’s a living stuffed animal. He purrs like a cat when happy, is capable of simple speech, yet lacks even the playful aggression of the most well-behaved dogs and cats.

Gremlins is a horror film, the rare Christmas horror film, so naturally things aren’t what they seem with Gizmo. He came with three important rules that the Peltzers¬†were to heed: ¬†don’t expose him to sunlight; don’t get him wet; and don’t feed him after midnight. The midnight one also confused me, as on a military clock midnight is 00:00:00 so every second post midnight can be considered after midnight. My guess, is that Gizmo isn’t to be fed between midnight and dawn. Anyways, the rules seem simple enough, but naturally Billy is unable to follow them. When his friend accidentally gets Gizmo wet, they’re shocked to see Gizmo “sprout” six additional and equally adorable gremlins. These gremlins prove to look rather cute, but do not possess Gizmo’s gentle nature. They’re more mischievous, and in the case of the alpha of the group Stripe, may even be evil.

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Gizmo is almost sickeningly adorable.

Billy (Zach Galligan), like most teens, has other problems to concern himself with. He has a job at a local bank where a regular has it out for his dog, Barney, and wants to see him put down. He’s also courting a neighborhood girl, Kate (Phoebe Cates), who seems to have a strong dislike for Christmas for some reason. In other words, he can’t watch the gremlins all of the time, and that eventually gets him and every one in town in a whole mess of trouble. It turns out, when gremlins eat after midnight they go into a cocoon and emerge as larger, scalier, more dangerous versions. Stripe and his minions are intelligent, so they find a way to get Billy to feed them and then go on a rampage. Properties are destroyed and people die. Suddenly the movie about the cute, furry, little gremlin is full of carnage and mayhem.

Gremlins is not directed by Steven Spielberg, it’s directed by Joe Dante, but it was produced by him and has that Spielberg feel most of his films possessed in the 1980s. There’s a lot of humor in how events unfold, but Gremlins doesn’t shy away from the horror elements. Obviously, this is what makes the film really stand-out amongst other Christmas films. And since the film centers around a Christmas gift, I think it more obviously can be considered a Christmas film as opposed to Die Hard. The film has a lot of charm and a lot of that comes from the wonderful puppets that bring the gremlins to life. Whether they’re fuzzy and cute, or scaley and sinister, they look great and possess a ton of personality. Stripe is borderline likable because he’s so expressive, even if he is clearly homicidal. Gizmo almost looks believable in the sense that he looks like a living creature. Certain features of his puppet make it obvious that he’s not, but he still possesses a lot of charm as well. The film also strikes a satirical tone at many points. The setting is appropriate for any garden variety classic Christmas film prior to the shift in tone and some of the gags and deaths are obvious throwbacks to classic era thrillers. In that respect, it has a lot in common with the Indiana Jones franchise.

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Stripe and his murderous band of carolers.

Gremlins also has the distinction of being one of the last PG films to feature such obvious death and violence. It’s credited with being one of the main drivers for the creation of the PG-13 rating, and it’s not hard to see why. Gizmo was obviously very attractive to younger viewers who likely begged their parents for a doll of the character. Many parents, upon viewing the film or even taking their kids to see it, may have regretted it afterwards. I honestly can’t recall how old I was when I first saw it, but I don’t remember it being a scarring experience, though it wouldn’t surprise me if my sister said otherwise. Gremlins 2 would follow a few years later and feature a much lighter tone in comparison. By doing so though, it lost a lot of what made the original so special. If you want to watch a film that has some of that Christmas spirit in it, but not the corn of so many Christmas movies, you could do a lot worse than Gremlins.

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#5 Best in TV Animation: Batman – The Animated Series

Batman_the_Animated_Series_logoChildren of today can probably hardly imagine a world in which super heroes aren’t dominating the pop culture landscape. We’re in an era where even the Fantastic Four have received three chances at making a successful movie and less popular characters like Antman and Dr. Strange have either become mainstream or soon will. That wasn’t the case before 1990. Prior to that, only Batman and Superman had ever made a buck at the box office while The Incredible Hulk had a semi-successful television series for Marvel. When it came to cartoons, there was basically the many variations on the Super Friends and the Marvel Action Hour. The quality for these cartoons was something less than satisfactory.

When Tim Burton and Michael Keaton helped to make Batman popular once again, the powers that be at DC and Warner Bros. decided to give television another go with the caped crusader. Instead of another colorful super hero mash-up they opted to adapt the more current iteration of Batman. The resulting “Batman” (often subtitled “The Animated Series)” returned Batman to the night from which he was born. Developed chiefly by Eric Radomski, Bruce Timm and Paul Dini, the show embodied much of the recent films as well as the tone of the current comics. Robin was there, but only in a handful of episodes initially and he no longer dressed like Tinker Bell’s older brother. Villains that were popular on the older 60’s television program returned, but with a more serious take. Joining them were the more grounded villains like Roland Dagget and Rupert Thorne, mobsters who waged war from the comfort of their homes. Adding even more of a sense of realism to the program was the fact that the villains (and cops) carried and fired realistic weaponry as opposed to cartoonish laser guns that are always conveniently set to stun.

