The Disney+ Star Wars streaming series The Mandalorian receives much praise, not the least of which is for the supporting character named Grogu, a small force-wielding alien affectionately referred to as “Baby Yoda” by fans and the press because… well, it looks exactly like a baby version of Yoda. But filmmaker Joe Dante has accused Star Wars of ripping off his film Gremlins — namely its furry little creature-character Gizmo. But as much as I like Gremlins and other Dante films, I have to say that no, The Mandalorian’s Baby Yoda did not rip off Gizmo from Gremlins.
HBO Max has an eagerly awaited animated series Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai from writer-executive producer extraordinaire Tze Chun, which looks wonderful. In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle’s G. Allen Johnson this week, Dante was asked about the continued popularity of Gremlins, and a key point he (rightly) made was that Gizmo is beloved by everyone in the audience. But then Dante added that he believes The Mandalorian’s Grogu (Baby Yoda) is “shamelessly” “completely stolen” from Gremlin’s Gizmo.
As I said before, I am a fan of Dante’s work, in particular The Howling (still the best werewolf movie of all time, in my opinion) and Innerspace (an admitted big influence on Marvel’s Ant-Man). And if he’d said he felt The Mandalorian might’ve seen the popularity of Gizmo and decided to make Baby Yoda similarly infant-like to achieve the same sort of appeal that made Gizmo popular for nearly 40 years, then I wouldn’t be debating the point. But the accusation that Star Wars was shameless or “out-and-out copied” Gizmo is too much of a leap, and ignores a crucial fact about Gremlins and Gizmo that flips the whole discussion on its head.
Yoda was introduced in 1980’s Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. He was tiny, ugly-cute, and acted silly and childlike when Luke Skywalker first meets him.
Four years later, Gremlins released in theaters. But the work on designing and creating Gizmo took place in the preceding year or two, with talk of Gizmo’s designs already being public by 1983. That’s three years after Yoda was introduced as a small, ugly-cute little guy who acted funny and childish when he first appeared.
Now, I’m not saying the designs for Gizmo were influenced by Yoda’s design and immense popularity in the couple of years leading up to Gizmo’s design. However, those large ears and the general “tiny and cute but in an ugly way (or is it ugly but in a cute way?)” look, not to mention the accidental destructiveness and obliviousness to ruining a human’s stuff, are all at least vaguely similar to elements of Yoda — especially Yoda’s introductory scenes, before he suddenly reveals himself as a Jedi.
So, jump forward in time now, to The Mandalorian. Designing a baby version of Yoda would require de-aging him, and… well, that’s pretty much it, since Grogu looks exactly like Yoda put through de-aging CGI. There’s barely any discernible difference between old Yoda’s and Grogu’s appearance besides the age difference. If you were making a child version of Yoda, I don’t see how it would even be possible to design anything that’s not 99% identical to Grogu.
If Grogu looks just like Yoda except in child form, and if Dante feels Grogu is so similar to Gizmo that it appears to be a carbon copy, then it raises the obvious point that Gizmo and Gremlins were created after Yoda and therefore are just a carbon copy of Yoda in childlike form. It’s just the simple, obvious progression of logic, once you line up the timing and the fact Grogu really looks just like a baby version of Yoda (which makes Gizmo look just like a baby Yoda, to the point he’d be a ripoff, if Dante’s comparison of how similar they are is taken as fact).
It’s impossible to assert that Grogu is a ripoff of Gizmo without inherently implying Gizmo is a ripoff of Yoda. No matter how much you might think Grogu has strong similarities to Gizmo, the accusation really boils down to a claim that — taken to its logical conclusion — looks like this: “Grogu looks like Gizmo because Grogu looks like a baby version of Yoda, which is what Gizmo looked like, so Yoda inspired Gizmo who inspired Grogu.” That’s the strongest version of the accusation that Grogu’s design is taken from Gizmo, and it necessarily starts by noting Gizmo must’ve therefore been inspired by Yoda first. This is taking the accusation at face value, mind you, and yet it still undermines the accusation against The Mandalorian.
But I don’t remotely believe Gremlins or Gizmo are “ripoffs” of Yoda. Do I think during the designing of Gizmo and Gremlins someone might have given a few sideways glances at Yoda and been inspired by very general elements — big pointed ears, childlike demeanor that includes accidental destructiveness at times, three-fingered wrinkly hands, being small and somewhat cuddly to appeal to kids as well as adults? Yep, I certainly do. And nobody should be bothered by that or call it a “ripoff,” since the elements were generalized and used in unique ways, and the results were excellent on their own merits, even if there was any possible inspiration from Yoda.
If we don’t take the accusation against The Mandalorian at face value, then we get a more reasonable version: “Gizmo’s basic design was possibly mildly influenced by a few general elements of Yoda that helped make him appealing, and now Grogu (as a baby version of Yoda) makes the similarities between Gizmo and Yoda more apparent since Grogu is just a tinier version of Yoda.” I’d even be willing to accept the theory that perhaps some designers of Grogu noticed that a “Baby Yoda” will resemble Gizmo in some superficial ways, and since Gizmo used some superficial similarities to Yoda, it’s cute and “full circle” to lean into superficial similarities between Grogu and Gizmo.
But make no mistake — Grogu is first and foremost just a de-aged babylike version of Yoda, including his tendency to make cute little noises and keep reaching to touch or mess with stuff he’s not supposed to touch or mess with. This brings us back to the question of whether Gizmo’s own little noises and constantly trying to grab stuff he’s not supposed to have was part of the inspiration used from Yoda.
I don’t really think any of it was notably inspired, it’s just similar in vague ways that naturally arise precisely because any character who is mischievous and acting like a baby who’s in need of constant supervision would be portrayed that way — and typically is, be it in cartoons or TV shows or movies. This isn’t some bold new approach chosen for Yoda or Gizmo or Grogu, it’s fairly common and logical, and the fact these characters all share those traits is just because that’s what their stories call for and how those characters would obviously behave.
As a huge fan of Dante’s work (again, The Howling is the best werewolf film, and also among the all-time best horror movies and had an immense influence on my love of horror and my own horror writing), I can understand that Joe Dante likely saw Grogu, noticed the similarities, and figured the typical Hollywood tradition of inspiration and ripoff was rearing its head again. The originality of Gremlins and perfection of Gizmo’s (and the evil Gremlins’) design no doubt is something he’s proud of and feels strongly about. So it’s not necessarily a surprise that he reacted as he did.
I just feel (purely my own guess here) that Dante probably wasn’t thinking about the much earlier inspirations and background, and also likely has a healthy degree of skepticism about Hollywood’s “originality” in general at this point. But I hope he considers the nuances of the situation and that the team behind creating Yoda and, later, Baby Yoda/Grogu were as proud of their designs and the work they put into it — and their sources of inspiration — as the team behind Gremlins was.
The creative process is filled with inspiration and influences, with retellings and popular themes, and with types of characters and designs regularly (necessarily) borrow from time-tested concepts and broadly appealing elements (such as “childlike, ugly-cute, mischievous”). We can love all of these characters, appreciate what makes them unique and what makes them similar, and speculate about this or that degree of influence in their designs, but there’s no need for — and no evidence or strong arguments to support — claims that things were stolen, copied, or shameless. We should recognize how all of this, originality and similarities, merely reflect the timelessness and connectivity of storytelling, and be grateful to the filmmakers and storytellers who brought them into our lives.