A Funny Yet Meaningful Blast For the Whole Family
It’s a shame that whenever someone thinks of The Nightmare Before Christmas, they think of Tim Burton. Henry Selick — that’s who to think. Selcik went on to make James and the Giant Peach, the underrated Brendan Fraser film Monkeybone, and the beloved but creepy kids’ movie Coraline. It’s been 13 years since that last movie, seven of which were spent developing and making his new project, the absolutely enchanting Wendell & Wild.
Co-written with Jordan Peele and starring an incredible voice acting cast including Keegan-Michael Key, Lyric Ross, Angela Bassett, James Hong, Ving Rhames, Tamara Smart, and many more, the Netflix movie Wendell & Wild is a beautifully animated, extremely imaginative, and surprisingly soulful film, and arguably the absolute best animated film of the year.
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Henry Selick Follows Coraline With the Great Wendell & Wild
Lyric Ross voices Kat Elliot, a girl who suffered the loss of her parents at a very young age. Since then, she’s been in and out of foster care, developing insecurities and rage, and being sent to juvenile detention centers for defending herself against bullies. She’s an angry young woman who has been through the system and suffered serious scars as a result but is now getting what some might call ‘a chance’ to turn her life around through a program called Break the Cycle. Returning to her hometown, the program places her in a Catholic school for mostly well-off students.
With their dress code uniforms and perky demeanors, the kids at her new school are hardly bad people, but they are rather vapid (Kat calls them “prize poodles”). Kat, on the other hand, dyes her hair green, wears spiked knee-high boots, and blasts killer punk rock out of her father’s boombox. Little does she know that soon, two demons will give her the opportunity to resurrect her dead parents. That aforementioned boombox uses a bloodshot eye for the circular stereo, which is indicative of the meticulous care and thoughtful design that goes into every single moment of Wendell & Wild.
Selick, who is probably the greatest stop-motion animation director today outside Aardman, put an immense amount of love into the character design and world-building of the film. Filming with fewer frames per second than average, along with cutout animation, silhouette animation, and just a bit of CGI, Selick creates a visually stunning world with Wendell & Wild, one which rivals pretty much any stop-motion film in recent memory. Each character is so beautifully specific, and each set is colored and built so perfectly here, but all without the blindingly bright, busy, and simplistic CGI of most animation.
Wendell & Wild Has Demons and Hell Maidens But is Kid Friendly
Some of the best animation in Wendell & Wild comes whenever Selick takes us to hell. It’s a bit spooky, extremely inventive, but also hilarious, and where we meet the titular demon brothers Wendell (played by Key) and Wild (played by Peele). As a consequence of trying to design a better version of hell, they’ve been sentenced to a kind of prison on their father’s head. Their father is a gigantic demon who is going bald, so they dig into his scalp and bury hair cream into the holes. However, they discover that this rejuvenating hair cream may have the power to raise the dead.
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Kat, perhaps as a result of her immense childhood trauma, is actually a Hell Maiden. She has the power to summon and communicate with demons (a literal manifestation of her own personal ones), so Wendell and Wild make a deal with her. If she summons them into the real world, where they can fulfill their own dreams and escape their hair-plug prison, they will raise her parents from the dead. It’s a deal, but of course, nothing is simple when you make deals with the devil (or even two bumbling, goofy little devils like these).
Some of this can be a bit spooky, but it’s really up to each parent to decide if this is suitable for their children. A good litmus test is thinking of Nightmare Before Christmas and Coraline — if those were fine, this certainly is. Even doubly so, considering its social and moral messages.
Ross is wonderful as Kat, who is growing up with feelings of guilt over her parents’ death, and suffering the ramifications of years spent in the horrible systems of foster care, juvenile prisons, and low-income schools. When she goes back home to Rust Bank where her new school is, she realizes that much of the town has experienced a similar fate ever since the death of her parents (whose brewery burned down, killing many and devastating the local economy). In its place, the Klaxon corporation has pushed its way into Rust Bank, and is hoping to build a private prison in the devastated area.
Wendell & Wild Bases its Plot on the School-to-Prison Pipeline
Believe it or not, this PG-13 movie delves much deeper into much more important themes than the usual “believe in yourself” tripe of most animated films. This is a funny, weird, and silly movie that focuses on the school-to-prison pipeline (especially for people of color) more than just about any ‘serious’ drama. Aside from the requisite themes of family and friendship, Wendell & Wild also delves into guilt and grief, corporate greed, local political action, trans rights, and the public school system, all without being ‘educational’ or preachy. Granted, there is a lot going on here between all these themes, which might become convoluted or overstuffed for younger viewers, but it ultimately comes together and works.
Aside from teaching truly valuable lessons about the actual world, Wendell & Wild is filled with wonderful, relatable, and representative (albeit stop-motion) characters. Kat is the best, of course, a fierce punk rocker whose anguish has led to deep-seated misanthropy, but almost every character in this film is well-developed and multidimensional. The headmaster of the school (played by film legend James Hong) is a weaselly rapscallion, but he ultimately just wants his school to survive. The spoiled rich kids aren’t mean, just ignorant, and when they realize what the evil fictional corporation is doing, they wisely speak up.
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There are almost no stereotypes or typical clichés in Wendell & Wild (aside from the evil, scheming corporate overlords of Klaxon, but these days, with billionaires literally trying to escape the earth they’re destroying by building bunkers and flying to Mars, the shoe fits). These are generally realistic people in a world which reflects our own, and the film’s unexpectedly powerful call for local political action, and for people to stand up for their own communities, is extremely special.
Wendell & Wild is Now on Netflix, and it Sounds and Looks Wonderful
Key & Peele, together again, are of course wonderful. The script is great, but they go above and beyond with their line readings; they seamlessly alternate between laugh-out-loud funny, pathetically stupid, demonically intimidating, and somehow adorable throughout the film. Angela Bassett is wonderful as well as a very wise older nun at the Catholic school who takes Kat under her wing.
The music is marvelous throughout, alternating between Bruno Coulais’ gorgeous, very cool score and the occasional pop song, without ever feeling idiotically cheesy (there are no montages set to I’m a Believer, for instance). Some musical moments feel straight out of Nightmare Before Christmas, but they all ultimately feel distinct, especially when reflecting the largely BIPOC characters in the film.
Robert Anich edits what one imagines being a vast amount of animation together in a streamlined, coherent fashion, and even when the ending is tied up a little too neatly, his editing makes it exhilarating. Peter Sorg’s cinematography brings out the best of this beautiful animation, which Selick and lead designer Pablo Lobato have perfected. All in all, Wendell & Wild is surprisingly meaningful with a lot of depth, and with a gorgeous, extremely fun surface to boot.
Netflix Animation, Monkeypaw Productions, Gotham Group, and Principato-Young Entertainment, Wendell & Wild is now on Netflix.