The pervasive darkness of the show is like a character by itself.

The pervasive darkness of the show is like a character by itself.

The Batman present in the animated series was not the ever-present optimist from the 60’s with the serious, but often cheerful, demeanor. This Batman, voiced exceptionally well by Kevin Conroy, was a moody, no nonsense, hero who truly embodied the term The Dark Knight. He’s driven by a quiet anger, it’s root cause being the murder of his parents he bore witness to as a child. Batman is fiercely driven and consumed by his urge to avenge his parents by cleaning up the streets of Gotham, a seemingly never ending task. His alter-ego Bruce Wayne exists only as a cover for Batman. This Batman has a lot in common with Frank Miller’s, only the delivery isn’t so heavy-handed and extreme. As usual, Batman has allies around him. By his side is his butler, Alfred Pennyworth, who is more of a sidekick in the series as opposed to a moral arbiter. That role falls to Dr. Leslie Tompkins who often counsels Batman away from his life of crime-fighting. Commissioner Gordon heads the Gotham police department and relies on Batman probably more than he should while Detective Bullock is Gordon’s foil and often mistrusts the Batman. Robin is also around with an equally tragic backstory and Batgirl eventually comes into the fold during the second “season.”

Batman has no shortage of allies but he’d be nothing without his rogue’s gallery. The usual suspects are present such as The Joker (voiced by Mark Hamill) and Penguin. They’re presented well, but the show is best remembered for its fresh approach when adapting the lesser villains. Two-Face is introduced slowly as district attorney Harvey Dent before his eventual transformation. His character is handled with care and his sympathetic nature is sort of a calling card for the series. The villain most often cited as coming out of the show for the better is Mr. Freeze. Once a fairly corny player in the comics, the depiction of Freeze in the animated series is that of a vindictive killer. Juxtaposing his cold demeanor is the origins for his madness over his wife’s apparent murder. His debut episode, “Heart of Ice,” is often mentioned among the show’s best. The show doesn’t always rely on its villain of the week (day, actually, since the program aired week days originally) as illustrated in “Beware the Grey Ghost.” In this episode, the show runners have some fun by pairing Batman with an out of work actor typecast for his work as a super hero in an old television show. His voice actor? None other than Adam West.

The rogue's gallery for the show is a clever mix of classics and unknowns, with the unknowns often shining brightest.

The rogue’s gallery for the show is a clever mix of classics and unknowns, with the unknowns often shining brightest.

The artwork in the show is heavily based off of the set designs of Eric Radomski and the character designs of Bruce Timm. If you are not familiar with Timm’s work, it’s a low-detail approach with lots of angular lines. Lots of pointy-chinned females and square-headed males populate the show. His take on the various villains is often influenced by both classic works and the Burton films. Joker and Penguin are obviously takes on Jack Nicholson’s Joker and Danny DeVito’s more monstrous Penguin. Catwoman too resembles her look from Batman Returns but with the S&M aspect toned down. There’s a minimalist approach to the details with lots of flat, muted colors. Backgrounds were even done on black paper, most noticeably the opening title sequence, with light colors painted over them. This technique is credited to Radomski and often referred to as “Dark-Deco.” The show’s biggest contribution to the world of Batman though is easily the character of Harley Quinn, who first originated on television before making the leap to comics.

Whether you like the look of the show or not is a matter of opinion. It certainly needed to grow on me, but I appreciated the style of the show. Like the Burton films, Gotham is a modern city rooted in the stylings of the 30s and 40s. Batman possesses some pretty advanced technology but for some reason also watches a black and white television half the time. The low detail approach for the show’s look is a benefit to the animation itself. Rather than the somewhat stiff X-Men, Batman animates rather smoothly. The later series, The New Batman Adventures, who further reduce the detail to boost the animation but some would suggest they went too far as certain characters came across as too cartoonish.

The show maybe fairly serious in tone, but Batman still has plenty of toys at his disposal. Just no shark repellent this time.

The show maybe fairly serious in tone, but Batman still has plenty of toys at his disposal. Just no shark repellent this time.

Batman The Animated Series is truly one of the great achievements in kid’s programming. Its serious approach to the character of Batman and his many villains really enhanced the product above what is typically expected of children’s programming. The only thing holding it back is the show’s consistency. It was originally ordered as one season of 65 episodes which is a pretty daunting task to come up with 65 well-executed episodes. The show is often one of those programs where the good episodes are really special but there’s a lot of filler to work around. The show becomes more watered-down when the short second season is added to the mix as well as The New Adventures which surfaced years later. That run produced maybe 2 or 3 worthy episodes with the rest being kid stuff, sadly.

Even so, the good produced by Batman The Animated Series is worthy enough to place it at fifth on my top ten list for animated television programs. The show also spawned some feature films, though only one was released theatrically, the fantastic Mask of the Phantasm. When the films jumped the shark with Batman Forever and Batman and Robin, it was the animated series that kept Batman relevant. It’s unlikely another super hero show could ever surpass it.