Wendell & Wild
Henry Selick, Jordan Peele (Book: Henry Selick, Clay McLeod Chapman)
Lyric Ross, Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Angela Bassett, James Hong, Sam Zelaya, Tamara Smart, Seema Virdi, Ramona Young, Ving Rhames
The sheer time it takes to make a stop-motion animated feature and the number of studios who can capably do them is small enough that each such effort demands our attention. One of the greats of the medium, director Henry Selick, is back after a 23-year hiatus. Can he impress audiences with his talents again or will his rusty toolkit leave them uninspired.
Wendell & Wild is about young Kat (voiced by Lyric Ross) whose parents (Gary Gatewood & Gabrielle Dennis) die in a car accident when their vehicle plunges into a lake on their way home. Blaming herself, getting into trouble, and then ending up in the court system, Kat is shunted from one second chance school to another until she lands in a facility in the mountains above the small town where she grew up and where her parents died.
There, she discovers that she is a Hellmaiden who can summon demons into the real world. Her personal demons (Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele) convince her to rescue them from their demonic prison in exchange for bringing her parents back to life. Mischief ensues. There are several plot lines interweaving here, which gives the film a lot of weight. While the film is more than just about the threat of for-profit prison ventures, that foundation helps ground the film in a horrific reality for a lot of Black men and women. It doesn’t dig too deeply into the issues that surround such efforts, but it circles them near enough to add depth to the material.
Selick’s appreciation for the macabre is familiar to audiences from his prior films. Wendell & Wild starts off employing some of the techniques viewers may be familiar with from films like Coraline and The Nightmare Before Christmas, but eventually, the film settles into a compelling rhythm of originality and we’re delightfully drawn in for the ride. In spite of involving some darker elements of the paranormal, the film is relatively lighthearted and suitable for younger audiences who can handle those moments. Peele and Selick, who wrote the adaptation of Selick and Clay McLeod Chapman’s book together, craft something both forward-thinking and richly detailed, exploring a world with fantastical elements that often tie back into real world situations.
The voice cast is superb, notably Ross, Key & Peele, Angela Bassett as a mysterious nun at the school, and James Hong as the facility’s administrator. It’s also one of few films that feature a trans character without making a huge deal out of their transition. He exists and is accepted without question with only one early reference to his transition, which his supportive mother shuts down handily.
The film is progressive, has emotional heft, and asks challenging questions. While it feels very familiar at first, the screenplay travels its expected paths towards a conclusion that is well crafted and emotionally fulfilling. Wendell & Wild is easily on par with Selick’s prior films, Coraline, James and the Giant Peach, and The Nightmare Before Christmas. His film is an inventive, dazzling, and genuinely appealing effort and makes it clear that Selick hasn’t lost his touch.
Guarantees: Animated Feature
Probables: Visual Effects
Potentials: Production Design
November 23, 2022