Roald Dahl’s The Gremlins: The Lost Walt Disney Production

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Dark Horse Books, a division of Dark Horse Comics, recently released Roald Dahl’s The Gremlins in commemoration of the sixtieth anniversary of the United States Air Force. In a slightly melodramatic and over-sentimentalized introduction, Leonard Maltin gives a nevertheless fascinating brief history of this Disney-movie-that-wasn’t. He describes Dahl’s childhood, his early army career, his wartime crash in the Sahara desert which rendered him unable to fly. We get brief details about the rumors of Dahl’s spywork with “the man called Intrepid.” More interestingly, Maltin lays out a timeline of young Dahl’s first novel, The Gremlins, and how Walt Disney came to develop and market the Disney version of the Gremlin characters while his brother and business partner Roy Disney struggled to make sure they would be profitable for the Studio. In the end, the efforts of all three men came to naught. The most public exposure the Disney Gremlin creations ever saw was when, in 1943, Fifinella (a female Gremlin hottie) was adopted as the official Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) mascot.

Readers may already know Dahl from any one of his children’s books (James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Danny, Champion of the World, Matilda) or film scripts (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, You Only Live Twice, the first Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory), or even television programmes (Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Tales of the Unexpected). He wrote any number of wonderful things during his career. Unfortunately, The Gremlins is not one of them.

Which isn’t to say this isn’t an excellent book. The simple black and white pinup-style sketch of the Fifinella alone is worth buying the thing for (I’m sure it has inspired an excellent tattoo somewhere, somewhen). The illustrations are incredible, with that gorgeous painterly style early Disney animators used and which has completely disappeared with the advent of computers. Also worth the price of admission are the numerous cultural anachronisms: large close up renderings (in a children’s book!) of pipes and cigars and spilled beer; multiple references to getting drunk or drinking alcohol; my personal favorite, a lovely detailed sketch of our pilot protagonist, in traction in the hospital, head bandaged, leg bandaged, lit cigarette dangling from his manly man-lips.

So okay. The story’s ridiculous. It’s a Mary Sue-ish tale filled with not-even-thinly-veiled war propaganda from a bygone era; an era in which sexism, smoking, drinking, and violence went unquestioned (at least in this insulated slice of literature). The writing itself, certainly in the first half of the book, is stilted, tedious, and just plain bad, full of unbelievable human characters, flat and uninteresting non-human ones, and some of the worst dialogue I’ve ever read (in a children’s book or anywhere else). It does improve toward the end, as though Dahl loosened up and began to have a little fun with the story, rather than concentrating so hard on setting up an artificial construct to convey a message. Still, it’s difficult to believe this is the first book of the author who, nearly two decades later, wrote the charming James and the Giant Peach.

I shouldn’t neglect to mention the Absolutely Adorable (that’s right: they rated capital letters) action figures! The set which arrived with my book (I’m not sure if there are multiple sets or simply the one) has three figures (my box is labeled “Gremlin Jamface,” after a character in the story). They stand several inches high and they’re quite substantial, with no moving parts but great dynamism. Each is armed with one of the Gremlin mischief-causing tools (a small pick, a large nail, and a Gremlin-sized, old-fashioned drill, which probably wouldn’t have been nearly so old-fashioned in the 1940s). They’re of lightweight plastic, and the painting, while a little flat and simplistic for my tastes, is of excellent quality and perfectly suited to the style of the characters. This is a set for older kids, like ages 27-47, though the box proclaims them suitable “FOR AGES 8 & UP.” Like the book, I recommend the action figures purely on an aesthetic basis.

Also like the book, these are a lovely addition to the right kind of collection, playing into a certain kind of nostalgia and catering to a certain kind of aesthetic taste. Maltin’s introduction to the book puts the Gremlins themselves into a folkloric and historic context, but for me the best part about the Gremlins book and figures is that they are just good old-fashioned eyecandy.

And then there was the cookie. You didn’t know I was going to review a cookie? Neither did I. My Gremlins kit came with three things: a beautifully produced full-color reprint of what I assume is the Disney original (with new intro and flyleaf); this Absolutely Adorable three-piece action set; and a cookie, carefully wrapped with a ribbon, with “Walt Disney’s The Gremlins” stamped across the icing and what I assume is a Gremlin bite out of the corner. Book, figurines, cookie: all three, in their own way, equally delicious.

(Dark Horse Books, 2006)

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About Camille Alexa

Camille Alexa is the alter ego of another odd-lit writer who also loves warm bread, big dogs, serial commas, and post-apocalyptic love stories. Her work has appeared in Fantasy Magazine, Ellery Queen’s & Alfred Hithcock’s Mystery Magazines, and numerous anthologies such as Machine of Death and The Exile Book of New Canadian Noir. Her collection of short stories, PUSH OF THE SKY, received a starred review in Publishers Weekly, was shortlisted for the Endeavor Award, and was an official reading selection of Portland’s Powell’s Books Science Fiction Book Club.