Star Wars has always been popular, but the franchise is currently enjoying a renewed period of popularity. That success can be attributed to several factors, including a push by Disney+ and a series of well-received Marvel Comics. Perhaps the biggest secret to Star Wars’ latest success is the Child of The Mandalorian aka Grogu aka Baby Yoda. Mando’s charge has leaped off the screen to be emblazoned on all manner of merchandise, from t-shirts to purses to chew toys.
But there’s one person who isn’t a fan. Speaking to the San Francisco Chronicle Datebook, legendary director Joe Dante called Baby Yoda “completely stolen and is just out-and-out copied. Shamelessly, I would think.” Specifically, Dante appears to believe that The Mandalorian stole Baby Yoda from Gizmo, the beloved Mogwai at the center of 1984’s Gremlins and its 1990 sequel Gremlins 2: The New Batch.
At first glance, it’s hard to argue with Dante’s assessment. As the director himself put it, Gizmo was key to the film’s popularity, especially the decision to make him “essentially like a baby.” The long-haired puppet of Dante’s movie, voiced by comedian Howie Mandel, coos and tilts his head in a manner not unlike that of Baby Yoda. And when you see images of Gizmo hiding in the backpack of his owner Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan), it’s hard not to see the inspiration for Mando carrying Grogu.
That said, the timeline of events doesn’t exactly support Dante’s argument. Yoda first hit movie screens in 1980, a full four years before Gizmo showed up. Even if Frank Oz and George Lucas made Yoda a wise elder with a mischievous streak, not a guileless innocent (well, to everyone except frog-people), The Mandalorian clearly took more inspiration from Grogu’s green-skinned forerunner.
Of course, Dante himself is no stranger to derivative works. His 1978 solo film debut Piranha borrows heavily from Jaws, so much that Universal Pictures threatened to block the movie’s release until Dante fan Steven Spielberg intervened. His follow-up wolfman movie The Howling was released in 1981, the same year as John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London. And Dante has shown himself to be a good sport, as when he hired film critic Leonard Maltin to appear in Gremlins 2 and read his negative review of the first movie (until a gremlin appears to pull the critic away).
Whatever the connection between Grogu and Gizmo, the fact remains that Gremlins enjoy a privileged place in the cultural imagination. While Dante told Datebook that “about a third of the audience [who attend revival screenings of Gremlins movies], usually young, who haven’t seen the movies,” both films regularly receive screenings. Even better, Nick Lutsko scored a viral hit with the song “Where Did the Gremlins Go?” leading to a running gag in which the singer imagines an increasingly bizarre version of Gremlins 3. In a more official capacity, HBO Max will release the animated series Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai later this fall, featuring voice work from Ming-Na Wen and James Hong.
Even with this renewed attention, it’s unlikely that we’ll see Gizmo t-shirts and purses and chew toys knock Baby Yoda off of store shelves. But will people still be talking about The Mandalorian forty years later? That remains to be seen.