Friday, January 24, 2014

Disney and Dahl's "Gremlins" Redux

In 1992, I got to work on three great projects: The Nightmare Before Christmas, A Goofy Movie, and one that was never produced, Gremlins; not the Joe Dante Gremlins, but the Roald Dahl / Walt Disney one.

You cartoon buffs out there recall the Bugs Bunny shorts from World War II featuring little gremlins who tear apart Bugs' warplane in flight?  They were based on a short story by Roald Dahl done during the war for Disney Studios.  Disney was developing a feature from the story, but could not secure the complete rights, partially owned by the British Air Ministry, so he mothballed the project.  Dahl would release it in book form using Disney development art as illustrations.


Cut to 1992.  Jerry Rees and Steve Leiva started development on a new feature based on the original story to be done in live action with animated gremlins.  I was asked to design some far out gremlins completely different from the original illustrations and the Warner Bros. shorts; gremlins that were somewhat ameboid, somewhere between spirits and real creatures.  This is what I came up with....

The hardest part about this assignment was having to dismiss the past incarnations, which are fantastic.  The Warner Bros. gremlins were very similar to the ones in the book, which were done by Disney artists.  How did they get away with this?  Whatever the reason, my assignment was to do something completely different.  You can decide for yourselves if you like what I did..  Hardcore Disneyphiles will likely hate them, others might dig them.  I think they're cool enough to share.

Jerry Rees told FLIP: 

"I loved the Gremlins project. I still have a bound book with all of the story beat illustrations for the project - your illustrations, Frans Vischer's stuff, mine - along with the accompanying text per image.

I envisioned it as a live action / animation mix, in which only the Gremlins would be animated. Here's the tag we had pinned up at the beginning of the presentation:

"GREMLINS - The myth of Gremlins that evolved during WWII was actually not a myth - it was Reality. And there are two people alive who know about it..."

Your interpretation of the Gremlins as cloud-dwelling creatures, made mostly of moisture, who were slender in the sky but squat on the ground due to increased air pressure, was fresh and charming. It gave a sense that they were part of nature, and increased the plausibility of the "it really happened" conceit."

I loved how you let the Gremlin beings change proportion and open portals through their bodies to create music. Here's a bit of text from our presentation: "A celebration begins. A Gremlin band performs exhilarating 'wind music'. Sort of an aboriginal pan pipe / jug band / calliope sound!"

I still wonder how that concept may have sounded in the hands of an innovative composer.

As you recall, we were developing the project in a very unorthodox way, as a theatrical feature attached to Disney's TV (animation) division, which had its eye on moving up.

After I pitched to Jeffrey (Katzenberg), I remember him saying that he liked it, but thought it had too many people for an animated feature. I told him that the pitch he had just seen was for a live action feature, with only the Gremlins animated. He just say "Oh..." and walked off.

Anyway, I still think it would be a terrific film. The tools available nowadays would make it much easier to accomplish even the very ambitious scenes."

Jerry remembers A LOT more about this project than I.  Unfortunately, the project again found itself mothballed.  I hope this post puts our version on the map at least, as part of the title's history.    


  1. I believe that the original GREMLINS comic book was drawn by Walt Kelly. A later one was made with Dean Yeagle's illustrations, using the original designs.

  2. Roald Dahl was a fighter ace in WW2, flying Hurricanes in North Africa and Greece. So he knew all about gremlins, and how much a pilot's life depended on the quality of workmanship in the aircraft. ---Alex

  3. I wish this was a film, i would love to see gremlin gus with his finfilla. The origonal designs from the book would work for the film along with the story.