Back when sequels could be crammed with pop culture references and a story that can coexist with cameos, an equilibrium was met. A satisfactory one. It was not leaps and bounds of a culture coming together to provide such an amazing system between the two that every pairing of regressive cameo and lukewarm storyline would make sense or even work, but Joe Dante was batting with better odds in the 1990s. Gremlins had, somehow, taken the world by storm. The simplicity of their design and the simple aim of having them be violent critters, but not violent enough to shun a larger audience, was a smart move. It opened Gremlins 2: The New Batch up to that same audience, its only issue being the continuation is replicant, rather than charging through with something new.
Gone are the biting lines of the first that bring drudgery and misery to the Christmas season, Dante instead opens with a risky apparition of satire. He does not commit to it fully as gremlins rampage through television studios and washed-up actors are given big breaks as news anchors and television hosts, but it is a light enough backdrop that gives a variety to the horror. Little of it makes sense. Terribly happenstance avenues and hidden pathways give precedence to the idea that Daniel Clamp (John Glover) needed both a cookery show and a laboratory staffed by Christopher Lee. He is, after all, an eccentric. But it’ll do as an explanation because the audience and their focus should be on the rising gremlins surge and the havoc they cause.
Plenty of that havoc ensues. Dante has not lost his touch for the comical dramatics these pests offer, and that is perhaps the best and worst part of Gremlins 2: The New Batch. Not wanting to re-invent the wheel by taking these characters too far out of their depth but not wanting to keep everything the same without some extra depth or detail to at least one or two gremlins. It is why one has spinning eyes and rabid expressions and the other drinks brain serum that makes him snooty and British. It is dumb humour but works effectively enough. It gives Dante a new range of comedy, however simplified it may still be. Phoebe Cates and Zach Galligan are game for the changes, adapting well to their slight growth as characters.
It is not a futile sequel; it just depends too much on what made the first one so enjoyable. More of the same is no harm at all, and Gremlins 2: The New Batch excels in some places where the first was too shy to expose itself. Leonard Maltin cameos, Lee hamming it up with a delightfully charming role as a scientist, Cates and Galligan running around like spare parts. They know they are there to be relied upon when the story gets going, but it is too little too late. Dante has the fear of risk in his heart, instead of focusing much of the narrative on the straight and simple comedy Gremlins can provide. Not a bad change of pace, but certainly not one that can offer these characters any real or succinct growth.