Key & Peele Reunite in Spectacular Stop-Motion Film

Dec 14, 2022

This review was originally part of our 2022 Toronto International Film Festival coverage.

There is something delightful about stop-motion animation that you won’t find anywhere else. It is not just that every frame is the result of countless hours that represent a collaboration between a whole team of craftspeople, though that is certainly part of it. What really makes it shine is how each detail, from the way light illuminates water to the expressiveness of a face, marks the creation of an imaginative and vibrant experience that is excavated from the ordinary. When in the hands of director Henry Selick, known most for the wondrous The Nightmare Before Christmas and the unsettling Coraline, then you have the potential for something really special. With his first film in more than a decade, Wendell & Wild, we see that potential come to life in magnificent fashion. It offers a glimpse of the peak of the form itself.

Based on an unpublished book that Selick wrote, the film also counts Jordan Peele as a co-writer and is all the better for it. The two prove to be great collaborators as the story draws in both of their respective sensibilities that operate in perfect synchronicity. This all begins with young Kat (Lyric Ross) who, following a tragic accident that took the lives of both of her parents, grows up in a world with no one for her to turn to. She ends up getting trapped in the nightmare of the juvenile justice system, justice here being a misnomer, during her formative years. Now at 13, she has been given a supposed second chance by being sent to a religious school of all girls in the community that she grew up in.

An opening drive establishes that the area has been decimated and is basically a ghost town. It all began with a fire that destroyed her parents’ business and allowed a corporation to begin forcing people out of the community with plans to build a private prison there. This is all a lot to handle for Kat, though we see how she has learned to shut herself off from the world and her past to survive. That is before we even get to her demons, both literal and figurative, that she will have to face down in order to preserve a future for herself as well as the town. This is where the titular demon duo of Wendell (Keegan-Michael Key) and Wild (Peele) come into play. After finding themselves trapped under the thumb of their father Buffalo Belzer, voiced by a vivacious Ving Rhames, they discover that his magical hair cream has the power to bring the dead back to life.

Image via Netflix

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It also can get them high, which the film coyly has them refer to as “tickling their tummies,” and gives them a vision of Kat. They soon begin to mess with her in the hopes that she will help them to get money to create a demonic theme park away from the one created by their father. It is all ridiculous and silly in a way that can feel a little overstuffed, though the light tone keeps things moving along. Kat, when she learns of the magic cream, wants to use it to bring her parents back from the dead. What follows is an adventure film where she goes on a journey that is more than a little anarchic and all over the place while still being grounded in a sentimental yet sharp emotional experience.

While not nearly as frightening as Coraline, it still is overflowing with ghosts and ghouls galore that are all beautifully realized. There are even some magnificent musical sequences that prove to be standouts. They make use of both Kat’s taste in music that she has clung to as a way of staying connected with her parents and one particular song about raising the dead that is a real joy. Just as the story is centered around bringing the dead to life, its use of stop-motion is itself a form of magic. In a year that is an embarrassment of stop-motion riches from the recent Mad God to the upcoming Pinocchio, also getting a release from Netflix, Wendell & Wild still is nothing short of wonderful to behold.

Where this story goes is best experienced for yourself, though it is clear that Peele’s fingerprints are all over the production, and it is all the better for it. Wendell & Wild packs a healthy dose of skepticism for institutional corruption that routinely decimates lives from prisons to the corporations that run them. This makes a clear parallel between the ghoulishness of these systems and the demonic forces that live underneath them. For any who might get up in arms about this narrative throughline, perhaps take a moment to reflect on why that is and understand that this is also a fundamental part of the film’s underdog story.

Image via Netflix

As Kat begins to grow in confidence and assert control over her life, the journey she takes inevitably requires her to confront all that has robbed that from her up until then. She has lost her freedom and sense of self, a terrifying result of what happens when the system ostensibly about protecting them wreaks psychological terror on people. The process of rebuilding after everything has been broken down is an infinitely challenging one, though Wendell & Wild is willing to sit with those more intense thoughts for longer than most other films would dare. For those fearing that this may sound a bit heavy, it all strikes a balance in being reflective and raucous. Her journey is a two-pronged thematic and narrative success that only grows in its emotional resonance the longer you get to immerse yourself in its precisely animated world.

Thankfully, Kat doesn’t have to face this world alone as she begins to make a friend in the shy yet sweet artist Raul (Sam Zelaya) who we learn has semi-recently transitioned. This element is, most refreshingly, presented as part of the broader story and the multifaceted character in a manner that rings true. Then there is the mysterious Sister Helley (Angela Bassett) who seems to recognize what is happening with Kat when almost no one else does. She also carries secrets of her own that will be key to saving the town. Opposing them in this mission is Father Bests (James Hong) who runs the school as a means of profiting off of Kat and is chummy with the corporate cronies wanting to build the prison.

Image via Netflix

While there is a worthwhile conversation to be had about whether these bigger names are always the best casting choices for animated films, everyone does really strong work here. In particular, Key and Peele remain a fantastic comedy duo. They soon settle into a rhythm, setting each other up for punchlines that kill (so to speak) every time. While this isn’t the first time they’ve acted alongside each other in an animated film, their performances here feel more unrestrained and close to the sense of humor from their sketch show. Though both have gone in different directions in their respective careers, getting to hear them together is always a real treat.

If there are any hiccups to the film, it comes in how the story struggles to always build and maintain momentum. There is a lot of set-up required for many of the supernatural elements and some moments begin to feel like they are a bit stuck. It always manages to push through all of this, but it still made for a few scenes that felt a bit shaky. With that being said, this all melts away in a cathartic conclusion that pulls out all the stops. Everything that had been set up ends up coming together in a sequence that is one of the best the animation studio has ever put to screen. The way the music drops in is no less joyous, making one final ripping of your heart out all the more impactful. When it all comes together, Wendell & Wild ends up feeling liberating, both artistically and thematically, with top work from all involved.

Rating: A-

Wendell & Wild is available now on Netflix.

Disclaimer: This story is auto-aggregated by a computer program and has not been created or edited by filmibee.
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