Ambitious Stop-Motion Movie Is Creepy Family Fun

Jan 13, 2023

Wendell & Wild, the first feature from director Henry Selick since 2009’s Coraline, is an excitingly ambitious movie. It’s of a piece with his previous stop-motion work in that it combines family-film sensibilities with macabre imagery in a way sure to seed the next generation of horror fans. His voice here is also clearly in dialogue with genre maestro Jordan Peele, credited as co-writer, producer, and (in a gleeful reunion with former sketch partner Keegan-Michael Key) actor. Diversity was a clear lodestar, expanding the scope of kids who can now see their off-kilter sensibilities reflected in a Selick movie, and the script is loaded with thematic and political interests — more than it has room to fully unpack. While this density is not quite as delicately layered as it might be in Peele’s own projects, it ultimately does little harm to the viewing experience, particularly since it’s mirrored by visually inventive animation that doesn’t shy away from reminding the viewer how it was made. Equal parts creepy, funny, and impressive, Wendell & Wild (despite being inexplicably rated PG-13) is an ideal watch for the whole family this Halloween.

The movie’s story follows two strands destined to collide. In one, Kat (Lyric Ross), a 13-year-old Black girl orphaned in a car accident years prior, is forced by circumstance to return to her hometown of Rust Bank. Hardened by her time in the foster and juvenile corrections systems, Kat is given a chance at a fresh start by a stuffy Catholic private school in need of the funds they get by hosting her, and she finds Rust Bank on the brink of being snapped up by the sinister Klax Korp. The other takes place in the underworld, where two demons of questionable intelligence, the titular Wendell (Key) and Wild (Peele), have gotten themselves in trouble with their all-powerful father, Buffalo Belzer (Ving Rhames). The enormous demon who carries an “amusement” park for lost souls on his belly charges his sons with treason when he discovers they’re planning to build a fair of their own, and they are sentenced to carry out the manual labor of keeping him with a full head of hair. At around the same time, the three principal characters discover something special about Kat. She’s what’s called a Hell Maiden, and Wendell and Wild are essentially her personal demons. As she adjusts to her new life, the two set their sights on her as their ticket out of servitude, and into the land of the living.

Related: Spirit Halloween: The Movie Review – Dull, Overwrought & Never Scary

While the narrative is never hard to follow, its structure isn’t the most natural, and Wendell & Wild sometimes relies on story wrinkles that seem to emerge from nowhere. This will hardly prove bothersome, though. As the demonic side of the synopsis indicates, this movie has a comic sensibility that is rooted in the absurdly silly, and the audience is encouraged from early on to respond to randomness with laughter. It helps that the frequently funny dialogue is sold by some very strong voice performances. Key and Peele are obvious standouts, and Selick makes the most of their natural rapport by keeping their characters together, developing Wendell and Wild as individuals primarily through their relationship.

On the comedic side of things, Rhames and the legendary James Hong, as Kat’s schoolmaster Father Bests, also breathe life into their well-designed characters in a way that makes them memorable. Outside of Ross, who capably portrays the embittered human protagonist, the movie’s dramatic side tends to get the short end of the stick when it comes to character development, and viewers might find themselves dwelling less on those performances as a result. But character in animation is a collaboration between actor and animator, and the visual strength of this movie will carry the audience past any grievance in that department. While intriguingly distinct from the look of Selick’s prior work, every aspect of Wendell & Wild benefits from an expressive approach to design, and it takes no time at all to settle into the dual worlds of Rust Bank and Hell.

There are certain tableaux that seem destined to make an impression, particularly those that lean into the creepy side of things, though parents need not be too concerned. Even as it explores darkness, the movie has a buoyant heart, and its imagery feels less haunting than either Coraline or James and the Giant Peach, both of which are rated PG. Wendell & Wild also leans into its handmade quality in a truly thrilling way. Even as viewers are wrapped up in the storytelling, stop-motion animation has that special ability to keep activated the part of one’s brain focused on the object itself and how it’s crafted. The moments of awe and bewilderment at how a certain shot or transition is accomplished are key to the viewing experience.

Where the film suffers most is in the admirable quality of having far too much to say. Ultimately, the concept of greatest interest to the filmmakers is family, and this idea is explored quite compellingly on multiple levels. But in its desire to take on themes as wide-ranging as the liberating effect of confronting one’s own trauma and the devastating impact of politically sanctioned greed on local communities, Wendell & Wild leaves story threads underwoven, if not hanging. There’s a desire to engage deeply with the real world that makes something like My Life as a Zucchini seem like a potential touchstone, but this never quite reconciles with the film’s use of fantasy to explore concepts in the abstract — this feels like a spot where Peele and Selick’s authorial voices experienced more friction than harmony.

​​​​​​​Nevertheless, prospective viewers should not fault the movie for biting off more than it could chew before giving it a real chance to impress them. Better to take risks and accrue clutter than play things too safe and end up cultivating nothing of actual interest.

Next: The Curse Of Bridge Hollow Review: A Holiday Comedy Made For The Algorithm

Wendell & Wild released in limited theaters October 21 and is available to stream on Netflix from October 28. The film is 106 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for some thematic material, violence, substance use, and brief strong language.

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