‘Wendell & Wild’ Is A Frustrating, Noble Effort By Henry Selick And Jordan Peele
Wendell & Wild, Henry Selick’s first film since 2009, premiered at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. It’ll be available to stream on Netflix October 28.
Over a decade since his last film, 2009’s Coraline, visionary animation director Henry Selick — the man also behind The Nightmare Before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach, and Monkeybone — has been sorely missed. During his absence, animation studio Laika is the closest we’ve gotten to Selick’s style of gleefully gothic fantasies that revel in both the sweet and grotesque, with 2012’s ParaNorman being the most spiritually similar to his work. Thankfully, this year at the Toronto International Film Festival, Selick returned with his fifth feature, the colorful, charming and frustrating tragicomedy, Wendell & Wild.
The film, co-written by Selick and Jordan Peele, tells the story of a troubled young Black girl named Kat (Lyric Ross), who’s still scarred by the tragic drowning of her parents three years ago. In the time since, she has become a troubled kid, dealing with her anger and loss with petty crime. As a last ditch effort to get her on the right path, Kat is sponsored by a juvenile rehabilitation program called Breaking the Cycle, to be rehabilitated at a mysterious Catholic school for girls. But Kat isn’t interested in turning her life around — all she wants is her parents back. That’s where brothers Wendell (Keegan Michael Key) and Wild (Jordan Peele) come in. They’re demons seeking entry into the land of the living, and independence from their domineering father Buffalo Belzer (Ving Rhames). So, they strike up a deal with Kat: she’ll summon the brothers into her world and in turn, they will resurrect her parents. Of course, things don’t go as planned, and Kat is forced to face herself and the depths of her grief in order to heal.
Based on this description, one would assume this is a return to form for Selick, whose previous protagonists like James and Coraline also came of age through morbid circumstances. Wendell, Wild, and Buffalo Belzer live in a world not unlike Halloween Town, with Belzer’s character and design echoing the villain Oogie Boogie. Though the stop-motion animation is much slicker this time around thanks to modern technology, nothing compares to characters and images that feel tangible, regardless of their resemblance to real life. Animation is about the truth of emotion — not painstakingly mimicking reality.
But despite the whimsy of Wendell & Wild’s animation, Selick and Peele are exploring some heavy, painfully realistic themes: gentrification, the prison industrial complex, gender identity, and the failure of the criminal justice system, especially in regards to rehabilitating young offenders. While these are all important topics that children should at least have general knowledge of, it’s a bit much for a film with an emotional core that’s complex all on its own. The film too often pulls us away from Kat to add more characters and plot threads that it simply has no space for. The story spends even less time with the demonic brothers, only establishing their basic dynamic before we begin following their journey in earnest. Perhaps it’s a situation of too many cooks, but it’s hard to know without having read Wendell & Wild’s original script to be sure.
More than anything, the film is symptomatic of American animation’s current state of overstuffed plot, too many characters, an overabundance of music cues, and the general assumption that kids today simply don’t have the patience to sit with a story. Adults have a habit of assuming what kids can handle, but Selick’s previous work had more trust in children. The Nightmare Before Christmas and Coraline tackled themes of depression, and the universal need for love and personal freedom. James and the Giant Peach depicted an abusive childhood, and concluded with that child finding a beautiful chosen family of his own. Wendell & Wild begins as a story of a girl trying to overcome trauma, only to land as a nonspecific catch-all, feel-good tale that doesn’t really bother to unpack what those feelings actually are. It’s a shame, because Kat is the kind of protagonist that we rarely see in animated films. She’s a Black girl with a love for rebellious rock music and combat boots, in the process of finding herself. Like many Black girls, she had to learn to be tough at a young age while the world punishes her for her strength. Coraline was a white girl who took her parents for granted, while all Kat wants is her parents back. She wants that structure and protection because she knows she needs it. Kat never wanted to be alone — she knows it’s not safe for a girl like her.
The most powerful throughline of Wendell & Wild is the relationship between parent and child. While Kat is struggling with being an orphan, her classmate Siobhan (Tamara Smart) is slowly becoming aware that her parents are absent in a different way. The titular demon brothers are going through something similar, feeling controlled by a father with no interest in who they are as people. It’s in these character moments that the film comes alive, with a narrative passion that nearly matches its visuals. But these moments are few and far between, cast aside in favor of half-baked supernatural lore that never fully meshes with the character beats.
Still, it’s so exciting to see Selick in his element again, giving us magic, demons, and zombies all detailed and unique in their designs. Every bit of a character — from their eyes to their hair texture — is bursting with life and imagination. In a sea of CG animation with similar character models being repeated across different films and even studios, Wendell & Wild presents us with a cast of characters we can remember, even as the convoluted story fades from our minds. It’s difficult to express these criticisms with the knowledge that something this original is becoming more and more unlikely, as the cinematic landscape becomes more safe and cynical. But if American animation is to break away from current trends, the first step is pinpointing how these projects go wrong in the first place. Although Wendell & Wild is a noble effort in the right direction, it suffers from trying to say and do too much, resulting in a film with no real follow through.
Jourdain Searles is a writer, comedian, and podcaster who hails from Georgia and resides in Queens. She has written for Bitch Media, Thrillist, The Ringer, and MTV News. As a comic, she has performed stand-up in venues all over New York City, including Union Hall, The People Improv’s Theater, UCB East, and The Creek and the Cave.