Consider "Gremlins" the "It's a Wonderful Life" of the 1980s. Instead of Bedford Falls, we're now in Kingston Falls, though it's just as quaint as Bedford. Lionel Barrymore was the unsympathetic banker intent on taking over the town in "It's a Wonderful Life." Now it's Mrs. Deagle (Polly Holliday) who not only owns the bank, but also the entire town. That's evidenced by the poor woman whom she refuses to give any more time to in order to pay already-mounted debts, as well as Mr. Futterman's (Dick Miller) bitter remarks about Deagle shutting down the only major factory in the town and putting him and others out of work.
Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan), the son of an idealistic, good-hearted inventor, is George Bailey, though he doesn't wonder what his town would be like without him. He's just as responsible and respectable as Bailey, perhaps even more so what with Deagle's malicious, but possibly true comment that with his father Randall (Hoyt Axton) so far unsuccessfully trying to sell his inventions, he's basically caring for his entire family financially.
In place of Mary Hatch Bailey (Donna Reed), there's young teen courtship by way of Kate Beringer (Phoebe Cates), Billy's co-worker at the bank who clearly likes him. Yet, for both of them, it's a slow-going courtship, nothing that ruins what they like about each other and it's quite nice. The town's small and they have time. Plus, who would want it to be rushed when Cates is just as bright and attractive as Donna Reed circa 1946?
And you bet the town is threatened, though it's with monsters of a voracious and vicious sort, spawned from Gizmo (voice of Howie Mandel), a Mogwai that Randall brings home for Billy as a Christmas present and three rules that must be followed: Never expose the Mogwai to bright light because it will kill him; never get him wet; and never feed him after midnight.
The latter two rules obviously have to be broken because that's where the fun is, and what better time to do so? What better way to see a town overturned from the roles its citizens usually have? Deagle's nasty, Futterman doesn't like foreign things, and Billy's mother (Frances Lee McCain) appreciates a well-upheld household.
This film is powered by the brains of many, chiefly director Joe Dante, screenwriter Chris Columbus (though one questions how he injected so much energy into this screenplay in the near-to-mid '80s and lacked the same energy when he directed the first two "Harry Potter" films), and executive producer Steven Spielberg who no doubt shepherded this movie all the way through. They stack scenes with film reference after film reference, but also have considerate sensibilities.
Sure a gremlin is microwaved by Billy's mom later on, but Dante and Columbus make sure that Barney, Billy's dog, is kept out of the action. There's a feeling of dread when he's onscreen and Mrs. Deagle wants him for her own twisted purposes since she hates the dog (and it's as worrisome as Toto with Dorothy when the Wicked Witch was omnipresent in "The Wizard of Oz"). Yet, Barney's safety is assured after Billy finds him tangled in Christmas lights, the deed either done by Deagle or the gremlins, and Randall decides to drop Barney off with Billy's grandmother before heading out to a convention to hawk his inventions. Being a dog lover, there's always much to dread when there's danger afoot in a film and a dog's around, but Dante and Columbus must thankfully feel the same way about dogs.
There's a lot of fun to be had, not just from the smart framework of the film, but also from watching this town deal with these menaces. Billy fights these gremlins so the town isn't completely destroyed by them, while his mother fights to uphold the sanctity of her household, looking a little like Sigourney Weaver in "Alien," especially in her resourcefulness, leading to gruesome, but entertaining fates for two gremlins.
Kate joins Billy in his battle because it's the natural thing for the female lead to do. And through all this, Dante clearly shows how much he loves the movies, not only with a clip of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" playing on a black-and-white TV and Gizmo thinking of a line from a Clark Gable film while he's driving a toy car, but also the major climax taking place in a movie theater, where "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" plays.
Indeed, in watching Gizmo screech and involuntarily give birth to new Mogwais that soon become the gremlins, and in seeing the other lead gremlin, Stripe, develop a very distinct personality, this is one film that proves the value of imagination. Imagination does come from Dr. Seuss books, stories of Dr. Doolittle talking to the animals, Roald Dahl's inimitable characters such as Willy Wonka, and "Treasure Island" as well as novels by H.G. Wells, but it also comes from movies like "Gremlins."
This is the kind of movie to save for kids when they get older, when they become mature enough and can see that movie violence isn't real; and their imaginations can be fired up even more, to be introduced to creatures that are enormously fascinating and unforgettable. "Gremlins" rates as a 9 out of 10. (R Aronsky)