Henry Selick combined with Key & Peele should’ve been the easiest, most exciting event of any year. With Wendell & Wild being the second animated film the comedy duo contribute their voices together (after Toy Story 4), Wendell & Wild was primed to be a welcome return to the dark but eccentric world Selick and his team have offered us in the past, like Coraline and The Nightmare Before Christmas. But with a busy and overcrowded plot, the film finds its personality and heart constantly falling short of other stop motion classics.
Plotlines, Plotlines, Plotlines
The story begins with Kat (voiced by Lyric Ross), a little girl whose parents own the local brewery of their town Rust Bank. But after both her parents die in a car accident, Kat holds herself responsible. She spends the next few years shutting herself out of community and friends.
Now at thirteen years old, Kat returns to her hometown to be put into an all girls’ school run by Father Bests (James Hong) and the mysterious Sister Helley (Angela Bassett). Upon her return, Kat learns that Rust Bank has become an abandoned wasteland of a town that once was. And when a town has died, opportunities arise for shady demons. And I don’t just mean fantastical demons, but a corrupt corporation that is planning on financing a private prison to keep Rust Bank running.
So where does this all fit into the title? Well, Kat’s personal demons have names. They are Wendell (Keagan-Michael Key) and Wild (Jordan Peele), two bumbling demons that are trying to be summoned into the real world and start an amusement park. Perhaps a deal can be made? Or maybe that deal conflicts with what the corrupt tycoons want.
Selick Is Back
Strangely enough, Wendell & Wild doesn’t do simple. The script has a collage of ideas on its mind, from its anti-capitalist stance to its heartfelt message of overcoming past trauma. Even the private prison plotline makes compelling commentary on how upcoming generations of students could potentially be doomed from the start. All of these are well-intentioned ideas even though they’re fighting over each other. The writing of Wendell & Wild is the result of a bizarre series of creative decisions – you know you’d be scratching your head when the heart of the story revolves around Kat, but the film is instead named after her two demons.
In the meantime, Selick’s sensibilities with dark fantasy keep the film afloat. It’s wild to see that he hasn’t made a new film in thirteen years since Coraline. Here, the screen is once again filled with ghosts, zombies, and carnivals. The stop-motion animation keeps the image interesting, with plenty of family-friendly scares, visual gags, and little details that give each character a memorable visual trait. It’s a joyful homecoming experience, as if the artist you have missed since childhood has finally returned to make another hit.
Wendell & Wild: Good Intentions and Personality
Although it never meets the simple charm that made past Selick films so riveting and rewatchable, Wendell & Wild nevertheless marks some progress for dark animated films. The characters, for example, are more diverse – in addition to its lead woman of colour, we have nuns, a trans classmate, an Indigenous bus driver, and of course, demons. Key and Peele’s chemistry together is still just as funny and improvisational as they were before, which could make a nice introduction to children who are unfamiliar with their material and with horror.
At the end of it all, the film offers a heartfelt message that quirky, even spooky individuals can come together to do good. With systemic corruption as the core evil in the story, the film succeeds in reminding the audience that family and community are the things that give a town its life, not profit. The script may stumble a lot with a busy plot, but, thankfully, Selick helps Wendell & Wild reach its destination at the end.