A film review by Craig J. Koban November 9, 2022

WENDELL & WILD  jj
     

2022, PG-13, 105 mins.

Keegan Michael Key as Wendell (voice)  /  Jordan Peele as Wild (voice)  /  Lyric Ross as Kat Elliot (voice)  /  Angela Bassett as Sister Helley (voice)  /  James Hong as Father Bests (voice)  /  Sam Zelaya as Raul (voice)  /  Seema Virdi as Sloane (voice)  /  Tamara Smart as Siobhan (voice)  /  Ramona Young as Sweetie (voice)  /  Ving Rhames as Buffalo Belzer (voice) 

Directed by Henry Selick  /  Written by Selick, Clay McLeod Chapman, and Jordan Peele 
 

 

 

ORIGINAL FILM

Netflix's  WENDELL & WILD features a pretty damn great creative partnership in celebrated stop motion animation director Henry Selick (who previously and most famously made THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH, and CORALINE) and producer/co-writer Jordan Peele (who also appears in voice form with his long-time comedic partner in crime in Keegan Michael Key).  That, and this is Selick's very first animated feature behind the camera since 2009.  Based on all of this, WENDELL & WILD easily approaches event film/must-see status for those that have coveted its director's work for decades.  Absolutely true to form, WENDELL & WILD is a pure visual dynamo through and through (the kind of bravura stop motion animated feature that you just want to turn the sound off and drink in all of its eye-popping imagery), not to mention that having Key and Peele team up to provide inspired voice work for the titular characters goes an awfully long way.   

It's just too bad, though, that Selick's film is frankly too overstuffed and meandering for its own good, which kind of undoes the overriding high fun factor and pure entertainment value of watching this maestro's loving handiwork pour out in every frame.  On one hand, I always have the utmost respect and admiration for animation pioneers like Selick (and the magicians at Aardman) for pushing the boundaries of their under-appreciated craft while not being too timid to tackle the darker and more macabre aspects of their storytelling (as a refreshing antithesis to the assembly line/audience safe sameness of a Pixar or Disney, I'll take what Selick offers up every day of the week and twice on Sunday).  It's just the storytelling here that's a letdown, and Selick and Peele populate their film with too many characters, too many back stories, too many subplots and too many themes that are only half-heartedly nurtured at best, which leaves WENDELL & WILD feeling more disjointed than it should.  There's no doubt whatsoever that Selick is in his confident wheelhouse here, but having a unified vision is what regrettably holds this film back from being another transcending stop motion classic. 

I did appreciate the cultural inclusiveness of the story (largely thanks to Peele, I'm guessing) and the ambitiousness contained within.  The film introduces us to young Kat Elliot (Lyric Ross), who lives the happy family life with her mother, Wilma (Gabrielle Dennis) and father, Delroy (Gary Gatewood), the latter of which owns a brewery in their small town of Rust Bank (great name!).  One night while on a routine drive, Kat accidentally distracts her dad  while he's behind the wheel, leading to a horrific car accident and subsequently leaving Kat an orphan.  The story flashes forward five years and Kat is a bitter minded delinquent that has great difficulty not blaming herself for her parents' deaths.  In order to deal with her behavioral issues, Kat is sent to Rust Bank Catholic Girls School for help, and upon her arrival she's greeted by Father Bests (a wonderful James Hong) and Sister Helley (Angela Basset).  Concurrent to these events is the comings and goings of two underworld dwelling demon brothers, Wendell and Wild (Key and Peele), who have vast opportunistic dreams of making an amusement park for departed souls. 

 

 

The already convoluted plot gets even more complicated with Kat discovering that her father's brewery was actually burned down to the ground by the vile Klax Korp, whose developers in Lane (David Harewood) and Irmgard (Maxine Peake) have a vile plan up their sleeves to take the torched land and construct a massive profit making prison...and they'll stop at nothing to do so (including the murder of one character and then the resurrection of him when they later realize that they'll need his help).  Meanwhile, Kat makes another discovery that the cryptic markings on her hand actually signifies that she's a Hell Maiden and has the power to summon demons (like, yup, Wendell and Wild), who see a partnership with her as a way to escape the living hell (actually, literal hell) they're in to see their own business plan through to successful fruition.  These rascally demons make a pact with Kat: If she summons them to the world of the living then they will resurrect her dead parents.  Complications ensue. 

