Has it really been 13 years since director Henry Selick’s last feature film? It’s very fitting that the master of stop-motion animation (The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), James and the Giant Peach (1996), Coraline (2009)) has returned for a Halloween timeslot.
Wendell & Wild, a movie stuffed with the visually macabre and thematically ghoulish, is here to battle all of your demons.
What Is Wendell & Wild About?
Teenage Kat (not “K-K”, not “Katherine Koniqua Elliot”) has had a hard life. Ever since the accident that killed her parents, for which she blames herself, she has had to fight to survive.
Enrolled in a scholarship-paid all-girls Catholic School on a prison release scheme, a bitter Kat finds herself back in her home town of Rust Bank – now virtually abandoned.
Yet demons speak to her in her dreams and offer her the return of her parents if she can summon them to the real world.
Wendell & Wild can indeed be taken at that surface level. Selick has always maintained that stop-motion animation should be visibly handmade to keep it distinct from computer animation, and he has stuffed his movie to the brim with deliciously dark imagery. Selick takes any chance he can to revel in the demonic visual aspect of his plotting.
Visuals such as the underworld, led by a huge demon called Buffalo Belzer (Ving Rhames), where souls are flung screaming around a devilish fairground that sits on his stomach.
His two cowering sons, Wendell (Keegan-Michael Key, The Bubble) and Wild (Jordan Peele), dream of breaking free and designing their own fair. Their journey to the real world through manipulating Kat (Lyric Ross), and the havoc they wreak by using magic hair cream to summon the dead, is a tour de force of the stop-motion medium.
Yet on another level, Wendell & Wild puts humanity’s evil above and beyond any demonic force. Kat is unlikable and surly for much of the film, but is a product of a system where her presence means profit for others.
The group home packed her in for government money, Father Best (James Hong) at the Catholic school enrolled her in return for payment from the prison, and if the Klaxons (Maxine Peake and David Harewood) build their new ‘pack ‘em in and keep them angry’ private prison then the system will steer her right back behind bars. When profit is king, people are mere product.
Wendell & Wild Official Trailer
Is Wendell & Wild Worth Watching
Where Wendell & Wild struggles is its characters, who mostly act as pushers of plot. Peele (who co-wrote the movie) and Key get tons of fun back and forth, but most others take their masterfully animated selves to setting ‘X’ in order to do task ‘Y’ independent of internal stakes.
Sure, Selick usually deals in heightened caricatures – the movie is teething with Pablo Lobato’s gloriously expressive puppets – but it is a shame that a character such as trans boy Raúl (Sam Zelaya) isn’t served by anything other than furtherance of Kat’s story.
Ross fills Kat with understandable defiance who ‘doesn’t do friends’, blocking out all and sundry no matter how friendly they are.
One beautifully animated scene has Kat fighting a distorted shadow of herself to break the chains of her past, yet her demeanour is hardly changed afterwards with no pay off moment of warmth to those around her.
Punk teens the world over will identify with her righteous anger, but anyone looking for a character arc beyond internal battle will be left wanting.
The lack of an emotive connection in an emotive and subtext-laden story is disappointing, but Wendell & Wild stands statute tall regardless by dint of the sheer overflow of creativity on screen.
Every moment is packed with the kind of sumptuous detail that Selick excels at; I’m already itching to watch it again! All demons, be they personal or societal, should be met head on. Wendell & Wild is the gothic party to have whilst doing so.
Words by Mike Record