It’s really good to see Henry Selick back in the director’s chair. It’s been 13 years since the animation legend best known for The Nightmare Before Christmas has hit the silver screen, last being the fantastically creepy Coraline back in 2009. Now, he’s partnered up with modern horror “it” guy Jordan Peele to co-write and co-produce Wendell and Wild.
Based on Selick’s and Clay McLeod Chapman’s unpublished book of the same name, Wendell and Wild follows Kat (Lyric Ross), a young girl who, after experiencing the death of both her parents in an accident, has bounced around from foster homes to a juvie stint and has grown cold and unattached to everyone. This time around, she’s given another chance by returning to her hometown of Rust Bank to enrol in an all-girls school’s rehab program. At the same time, she’s contacted by two demon brothers; the titular Wendell and Wild (Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, respectively). The bumbling pair are trying to escape their own awful existence—they’re forced to grow hair on the scalp of their father, the giant overlord Buffalo Belzer (Ving Rhames)—and offer Kat a deal: help them reach the land of the living, and they’ll bring her parents back.
It should go without saying that Wendell and Wild is a visual feast. Selick’s skill at delivering these impressively intricate well-designed worlds hasn’t slouched a bit in his absence. One of the most stunning sequences is the introduction to the “world of the danged” through the Scream Faire, an amusement park set on Buffalo Belzer’s massive stomach. Even if some moments are very much enhanced by CG, there’s always a tactility and imperfection in stop-motion that you can feel the craftsmanship, and Wendell and Wild is no different. The character and creature designs all feel unique, and it’s refreshing to see a stop-motion flick with a mostly POC cast of characters.
Lyric Ross is great as Kat. Ross adds a lot of It’s also always good to see Key and Peele reunite as a comedic duo. While they’re not as constantly laugh-out-loud hilarious as their last team-up in Toy Story 4, their chemistry together is still intact. The supporting characters are just as charming, like Raul (Sam Zelaya), a recently-transitioned student artist who becomes one of Kat’s closest allies and Sloane (Tamara Smart), the leader of a trio of overly-cheery girls who want to add Kat into their clique. On the other hand, as great as Angela Bassett and Ving Rhames are in their roles, they are tragically underused.
“I do have to commend Wendell and Wild for not shying away from pretty heavy subjects like grief in a way that’s not too dark for kids.”
There are a lot of characters and stories going on in Wendell and Wild’s screenplay, almost too many at once for its 105-minute runtime. In addition to Kat’s deal with the demon brothers, there’s a subplot about her discovering new-found supernatural abilities and another about the school’s crooked headmaster (James Hong) conspiring with the movie’s true villains: a pair of developers who want to turn the formerly-thriving Rust Bank into a mega-prison. Some characters I almost entirely forgot about until the final act.
While it doesn’t have enough time to really delve into some of the social commentary it wants to address like the school-to-prison pipeline, I do have to commend Wendell and Wild for not shying away from pretty heavy subjects like grief in a way that’s not too dark for kids.
Overall, Wendell and Wild is a solid entry point for introducing kids to horror. I can definitely see Kat’s Afropunk aesthetic being a future Halloween staple for little girls. It’s a fun combo of Henry Selick’s gorgeous animation and designs, and Jordan Peele’s talent at blending entertaining humour, horror and social commentary. Let’s just hope it doesn’t take another decade for the next Selick joint.