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The Gremlins: The Lost Walt Disney Production (Dark Horse)

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Before he introduced us to Willy Wonka and his chocolate factory, Roald Dahl teamed with the House of Mouse to create this long-lost tale of gremlins bedeviling the British Royal Air Force during World War II.

 

The Gremlins: The Lost Walt Disney Production

A Royal Air Force Story by Flight Lieutenant Roald Dahl

56 pages FC and B&W (some of each); $12.95

(W: Roald Dahl; A: Walt Disney Studios)

 

The Gremlins is a lost Walt Disney film project, shelved by the man himself in the 40's. The film would have depicted the adventures of tiny imps that bedevil British RAF airplanes with an assortment of pesky mechanical problems during WWII. For a variety of reasons, explains Leonard Maltin in the book's intro, the effort was abandoned, and pretty much all we have left is a children's book published in advance of a film that was never made.

 

After a 63-year interim, Dark Horse has re-released the book, and it's not just the charming Disney painted art that makes it worth a look - it's the chance to pore over a very early project penned by a not-yet-famous Roald Dahl.

 

The cover to the Gremlins. Click thumbnail for a larger imageDahl was a 26-year-old RAF pilot ruled unfit to return to the war after an injurious crash in the Sahara. Long before he would give us Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and his dozens of other books for kids (and the superannuated kids amusingly referred to as "adults"), he journeyed to California to confab with Walt Disney about "gremlins." For years, the British pilots had shared jokes about the imaginary, inch-high goblins that were blamed for mechanical failures.

 

Disney, Maltin explains, jumped into the war effort in the ‘40s with training films and propaganda cartoons (a 1942 Donald Duck short, "Der Fuehrer's Face," even won an Oscar). The Gremlins was to be a feature-length effort that blended live footage and animation in an irresistible mix of rallying for the fight, sympathy for the beleaguered Brits and an army of adorable, toe-high monsters.

 

The book preserves the voice of Dahl, tender and weird. His sweet-natured descriptions of gremlins revealing themselves to doubting pilots by tipping over their beers and giving them the ol' "hotfoot" are easily imagined as animations. And the drawings of gremlins boring holes in airplanes with hand drills, in the middle of thrilling dogfights, evoke a sense of peril.

 

Interior art from (Nobody dies in The Gremlins, though, thanks to the ejector seat. Dahl would eventually raise the stakes in his children's stories. Bullies kill their victim in The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More; Everyone except Charlie is trundled off to an uncertain fate in Chocolate Factory. In 1943, though, the author had yet to transmute the early death of his father and his horrific boarding-school experiences into macabre children's stories. That would come soon enough.)

 

Children ages 4-8, for whom the book is intended, will enjoy the huge-nosed, cute-as-can-be gremlins, waddling around in soft flight caps, goggles, tiny flight suits and boots with suction cups on the bottom (for clinging to airplanes, of course). They have the same big-eyed charm as Jiminy Cricket. Adults will enjoy reading the story to their kids as well.

 

I am fortunate to own a copy of the Roald Dahl audio book Danny the Champion of the World. To hear a Dahl story, in which adult peril is never far from the lives of children, read in the crackling, tobacco-deepened voice of the elderly author himself, is a treat. To imagine The Gremlins read in that same voice, as surely, at some point, it must have been, is to relish an early signature of Dahl's greatness, and to imagine what might have been had Disney finished the film of this wartime fable.

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