Wendell and Wild is twisted stop-motion animation that looks gorgeous, but the jaw-dropping visuals serve an all-too-often muddled and convoluted story.
Having helmed The Nightmare Before Christmas and Coraline, writer-director Harry Selick is no stranger to the macabre, with his stories frequently revolving around death and the afterlife.
Wendell & Wild follows in those morbid footsteps, Selick teaming up with new master of horror Jordan Peele to tell a tale of demons, zombies, and a teenage girl with magical powers.
But while that sounds exciting, the result is often uninspiring, with the film bogged down in details about funding, budgets, picket lines and council votes. Which is not the stuff of the classic family fare.
The film begins in a deeply traumatic way. The Elliots are driving their young daughter Kat home from the brewery they own in a place called Rust Bank, when she bites into a candy apple, sees something awful and screams.
The scream momentarily distracts her father, who drives the car over a bridge and into the water below. With Mom’s help, Kat swims to safety, but Mr. and Mrs. Elliot sink and drown.
Via voiceover, Kat explains that she thought she would hate herself for the rest of her life, and that she probably would have if not for the arrival of two demons named Wendell and Wild.
What is Wendell & Wild about?
Lyric Ross voices Kat Elliot in Wendell & Wild.
But we’ll get to that later, because while Wendell and Wild are the main characters — and voiced by stars Peele and Keegan-Michael Key — that’s Kat’s story. We jump forward five years, during which she had troubles and problems. But Kat gets a second change, to a fancy girls’ school, under a program called “Break the Cycle.”
Trouble is, school is back in Rust Bank, bringing Kat’s horrific childhood memories to the surface. And all is not well in town, with the brewery burning down during his parents’ memorial, and the loss of that business having a ripple effect that effectively killed everything else.
Aside from Klax Korp, i.e. a company that oversees private prisons, and seems to be more successful than Rust Bank fails. What relationship with Kat Elliott? Or the paralegal fighting to keep her home and feed her son? Or the Padre struggling to keep the school open? Or the great Buffalo Belzer and its Scream Fair? Not enough, to be honest, with the film getting heavier and heavier from trying to tie together all the disparate narrative threads.
Meet Wendell & Wild
Kat – voiced by Lyric Ross, and with a punk aesthetic that matches the film’s soundtrack – initially struggles in school, fails to make friends, and falls out with the priest and nuns who run the place. But then strange phenomena begin to occur all around her. She knows a brick falls before it falls. She receives a bite that leaves a mark with enormous consequences. And she learns something about herself that opens up a world of possibilities.
These possibilities begin with Kat summoning these aforementioned demons to the land of the living on the promise of a lie, which relieves Wendell and Wild as they are in trouble there for treason, insurrection, and eating their boss’ hair cream. .
This arrival should be where the film takes off, as the mischievous demons have comedic potential. But Wendell and Wild aren’t as interesting or funny as the movie makes them out to be, despite Key and Peele’s collective talents. Making their appearance in our world a sort of anti-climax that helps move the plot forward, but adds nothing meaningful to the film.
Selick’s superb stop-motion
Thankfully, some great stop-motion is on display to make up for the narrative shortcomings, with Wendell & Wild’s animation comparable to Selick’s wonderful past efforts.
A montage where the dead are resurrected is filled with clever sight gags, quickly followed by hilarious shots of their skeletal forms back in their homes, a reminder of just how masterfully Selick fills a frame.
As the standout sequence finds Kat dealing with personal demons as she sees her past projected onto a stone wall in glowing green. As memories turn into monsters – her metaphors come true – the scene culminates with Kat roaring, “I’m in control of my life now – not you.”
It’s powerful stuff – the perfect marriage of form and theme – and we wish more movies would be in that vein.
Connect Wendell & Wild to go out
Among the film’s many storylines is one that connects Wendell & Wild to Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, Get Out. In this film, “The Sunken Place” is representative of many things, one of them being the prison industrial complex, a system that silences and suppresses minorities.
Where there was a metaphor, here it is front and center, with Klax owners Korp Lane and Irmgard Klaxon (David Harewood and Maxine Peake) filling the prisons with dangerous conditions, terrible food and the potential for non-existent rehabilitation. All to make a profit.
The film even ends with a battle at the site of their next prison, with our heroes literally destroying this industrial complex via a deeply bizarre – yet hugely entertaining – action sequence. Which shows a noble intention on the part of the film, but is still a strange way to end a children’s film.
The Verdict: Is Wendell & Wild Good?
Wendell and Wild are off to a promising start. A little dark, sure, but with an intriguing setup, focusing on a compelling protagonist. But then it gets bogged down in plot lines that have no place in a story aimed at young people. Kind of like the days when those space movies were too concerned with trade routes.
Kat’s story is solid, kind of a superhero origin story that’s really about letting go of guilt and regret. While the animation is superb – perhaps the best Selick has produced, and if not, certainly the most visually inventive.
Wendell & Wild Rating: 6/10
But ultimately, Wendell & Wild is so jam-packed with characters and plot that it crumbles under the weight of its own ambition; an adult story trapped in a children’s movie that is unlikely to satisfy either party.
Wendell & Wild streams on Netflix from October 28.