This is an advanced review out of the Toronto International Film Festival, where Wendell & Wild made its world premiere. It will release in limited theaters on Oct. 21, 2022, before streaming on Netflix on Oct. 28.
Henry Selick makes his triumphant return to movies with Wendell & Wild, a spectacularly stop-motion-animated romp with the right amount of edge and madness, plenty of spooks, some biting commentary, and a hilarious script co-written by Jordan Peele, who reunites with Keegan-Michael Key for a wicked movie that still manages to be family-friendly.
Selick is one of the great stop-motion directors, having brought to us both laughter and nightmares with The Nightmare Before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach, and Coraline, and showing that animation and horror can produce excellent results. Though his films have been widely successful, and he’s delivered movie after movie filled with both gorgeous visuals and nightmare-inducing imagery, the industry has often eclipsed Selick’s contributions in favor of whatever big-name producer is attached to his projects. After all, The Nightmare Before Christmas has Tim Burton’s name in the title, and Coraline is mostly remembered as either a Neil Gaiman adaptation or studio LAIKA’s first feature, rather than a Selick project.
Now, Selick is the latest victim of the Jordan Peele credit wars, wherein the horror maestro’s success – through no fault of his own, mind you – takes the spotlight over everyone he works with (even Candyman director Nia DaCosta commented that she was “prepared for no one to care that I was a part of” the movie that Peele produced). And that is a shame because as much as this does feel like a Jordan Peele movie, this is still Selick’s film through and through. Wendell & Wild shows how valuable stop-motion is, especially in the horror genre, while maturing his craft to include more biting commentary and give it a bit of a PG-13 edge.
Adapted from an unpublished book that Selick wrote with horror author Clay McLeod Chapman, Wendell & Wild is a bit overstuffed, as if — understandably so — Selick wanted to pack the story with every single idea he’s been unable to take to the screen over the past 13 years. This is in many ways a big middle finger to everyone in the industry who prevented Selick from making a movie in the past decade, and the result is wonderful.
We start with Kat (Lyric Ross), a teenage goth queen who saw her parents die as a kid and blames herself, becoming cold and pushing away everyone who tries to get close to her. Ross does a great job infusing Kat with a rebellious attitude, while the sculptors and designers make Kat an Afro Punk queen who could punch you in the face and you’d thank her. After getting kicked out of school for a fight, she spent years inside the juvenile detention system and is getting one last chance at a Catholic boarding school in her hometown. This school is home to Selick’s usual gallery of quirky and memorably weirdos, including a rich girl with a heart of gold, transgender artist Raul, the baddest movie nun in years with a supernatural secret, a janitor with a demon obsession, and legendary actor James Hong as a decrepit, corrupt priest who wants to bring the town’s Board of Directors back to life to perpetuate the school-to-prison pipeline.
Everyone has demons, Kat says near the beginning of the film, but the difference is hers have names. Enter the titular Wendell (Key) and Wild (Peele). These two brothers sound and feel like characters straight out of a Key and Peele sketch, particularly the Terries one, which Selick names as inspiration for casting the duo. The brothers are imprisoned and forced to work on the hair farm of their father, a 300-foot demon named Buffalo Belzer (a perfectly cast Ving Rhames). They dream of opening a better “bemusement park” for the souls of the “danged” than the humongous park of hell that is built around Belzer’s body, and they’ll draxx them sklounst to fulfill their dream.
This hell park is the first big sequence of the movie, and it is so detailed and beautifully crafted you’ll wish you could spend an entire TV show just exploring all its intricate rides and their torture devices, as Selick and his team push the stop-motion medium forward with exquisite designs, expressions, and movements. There is no computer-generated removal of seamlines, no hiding of the human touch – on the contrary, this is a movie that wants you to know it was made by fallible humans, one that relishes in the handmade craft. The result is a film that stands out from a sea of Western computer-animated movies that try so hard to appear perfect they forget to be, you know, good.
As if that wasn’t enough of a story, there is also a pair of villains involved in a nefarious plot to turn the town into a massive private prison. That’s right, Wendell & Wild is following in the footsteps of Hey Arnold: The Movie by having urban development be the villain, and it works. There’s always several complex and heavy themes going on at any time, from facing one’s demons, to the importance of local businesses, to the corruption and fallacy of the juvenile rehabilitation system, the prison industrial complex, and the dangers of raising the dead with magic. Selick and Peele take advantage of the PG-13 rating to introduce a bit of edge, not just in the stakes and the spooks, but in the subjects being explored. Still, they manage to make the subjects accessible enough for young audiences that they’ll get the gist of what is happening without it distracting from the fun gags and the pretty visuals.
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And Wendell & Wild is loaded with tons of those gorgeous visuals, in addition to some fun gags. Selick and Peele have proved time and time again that they are masters of horror, and with their powers combined, we get a movie filled with dark yet beautifully haunting imagery, like paper cutout scenes that bring to mind the nightmarish prologue to Candyman, or Selick’s trademark use of insects and smile for comedic horror. It shows again that you can have great horror stories told in animation, and why stop-motion is the best format for that. Thanks to creepy puppet designs and expressionist sets, as well as the comedic timing of Key and Peele, this is an animated horror comedy you’ll want to add to your yearly rotation of Halloween movies.