I find it strange that while Gremlins 2: The New Batch was given a PG-13 certificate by the MPAA, and the first Gremlins was given a PG (and infamously spawning the PG-13 rating soon after), Gremlins 2 is the film that feels more childish. And when I say childish, I mean that Gremlins 2 is exhausting, far too silly, and unlikely to entertain anyone in the double-digit age range. It goes in an entirely different direction than the first Gremlins, trading in its more horror-themed elements for off-the-wall parody humor that is more painful than funny, and less clever than the more (comparatively) subtle satire themes of the first film.
Time has passed inbetween Gremlins and its sequel (6 years in real life), and Billy Peltzer and his fiancee Katie have moved to New York and now work at Clamp Enterprises. By a forced string of events, Gizmo ends up in the same building as Billy, and Billy finds him and tries to take him home. Unfortunately, Gizmo inevitably gets wet, which causes him to multiply, and we get more gremlins mayhem; this time its confined within the Clamp Enterprises building, where hundreds of unsuspecting employees may fall victim.
Now that director Joe Dante has the PG-13 rating at his disposal, one would expect him to crank things up a few more notches from the first PG rated Gremlins film (which was already a dark film in itself). But surprisingly, Dante has created a film that's tamer, more comedic (but not as funny), and far less entertaining than the first film. The PG-13 rating confuses me a lot, as it's significantly tamer than a lot of PG rated films of the same era (Dead Poets Society, Beetlejuice, etc).
One of the interesting things about the first Gremlins film is that there were few "deliberate" laughs. And by that, I mean that none of actors said something funny, then looked at the camera and smiled as the audience laughed appreciatively. Much of the humor was an effective balance of unintentional and intentional, which resulted in a film that was campy and almost self-satirical, but the formula worked, and no one really knows how or why. So I suppose it makes sense that Joe Dante would go in an entirely different direction for the sequel, for that kind of lightning would have been impossible to capture in the same bottle.
Essentially, Gremlins 2 is one giant parody. It has an obnoxious amount of self-referential gags and jabs at the first film, and there's also a horrifying amount of pop culture references. Phantom of the Opera, The Wizard of Oz, and Rambo are all parodied (as well as many other films). But that's all fairly painless compared to the gremlins' horrifying rendition of "New York, New York." Between the faux musical numbers and the jarring "fourth wall" jokes, Gremlins 2 begins to feel like a bad Muppet movie. And believe me; you do not want your movie to feel like a bad Muppet movie.
What's more, Gremlins 2 commits the ultimate sequel sin, in that it actually hurts the original film. One of several elements of the last film that really impressed me was its bravery to kill of a couple supporting characters during the gremlin mayhem in the film's latter half. In this film, we not only learn that these characters did not actually died (though the opposite was strongly suggested in the first), but they actually show up in Gremlins 2! So now, not only do we get this toothless sequel, we also have several teeth extracted from the first film as well.
Despite my bashing, Gremlins 2 is not without positives. Some of the gremlin mayhem works, especially when the spirit of the first film breaks through. There is one particularly gross and memorable gremlin murder early on in the proceedings involving a paper shredder that recalls the kitchen scene from the first Gremlins. And part-way through the film, the gremlins manage to get into some scientific genetic serums (or something like that), which results in the gremlins mutating into various different creatures, which results in some really interesting gremlin designs, though these are sadly underused for the most part.
The cast can mostly be split into two parts: Those that were bad because of the terrible script, and those that were just inexcusably bad by all standards. John Glover and Dick Miller make up the first category. Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, and Haviland Morris make up the latter.
There are a couple actors that don't fit into either category. Don and Dan Stanton play identical lab assistants, and they're amusing enough in two very small roles. Christopher Lee gets to camp things up as Doctor Catheter, but bizarrely enough, their is a very prominent role where a want-to-be news anchor dresses up as a vampire for the entirety of the film, and that part is played by Robert Prosky. In a film that is so pop-culture nuts like Gremlins 2, I'm fairly surprised that the film didn't take the obvious bait. Also, if you thought that Mr. Wing (the Asian shop-keeper) from Gremlins 2 was too obnoxious as a stereotype, wait until you see Gedde Watanabe as a camera-happy Asian tourist.
Jerry Goldsmith's sequel score lacks almost any of the energy from the first film. It feels content to simply regurgitate themes from its predecessor, and supplies no new ideas for itself. And oddly enough, while there are numerous references to the classic Gremlins Rag throughout the film, it never actually appears until the end credits (though its more orchestral arrangement is refreshing).
Largely devoid of the charm and entertainment that blessed the 1984 original, Gremlins 2 isn't completely joyless, but it does its best to get there. 40 minutes of tedious and inevitable set-up, only for the next 107 to be an extensive string of bad pop culture references and predictable slap-stick comedy. The first Gremlins had me in stitches from start to finish. But outside of a few chuckles, Gremlins 2 is fairly static in the laugh department. Bigger, staler, and far less enjoyable, the sequel formula is well at play here.