The tone of Joe Dante's "Gremlins 2 The New Batch" is set even before the "actual" movie has started. In place of the usual credit sequence, the picture begins with the familiar telescoping Warner Bros. logo from the Looney Tunes cartoons, and lounging on top, as usual, is the inimitable Bugs, carrot in hand and a prankish gleam in his eye.
That gleam -- which suggests brains, anarchic wit and cool indomitability -- expresses completely the spirit of the Warner Bros. animations, and precisely what Dante is hoping to reproduce. What he wants most of all is to create a kind of live-action Looney Tunes, a flesh-and-blood movie with a cartoon heart.
But the soul of Bugs -- the Brando of Bunnies -- almost never makes it into "Gremlins 2." (Even the opening cartoon, for which the legendary animator Chuck Jones came out of retirement, is a bust.) "Gremlins 2" isn't much of a movie; for a good hour it's less like a wild-spirited comedy than a '60s Disney film with Dean Jones or Fred MacMurray. It's as if it were built out of the same brand of styrofoam as, say, "The Love Bug."
Nothing in the first "Gremlins" came close to being as bad as these early segments in the second one, and because the concept is no longer fresh, and the suspense over what's going to happen is lost, we're ready for the filmmakers to get on with it long before they've finished setting the table.
Very little in this sequel is markedly different from the original; even the stars, the creatures and the basic setup are the same. After the passing of the old Chinaman who owned him, Gizmo, the impossibly adorable Mogwai who was the source of all the mischief in the earlier picture, is plucked out of an alley in New York's Chinatown and taken to Clamp Centre, a skyscraping corporate gulag that serves as headquarters for a financial empire run by a Donald Trump-like mega-magnate (with a little Ted Turner mixed in) named Daniel Clamp (John Glover).
If you remember, there are rules governing the care and feeding of a Mogwai, namely (1) keep them away from bright lights; (2) don't get them wet; and (3) don't allow them to eat after midnight. You'd think that Billy, the struggling young artist who was present in Kingston Falls for the earlier gremlin disasters (and who is played once again with something close to lifelikeness by Zach Galligan), would remember the havoc caused by the unleashing of these hell-raising id-monsters and take the proper precautions. But after finding his cuddly pal in a genetics lab (presided over by the magnificently sepulchral Christopher Lee), he stuffs him in a drawer in his office in Clamp's art department and hurries off to a dinner meeting with his ambitious supervisor (the smugly self-confident Haviland Morris).
What's expected occurs, and not a moment too soon. Billy's girlfriend (Phoebe Cates) is dispatched to rescue the little darling from the desk, but by then a few stray dribbles from a malfunctioning water fountain have sparked the chain reaction that plunges Clamp's kingdom into chaos. Before long, thousands of floppy-eared demons -- who are close in temperament to Hell's Angels -- are speeding through the corridors of power with most evil intent, dancing on desk tops, swinging from light fixtures, laying waste to everything in their path.
Once these pleasure-driven delinquents are unleashed on Clamp's world, the movie picks up steam, and why not? They're pure libidinous energy, greedy, violent, destruction-minded -- in short, the ideal summer movie heroes. Also, Dante and special-effects wizard Rick Baker have focused all of their ingenuity on the creatures. Clearly, it's with them, and not the film's real actors, that Dante has felt the greater empathy. Each has its distinctly monstrous identity, and in the movie's second half, as the camera moves through the building, discovering one hilariously colorful scoundrel after another, we can appreciate the wit and inventiveness that have gone into their creation while, at the same time, they're running together in our heads.
A few stand out, like the pipe-smoking hipster who becomes capable of speech because of a genetic brain cocktail and makes a talk show appearance as an advocate for gremlin perestroika, demanding the fruits of civilization -- you know, "the Geneva Convention, chamber music, Susan Sontag."
Screenwriter Charlie Haas has also struck some sublimely inspired notes, among them a deliriously surreal gremlin musical rendition of "New York, New York," with a fedoraed Sinatra look-alike belting out the lyrics. And the idea of having Gizmo prepare for his revenge against his barbaric alter egos by re-creating himself in the image of Rambo is wonderful, even if haphazardly executed.
Pop culture allusions are scattered throughout the film as throwaway gags, and in general they contribute to the sense of movie-aware playfulness that is essential to Dante's out-of-the-inkwell aesthetic. Even the real world -- if the travails of Donald Trump can be termed real -- becomes part of the cartoon. There's a secret thrill, not to mention a sense of poetic justice, in the notion of mythical creatures conspiring to bedevil the life of a super-rich wheeler-dealer. And when the name of the ravishing young climber who catches Clamp's eye at the close of the film turns out to be Marla (nope, she's a redhead), the joke is not only impudently smart but hot off the presses to boot. Bugs, you feel, would be proud.
Gremlins 2 The New Batch, at area theaters, is rated PG-13.