WENDELL & WILD ½
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
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
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.
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.
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?
it have memorably wacky characters? Definitely.
Are the hijinks engaging?
You bet. But,
is Selick's film ultimately overcooked and uneven?
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