Saturday, November 5, 2022

Wendell & Wild

With stop-motion animation as popular as it is now, it’s a wonder that Henry Selick, best known for directing The Nightmare Before Christmas and Coraline, hasn’t directed a feature film since the latter film’s debut in 2009. This would change when he started work on Wendell & Wild, based on an unpublished children’s book Selick had written, in collaboration with Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, in 2015. Though the film was eventually picked up for distribution through Netflix for its later release on October 28, 2022, we watched the finished product at a Leammle theater during a limited theatrical run the week prior. While it’s certainly great to see Selick working within the realm of stop-motion once again, we found that although fun and well-made, Wendell & Wild unfortunately falls short compared to the director’s previous work.

As a child, Kat Elliot (Lyric Ross) witnessed her parents’ death firsthand as they accidentally swerve off a bridge just outside of Rust Bank. Though she survived, she grew hardened through the years that followed until, at the age of thirteen, she got enrolled at Rust Bank's all-girls Catholic school as part of a rehabilitation program. During her stay there, she is contacted by two demon brothers, Wendell (Keegan-Michael Key) and Wild (Jordan Peele), who trick her into making a deal that will let them go to the Land of the Living. Meanwhile, Klax Korp. is interested in acquiring the abandoned land the school sits on and Sister Helley (Angela Bassett) seems to know more about what’s going on with Kat than she initially lets on.

Wendell & Wild has a rather ambitious narrative, with at least four subplots going on, but the core premise is creative and all of the dangling threads neatly come together at the end. Kat is a very well-written character, with a justifiable rebellious streak and issues with opening up to others. It’s clear that she’s been jaded by the system she’s had to go through since surviving the car accident as a child, so as she gradually comes to terms with her past, the audience can easily empathize with her and her emotional moments feel earned. The title characters are entertaining as well and while they’re not the deepest characters, they have enough complexity that we can more easily understand when they feel torn over lying for the sake of their dream. In general, the film also handles its rather diverse cast very well, including one of the most tactful inclusions of an LGBT character in recent memory.

Kat Elliot (Lyric Ross, middle) is a well-written protagonist.

As engaging and entertaining as the story is, however, the plot feels overstuffed. Having at least four subplots means that not all of them get the development they really need within only 105 minutes. This also means that the main antagonists, the owners of Klax Korp., come off flat and whatever lore there is around demons in the human world is a bit vague. Though the comedic tone is consistent, the film is very family-friendly almost to a fault. The script has no trouble referring to Wendell and Wild as demons or using the term "Hell Maiden", and we even see some strong imagery at times reminiscent of The Nightmare Before Christmas, but we hear Buffalo Belzer (Ving Rhames) refer to “souls of the darned”, as though saying the alternative is somehow going too far.

Like the story, the animation looks odd at times. That’s not to say it’s bad, as it’s actually quite the opposite. The angular art style looks great, not to mention animation-friendly, and there’s an impressive application of mixed media with the addition of an elaborate moving pop-up paper sculpture. Certain designs also have a lingering Tim Burton influence from Selick’s earlier collaboration with him, but it doesn’t feel out of place and only adds to the atmosphere. There’s even an interesting choice to render Wendell and Wild almost like they’re 2D during their time in Hell, even if no other character is animated in that style at the time. Where it feels odd, however, is a result of the deliberate choice of leaving in imperfections. Seams for replacement faces are visible and while it’s easily ignored most of the time, some are very visible and at least one replacement face was ever so slightly off, which made me mildly distracted during those scenes. Similarly, there are one too many uses of slow motion, with a couple feeling particularly out of place.

On the upside, the voice acting is a highlight. While everyone does a good job with the material they’re given, James Hong and Ving Rhames stand out for noticeably giving their all in their respective roles as Father Bests and Buffalo Belzer. It’s nice as well to see Key and Peele together again on the big screen and their natural chemistry really shines through. As evident by the end credits, the film also uses a lot of licensed music, much of it only snippets, but credit is due for allowing a lot of it to play diagetically rather than constantly reminding the audience how big the budget is. That said, the placement of “Cult of Personality” by Living Colour in particular has surprisingly great effect.

Wendell & Wild is a well-made and entertaining film, and we’re glad we saw it in a theater when we had the chance, but it may not have the same staying power as some of Henry Selick’s previous work. Still, it’s nice to have another big name in stop-motion again and we hope to see more from Selick in the future.

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