A still from "Wendell & Wild"
From the brilliant visionary behind “Coraline,” “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” and “James and the Giant Peach” comes another dark stop-motion animation picture. Director Henry Selick is back in his element with “Wendell & Wild,” an entertaining coming-of-age fantasy that comes thirteen years after his previous film. Is it worth the wait? While not as terrifying as the button-eyed nightmare fuel in “Coraline,” the director once again proves his artistry in an awe-inspiring sub-genre of animation. His signature spooky style is crawling all over “Wendell & Wild,” which introduces an exciting collaboration between Selick and co-writer Jordan Peele for a tale of inner demons. Peele’s insightful humor and remarkable experience in the horror genre shine with something to say. There is plenty to admire in the sprawling ambition of the story, and the stunning handmade animation that brings creative ideas to life. Clever punk elements add layers to a recurring core theme of rebellion. The world-building is vivid, and the characters are fun, but the story is over-packed with subplots. “Wendell & Wild” stands out as a horror-comedy that fulfills its animated promise, only leaving you wanting more focus on the story.
The story follows protagonist Kat Elliott (Lyric Ross), a teenager holding onto survivor’s guilt from the death of her parents when she was a little girl. Ever since her parent's death, their hometown of Rust Bank deteriorated into a ghost town. Once full of thriving people and businesses, the town is now plastered with posters of a corporation that wants to build a private prison on the land. The villains of the film are quickly identifiable, and their plot looms over Rust Bank like a stormy cloud. Meanwhile, Kat attends the town’s Catholic school where she meets a variety of characters: teen classmate Raul (Sam Zelaya), teacher Sister Helley (Angela Bassett), and headmaster Father Bests (James Hong) to name a few. Walking the halls with her father’s boom box blaring, Kat is not in the mood to make friends. But all that changes when she unearths supernatural powers and meets her demons, who have names.
Kat’s inner demons take on the form of scheming brothers Wendell (Keegan-Michael Key) and Wild (Jordan Peele), who reside under the nose of their father Buffalo Belzer (Ving Rhames). When the demons discover that Kat has a portal to the Land of the Living, they propose she summon them above ground and she agrees on one condition: they must bring her parents back to life. What follows is a rebellious adventure in a world where demons are not the scariest part. The story is embedded with punk-rock energy that also lives in the characters, who challenge positions of authority and learn more about their surroundings in the process. Kat’s character speaks to the significance of approaching one’s inner demons face-to-face and being lifted by the company of a supportive community. When the film is focused on the protagonist and her relationship with the demons, the story flourishes. Kat navigating a new setting while facing obstacles from inside and out is a strong core. But the screenplay has a lot of moving parts, not all of which are fleshed out.
“Wendell & Wild” is pulled in multiple directions, often at odds with where to go. Commentary on the prison-industrial complex is one example of how the film establishes a narrative in real-life horrors. The villains reek of dollar sign eyes and heartlessness. As they scheme their way to take over Rust Bank, using various characters as pawns, their actions spawn subplots that are too loosely connected. Not enough time is spent fleshing out all these new threads and the characters born from them. As a consequence, the film feels rushed in terms of character development and story revelations. This can be felt strongest in the final act, where several subplots are given conclusions too quick to even digest.
While the story is swimming in an overflow of ideas, there are plenty of positive elements to the film that make it stand out. The characters are interesting to watch and feature fantastic voice work. There is strong representation to be found in the film, most memorably with trans character Raul, who holds space as Kat’s sidekick while also having his own backstory. The screenplay incorporates different aspects of his life and personality as well. The film also lives up to the expectation of Selick’s return to stop-motion animation. The world-building is wondrous. Spooky, gooey, nightmarish production design brings the land of the living, the dead, and the in-between to life with a punk edge. The detailed animation is a marvel – from the fuzz of a hair strand to the lifelike material of a doll. As well, the look and sound of a pop-up booklet unfolding – when Wendell and Wild show their theme park presentation – is a great example of sound design adding weight to the visuals.
A lot goes on in “Wendell & Wild,” and while not all of it comes together coherently, the level of ambition and creativity is admirable. The film has heart and touches on strong themes from facing your inner demons, to the grip horrors of the past have on the present. The punk elements are a hit, including a wonderful soundtrack that gives a boost of energy to scenes. The soundtrack features hints of choral music that will remind you of “Coraline,” and is used effectively here as well. Enough of “Wendell & Wild” works to overpower the weaknesses in pacing and story-building. The film does well at starting with a strange idea, then adding elements to ground the story from there. If only there were a neater grip on bringing all the subplots together into a more coherent experience.