Wendell & Wild review: Netflix’s stop-motion miracle reunites Key & Peele

For fans of Henry Selick’s stop-motion work, including The Nightmare Before Christmas and Coralinethe most significant thing about his new movie, Wendell & Wild, may just be that he managed to finish it. He’s spent the 13 years since Coraline developing projects that never saw the light of day, and it’s exciting to see his work back on screens, in all its startling, unlikely, adorably weird detail.

But for people watching the movie, which offers up Selick’s usual blend of humor, emotion, and the macabre, the most significant thing may be that this is a story packed with demons and demon-summoners, necromantic powers and lurching zombies, and yet the only real evil comes from humanity. Like all Selick’s worlds, this is a ghoulish, gleefully weird one. But it comes with a strong moral center that feels noticeably different from his films adapting Neil Gaiman, Roald Dahl, or Tim Burton. It’s a little scoldy, and a little superficial. But it’s also comforting, in a way. The world may be scary, Wendell & Wild suggests, but all the really scary things come from ourselves, and they can all be overcome.

Longtime comedy partners Jordan Peele (who also produced and collaborated on the script) and Keegan-Michael Key voice the titular Wild and Wendell, two brother demons noticeably designed to look like the actors, apart from the purple skin, tiny wings, and spade- tipped tails. They’ve been condemned to an eternity of service to the monstrous demon Buffalo Belzer (Ving Rhames), who’s so huge that he keeps the brothers imprisoned in his nostrils when they aren’t at work planting hair plugs on his balding scalp.

Image: Netflix

Belzer presides over the Scream Faire, an underworld carnival where dead souls are tormented on spooky rides that shock them, boil them, or fling them into space. Wild (Peele) and Wendell (Key) are being punished for their plan to build a bigger, better, kinder Faire of their own, and they get the chance to realize those dreams when a 13-year-old human named Kat (This Is Us‘ Lyric Ross) comes into her power as a Hell Maiden, a girl with the power to summon demons to Earth.

Wendell & Wild‘s biggest narrative problem is its lack of a strong central focus: Selick and Peele switch back and forth between leisurely scenes about Wendell and Wild’s comically strange underworld life and Kat’s urgent, destructive personal drama, without prioritizing one story or tone over another. And considering Kat’s life, it’s hard to take all the demon surreality seriously. Kat lost her parents to a car accident when she was a child, and she blames herself for causing the crash. She grew up bullied, afraid, and guilty, and responding to those emotions put her into juvenile detention and left her isolated and angry.

She first taps into her hellish powers shortly after returning to her run-down, largely abandoned hometown of Rust Belt, where she’s been enrolled in a rehabilitation program at a Catholic girls’ school run by beneficent but mercenary Father Bests (Everything Everywhere All At Once‘s James Hong). But first, she’s immersed in all the school’s drama. That includes a burning conflict between one of her teachers, a nun tellingly named Sister Helley (Angela Bassett), and school janitor Manfred (Igal Naor).

It also includes a Latinx trans kid named Raúl, the only boy in school, who has devoted himself to a secret art project. There are a trio of multi-cultural girls who would be the Plastics or Mean Girls in a different type of movie, but here, they want so vehemently to make Kat feel welcome that they instead make her miserable. And one of them, Siobhan (Tamara Smart), is the daughter of two monstrous local moguls, Lane and Irmgard Klaxon, who clearly were responsible for the fire that destroyed Rust Belt’s brewing industry and made it a ghost town. They’re brewing a plan to raze the whole town in order to erect a profitable private prison, which Raúl’s mother and the few remaining locals vehemently oppose.

All of this adds up to so much more action and incident than any one film could possibly support. The story’s overstuffed quality leaves many of the payoffs for individual plot arcs feeling perfunctory and abrupt, while some of the biggest ideas aren’t much more than lip service — particularly the condemnation of private prisons, and the cynical systemic neglect that prepares underprivileged kids for incarceration there.

Nun Sister Helley glares over the shoulder of squinty janitor Manfred as he sits in his wheelchair looking at a strange Cubist-looking thing in a jar in the stop-motion animated movie Wendell &  Wild

Image: Netflix

Dropping Kat into a world that was full of secret undercurrents and history long before she came along is an ambitious, bold story choice. It fights upstream against familiar tropes that would make Kat into a Chosen One hero, and leave everyone else relevant only in the ways they support her story. Wendell & Wild has bigger schemes in mind, designed to address societal ills, and dissect how much more horrifying and threatening they are than the usual Halloween ghastlies people pretend to fear.

