Stop-motion animation is an art form that I wish was more mainstream. Outside of a few dedicated studios like Laika, because of the amount of time and effort that it takes to develop just a single minute of animation, I feel that many filmmakers view the style as taking a lot of effort for very little return. To make matters worse, most stop-motion animation doesn’t really do well at the box office, oftentimes becoming commercial failures. They can’t all be like The Nightmare Before Christmas or Coraline. Both of those films were directed by Henry Selick, so I had hope going into the director’s next movie, Wendell & Wild. Sure, the film would be released on Netflix and would not have a box office presence, but there’s hope that at least releasing it on Netflix would expose the film to a larger audience.
I’m happy that Wendell & Wild is getting a decent push from Netflix as well. The film has a spooky aesthetic that matches perfectly with Halloween and it was even released over the Halloween weekend for maximum effect. The PG-13 rating might not make it as immediately family-friendly as one may expect, but it was able to climb to Netflix’s Top 10 movies for the weekend. Sadly though, Wendell & Wild isn’t able to escape the shadows of those other movies and is probably going to be forgotten now that the season is over.
Wendell & Wild
Director: Henry Selick
Release Date: October 28, 2022 (Netflix)
Kat (Lyric Ross) is a teenager that’s had a rough life. Her parents died when she was a kid and she’s been under the care of the state ever since, becoming bitter and resentful of everything in her life. She’s enrolled at an all-girl Catholic school in the same town where she grew up, but the town has taken a turn for the worst since she’s been away, basically abandoned and left in disarray. Meanwhile, in the underworld, demon brothers Wendell and Wild (Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele respectively) long to create an amusement park for the departed souls and escape the prison they’re currently trapped in.
Eventually, the demon brothers are able to project themselves into the human world and convince Kat to summon them in exchange for the two brothers reviving her dead parents. Once the brothers are brought into the mortal world, things quickly spiral out of control as their life-rejuvenating hair cream (don’t ask) revives more dead souls and gets the attention of the many different parties, each with their own desires and motivations for bringing the dead back to life.
Wendell & Wild is a very busy movie. The cast is surprisingly large with a lot of different plot threads and relationships to keep track of. Sometimes, these beats and moments are deserving, like Kat’s desire to see her parents again. The film goes beyond simply using dead parents as set dressing and takes the time to really display how their deaths traumatized her and shut her off from the rest of the world. Most of the time, the cast is just underdeveloped. Every other character outside of Kat doesn’t leave an impact and barely registers outside of their service to the plot. Kat’s mentor, Sister Helley (Angela Bassett), gets it the worst since the film props her up as being similar to Kat but never actually goes into backstory so we can understand why. Even Wendell and Wild, the two characters the film is named after, feel like they barely have a presence.
The duo is entertaining when they are present, but that’s because of Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele’s performances. The duo just have amazing chemistry, but fans of Key & Peele don’t need to be told that. Some of their jokes can seem corny and lame, but it’s hard to tell if that’s because the writing is lacking or their improvisational skills aren’t up to snuff. It has been years since they finished their Comedy Central series, so maybe it’s a little bit of both.
I find that Wendell & Wild is a victim of expectations more than anything, both within the confines of the story and as a film itself. The film sets up a lot of different characters that all compete against each other for screen time. At one point, it looks like there are four different antagonists that are vying for our attention and the film can’t really decide which one of them is going to be the main threat for about a half hour or so. It eventually decides on one set of antagonists, but after spending the first act introducing all of them, the second act comes off as unfocused thanks to that indecision (even if it comes together in the third act).
At that point, it all just comes across as unremarkable. There’s nothing about the movie that really makes it stand out from other animated films. The focus on more African American characters is appreciated, as is featuring a prominent trans character, but the film doesn’t really do anything with this. It feels like surface-level representation more than anything. I do like the sequence where Kat confronts all of her personal demons and how those are more terrifying than Wendell and Wild, especially when she has to make the difficult decision to accept rather than reject her fears, but everything else is very standard and straightforward.
Which is weird given that the film is PG-13. For the life of me, I can’t see why it earned that PG-13 rating. There are some instances of “hell” and “crap” in it, which may have been the main motivator alongside of the depictions of grief and self-loathing, but the rest of the film is quite tame. It’s almost juvenile at times with a lot of the comic relief being bog-standard family film comic relief. There’s Wendell and Wild, but there’s also a trio of popular girls that are all about self-help and positivity, a fat demon with hair loss issues, and James Hong as a greedy yet cartoonish priest. This is tamer than Coraline ever was and, as long as you’re fine with some rough language, is perfectly suitable for families.
The animation at least is pretty great, but that’s true for almost all stop-motion animation. What can I say? I’m a sucker for the style. I do think that a lot of the designs here come across as visually flat. The actual animation is great, but sometimes the characters’ faces and mouths feel like they’re animated like an episode of South Park instead of having multiple meticulously detailed faces swapped out for each frame. Then again, that’s more of a personal preference and not a legitimate gripe with the film. Just a me thing.
At the end of the day, I did enjoy my time with Wendell & Wild, but from a director who’s directed some of the best stop-motion horror films ever, it’s a bit of a letdown. I know that the production was wild for several different reasons and I’m happy that the film exists, but it’s a bit too cluttered to give it a wholehearted recommendation. Even then, whatever the film does well it doesn’t do outrageously well. Let’s put it another way; if this was a traditionally animated movie and wasn’t done in stop-motion, I probably wouldn’t have seen it at all. The style is what hooked me on it, not the actual plot or experience.