Animation master Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas) returns with Wendell and Wild, a spectacle of stop-motion oddities that was well worth the wait. The highly anticipated Netflix production is a collaboration with co-writer Jordan Peele, who also co-stars with his Key & Peele comedy partner Keegan-Michael Key.
As it turns out, Selick was a huge fan of the show and had approached the duo back in 2017 to work together as Peele’s directing career began to take off. All the while, this peculiar picture—a labor of love from creatives who were fans of each other—was being captured movement by movement.
Full of eerie whimsy, Wendell and Wild follows in the footsteps of Selick’s decade-defining works like Coraline and A Nightmare Before Christmas, now also expanding to include Peele’s thematic influences on current cinema. The story centers on angsty teen Kat (Lyric Ross), a green-haired 13-year-old whose tragic backstory finds her alienating anyone who tries to get close to her. When she starts attending Rust Bank Catholic School for Girls, she doesn’t care to fit in and marches to the beat of her father’s boombox (which provides a killer soundtrack for the film with Black and Brown punk music). She’s drawn to trouble—or rather, preventing it, like when she saves a schoolmate after having a premonition that a brick was about to hit her from above. It’s almost as if something supernatural has a hand in things.
When she stumbles upon a locked away demonic teddy named Bearz-a-bub, it works as a conduit to connect Kat to demon brothers Wendell (Keegan Michael Key) and Wild (Jordan Peele), who are mighty keen on making it into the land of the living using Kat’s un-nurtured Hellmaiden powers. Supernatural hijinks in the graveyard ensue, as Wendell and Wild promise if Kat agrees to help them unleash their dark magic on the world, she’ll get what she most wants... a chance to see those she’s lost again. However, the demons attempt to double-cross Kat while she’s distracted by the suspicious Sister Helley (Angela Bassett)—and their devilish negotiations quickly entangle Kat and her schoolmate Raúl Cocolotl (Sam Zelaya) in their schemes. Zelaya imbues Raúl with empathy as they become a voice of reason for Kat to look around at what’s going on in their town upon the arrival of the demons, and in that sense the film really captures that childhood friendship that you’d do anything for. Ross grounds Kat as a relatable and complex heroine who makes mistakes, deals with things out of her control, and takes back her agency through relationships to heal from alienating others her whole life.
Wendell & Wild eventually becomes a sort of battle for Kat’s soul among the kooky hijinks that are a Selick signature, like creepy crawlies and silly fun with the dead. Peele’s genre sensibilities also shine in the film’s deeper themes about life and death happening too early in the life of somebody who’s coming of age and needing to battle her demons, especially when they take shape.
Wreaking havoc on the land of the living through impressive sets and comedic frights, Key and Peele embody a new duo that captures their chemistry, like a modern Abbott and Costello mixed with Beetlejuice and Selick’s Monkeybone (minus the horniness). The chaotic duo look an awful lot like Key and Peele themselves, thanks to character designer Pablo Lobato, who uses Picasso-like distorted facial features to diabolically perfect effect. For Kat, he took Afropunk inspiration for her rebellious look, like when she tears up her Catholic school outfit for a vibe that’s more her aesthetic with safety pins and metal. Among her classmates, there’s a visual sense of Clueless-style uniformity among the popular girls, adding to the film’s ‘90s-era inspirations (down to the black and white composition books). The look of the drab settings call back to the moody atmosphere of films like Let the Right One In and The Craft.
Wendell & Wild is beautifully animated and performed in goth harmony with every department. The art of stop-motion just brings this kind of story to life, from the gross-out dark comedy horror beats to the emotional moments filled with love on every stitch on screen, in ways that other mediums cannot accomplish. The film could very well become a new classic with its story of Kat, this generation’s very own teenage badass, versus the supernatural. There’s something for those who remember what it was like to carry so much as a kid, holding on to nostalgia for souvenirs of a life taken away too quickly—but also the promise of connection if you just face the dark with those willing to stand together with you. In a time like the one we’re living in, it really speaks to finding community to stand up to the most nefarious of foes.
The film also stars James Hong (as Father Bests) and Ving Rhames (as Buffalo Belzer). Wendell and Wild is now in theaters for a limited run before dropping on Netflix on October 28.
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