But all these competing threads might fit better in a novel than they do in a film. Selick’s best and most accessible movies are much more streamlined, prioritizing one protagonist and one villain in conflict, with everything else as supporting detail rather than shifting focus. At times, Wendell & Wild feels like a violent rush to cram everything Selick has been thinking about for the last 13 years on screen all at once, no matter how compressed and flattened it becomes in the process.

That issue is unfortunate in part because Wendell & Wild is so obviously well intentioned, with the creators consciously working towards positive messaging and inclusion. The effort to make sure everyone in the audience sees some version of themselves on screen is tangible in the side casting, which includes everything from a supportive Native bus driver to Manfred, a footless wheelchair user who starts off as a creepy footnote in the school, then emerges as a strange form of hobbyist hero.

The distracted focus is also unfortunate because, like so many other modern stop-motion pictures — Guillermo del Toro’s new version of PinocchioLaika Studios’ various projects, Wes Anderson’s Isle of DogsWendell & Wild is clearly an obsessive labor of love, the kind of project where every frame is a series of small miracles. When Raúl’s mom is trying to cook dinner and navigate a phone call at the same time, it’s hard to process what she’s saying the first time through, because the pot of sauce she’s brewing is so lifelike and convincing that it steals the focus. In a scene where Wendell and Wild confront Kat in a dream and make self-serving promises, the exaggerated bulges and distortions of their faces are as intriguing as the deal being struck.

This is a movie where the craft dominates the experience, which is thrilling for people watching for the artistry, but less convincing for viewers focused on the story. Younger kids may have the easiest time with Wendell & Wild simply because they’ll take it all for granted, without turning every scene into a series of “How did they do that?” questions, or examinations of all the fine details of Pablo Lobato’s wild character designs, which ensure that everyone on screen looks distinctive and startling. (Especially Lane Klaxon, whose rigidly messy blond hair, red tie, and rotund belly — not to mention his golfing obsession — is likely to remind American viewers of Donald Trump caricatures, although Selick told Polygon during a set visit for the movie that Lane is actually more based on Britain’s Boris Johnson.)

Villains Irmgard and Lane Klaxon — a spiky-haired, tall, thin, pale woman with raccoon-eyes mascara and a short, squat, dark-skinned Boris Johnson caricature — glower into the camera from a snowy golf course in the stop- motion picture Wendell &  Wild

Image: Netflix

There are points in the story where everything drops away except a single key interaction. When Kat is forced to confront her past and how it’s shaped her, it’s both a fierce and focused moment and a powerful catharsis. When Raúl is alone on a rooftop with his art, in a defiant montage set to “The Wolf” by Chicano punk band The Brat, or the demon brothers are up to some ghoulish graveyard work backed by an original song written by Selick and composer Bruno Coulais, the characters’ emotions come across bright and clear, and land with impact.

But too often, Wendell & Wild is trying to serve too many stories at once. Its egalitarian “everybody’s point of view counts” free-for-all leaves everyone feeling sidelined at times — particularly the underdeveloped villains. In a season where every other movie hitting screens seems to be about the damage rich people do to society by being greedy, grasping, and selfish, Selick’s ultimate villains are certainly an immediately recognizable form of evil. But there’s nothing much distinctive or specific about them, and their connection to the movie’s hero is frustratingly tenuous. It may be admirable to set them up as a collective evil that requires a collective solution, but it isn’t entirely satisfying.

There’s a massive time commitment and hands-on intensity involved in making this kind of stop-motion feature: The behind-the-scenes clips that play during the film’s late credits are a reminder of what’s involved in every movement and every frame. Given that commitment, it seems unlikely that Selick and his team would ever be involved in a TV series, the kind of sprawling portrait of a community that, for instance, Reservation Dogs has been noodling around with for two seasons now, and that Wendell & Wild tries to pack into 105 minutes.

But Selick’s fans can certainly dream about him taking on that kind of project. The new movie shows he isn’t short on plot, characters, ideas, ambition, energy, or talent. It just feels like he’s short on time to tell all the stories he wants to tell. Wendell & Wild winds up feeling like it’s ready to spawn a thousand spinoffs, where each of its micro-arcs get their due. It’s as much a launchpad for the audience’s imaginations and their empathy as it is a singular story.

Wendell & Wild debuts on Netflix Oct. 28.

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