Selick's animated films have always tapped in tales of empowerment for kids as well as fully harnessing the inherent strange darkness to the underlining material.  That is all very much true with WENDELL & WILD, especially when it comes to his tantalizing creative partnership with Peele, blending supernatural oddities with socio-political commentary.  To be fair, every Selick fan goes to his films for the visuals, and this is indeed a film to get utterly lost in.  The magical whimsy is on prominent display here, but Selick pushes his craft even further than before by combining his meticulous stop motion abilities with physical cutout puppets to make the characters look more oddly two-dimensional (reportedly, they were made of tin painted over with silicone).  The overall look of the characters and their surroundings is both beautifully simplistic and has a world building density all the same.  In a relative age when computer generated fakery permeates just about every other animated endeavor, it's still such a giddy treat to see creators like Selick stick to his more tangible hands-on methods of stop motion animation to wow modern audiences.  And there's something undeniably awe inspiring about witnessing Selick let his imagination run fully wild (no pun intended) here. 

The improvisational shenanigans of Key and Peele as their aforementioned demons scores huge dividends as well, and their voice work interplay is pretty joyous and funny to listen to throughout WENDELL & WILD.  It should come as no surprise that these two play off of one another so cohesively to the point where they feel like they could finish off each other's sentences.  Complimenting the rich animation and spirited vocal and inviting vocal performances from the entire ensemble are the film's noble minded attempts to dissect meaningful and penetrating themes of life, death, loss, guilt, and overcoming the latter.  The central existentialist plight of Kat is the emotional backbone of the whole film and is mostly handled with sensitive care, which is counterbalanced by the goofily bizarre nature of the demons she aligns with later on.  But some of the other subplots and ideas, however, are a real mixed bag, like how corporations feed off of the suffering of those both alive and dead and attempt to profit off of the misery of Kat and her family.  The idea of corporate social monsters being more monstrous than the actual monsters presented here from hell has some satiric value, but someone it never really comes off as organically tied to the main thrust of the film wanting to be about teenage grief.  I'm also sure that WENDELL & WILD had a lot more that it wanted to say about privatized prisons and those that make millions off of it, but it seems pretty absent from the final product here (and when it's present it's done so in the broadest of strokes). 

Again, this all ties into the other problem with WENDELL & WILD: This film is just too long, too padded, too ill focused, and has too many divergent entities all vying for attention.  Is it amusingly entertaining?  Sure.  Does it have memorably wacky characters?  Definitely.  Are the hijinks engaging?  You bet.  But, is Selick's film ultimately overcooked and uneven?  Unquestionably.  Pacing is kind of sluggish in the early goings on and aspects of the story only start to gain some semblance of momentum and meaning as we get late into the proceedings, but every time the film ricochets back and forth between Kat, Wendell and Wild, the corporate raiders, and so on I was often left asking what Selick's film is really about.  You have a plot that has to deal with a teen's prolonged angst and torment over her parents' demise as a child and a Catholic School and two demons wanting to start their own fair and duplicitous minded business people that want to screw with everyone and the dead being resurrected from the grave.  There's a lot going on in WENDELL & WILD, and far too often than not the film doesn't seem to stop, catch its breath, and focus on the moment.   

The unbridled explosion of free-wheeling artistic flair here is staggering (Selick is incapable of making a bad looking animated film) and the idiosyncratic characters that popular these strange worlds on screen have a lingering staying power.  But I can easily see how WENDELL & WILD could overwhelm viewers (young and old) and at 105 minutes it goes on about 10 to 15 minutes longer than it should have.  I loved the gloriously demented and anarchist tone and spirit of this picture (Selick can never be criticized for going the pedestrian route with his work) and I really wanted to come out of WENDELL & WILD embracing it, but I couldn't.  This is a gorgeous animation achievement that delves into the more twisted aspects of reality and unreality, but somehow the marriage of Selick and Peele didn't mesh together to create a satisfying whole for me.  This is a gorgeous looking, but narratively messy animated film that could have benefited from a less-is-more approach.  

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