Artistically distinctive and narratively lacking, Henry Selick’s Wendell & Wild is a box crammed with toys – fun and entertaining, yet you’d wish it explored its themes more.
Over the years, plenty of stop-motion animation projects have demonstrated the creative and innovative storytelling lengths to which the animation subgenre can go to. Developing a project like this takes a long time and extreme precision. Stop-motion may vary from the lightness of Fantastic Mr. Fox and Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit to the darkness of The Wolf House and Mad God. In between those two realms of light and darkness, come Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas) – a master in this animation subgenre – and his fascinating work. Selick’s films are always situated in a dark setting, with dread being poured into their atmosphere, but they tell kid-friendly stories, even if the images are terrifying at a young age. This is seen in the film that I consider to be his best work, Coraline. That movie is beautiful to look at and visually impressive, but it is also terrifying at the same time.
Coraline was a gateway to the horror genre for many people, just like Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth was to others. This unique experience created a mesmerizing experience that stays with the viewer for a long time. Selick hasn’t made a film since 2009, and everyone has been waiting eagerly to see when he would return. There was no clue as to what exactly he would do next, whether it was a lighter film than Coraline or he was going for an even darker tone. Thirteen years have passed, and now Selick is back, this time teaming up with Jordan Peele to deliver the Netflix original Wendell & Wild. Selick’s long-awaited return contains an edgier and punkier style than his previous features. Its punky banging soundtrack, consisting of songs by TV on the Radio, The Specials, and Bad Brains, and horror style show that, yet it is still a beautifully crafted feature that helps demonstrate what skilled directors can make within that animation subgenre. Nonetheless, the film feels lacking in its narrative and themes, causing it to be an unfortunate, disappointing return.
Co-written by Peele (who’s also a producer and lends his voice to a character) and Selick, Wendell & Wild begins with a tragedy that happened to Kat Elliot (Lyric Ross), the film’s protagonist, when she was eight. Her parents, who ran a local brewery, died in a car accident, for which Kat feels responsible. The film later cuts to five years later, where Kat is at a Catholic school in her hometown, Rust Bank. She’s going through some troubled times, garnering a punky attitude and tougher skin; nobody should mess with her. However, Kat isn’t the only one who’s going through some hard times. Since her parents’ death, the town has gone through a chain of cataclysmic events that left the city very impoverished. Things are about to get worse in Rust Bank when Kat crosses paths with some demons and awakens her powers as a Hellmaiden, having a supernatural connection to the demonic. As Kat quotes, “They say everyone has demons – well, mine have names.” Demon brothers, Wendell (Keegan-Michael Key) and Wild (Peele), seek help from Kat to get them out of the authority of their father, Buffalo Belzer (Ving Rhames), so they can make mischief on their own. Kat agrees under one condition: that they bring her parents back.
If you know about horror movies, it is obvious that things won’t go as planned. What happens next is a series of plot contrivances that hurt the film. The more Selick and Peele extend Wendell & Wild, the more overstuffed and unnecessarily plot-heavy it feels. The film’s only chance to liberate itself from a total narrative collapse is to rush its ending and scatter its plenty of subplots wherever they could fit. As a result, even when Selick is at the height of his powers, he can’t manage to keep the story’s momentum going for the film’s entirety, ending as an undercooked gothic tale. This is what holds back Selick’s return, unfortunately. Selick and Peele wanted to tackle many topics simultaneously, such as one’s sense of identity, remorse, death, and teenage angst, stacking one subplot after another in a high stack of future exposition and development. Although Wendell & Wild and Coraline tackle some of the same themes (touched on the search for identity, the hardships experienced during one’s early years, courage, one’s self-sufficiency, and the aspect of home), the reason why the latter succeeds and the former doesn’t is because it sticks to a simple story without attaching many side stories and loosely connected narrative threads.
Coraline’s story is easy to follow, yet thematically hefty and with a relatability factor attached for both younglings and adults to connect with. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of Selick’s latest, although there is a speck of boldness in his attempt. We haven’t seen Selick branch out quite as much as in Wendell & Wild, so I still admire that, even in lengthy breaks and years of experience, he has found ways to reinvent himself while still maintaining his horror-animation background. The film may be lacking in terms of structure and pacing, but there are quite a few positive elements in Wendell & Wild. It has all the facets in which Henry Selick excels, both aesthetically and in terms of its craft: his skills as an animation master craftsman are still sharp and polished, his transitions are very ingenious, and it feels like he never left. It feels as if in Wendell & Wild, Selick got a couple of new toys to play with, and his imaginative mind crafted a beautiful yet terrifying world to create stories in – drenched in atmospheric dread and despair, delivering spooky treats and ghoulish fancy. Wendell & Wild is edgier than the rest of his filmography, accompanied by rougher horror aesthetics, pushing its PG-13 to the edge occasionally.
Selick’s imagination is a thing to admire and one of the aspects I love the most about the filmmaker. What I also love about the worlds he builds is that, even though they are filled with fantasy-horror elements that often deliver proper scares, they feel palpable because of the stop-motion animation and the humanism attached to their characters. These are characters we can relate to, and they experience strange events that, at their core, are similar to what transpires in life. The search for one’s self and the importance of having a nurturing environment after a tragic loss, the intertwining of love and fear, the deceptive nature of appearances, among other subjects: these are all themes that are present in Selick’s wonderful and innovative stories. So, it hurts a lot that his latest film – his first in thirteen years – was disappointing. I believe there’s a better feature underneath the shells of Wendell & Wild’s over-stuffed story, because plenty of great moments are scattered around its runtime. However, the weight of the film’s narrative is too much for Selick’s visual panache to carry, failing to keep its momentum going.
Wendell & Wild premiered at TIFF on September 11, 2022, and will be released globally on Netflix on October 28. Read our list of films to watch at TIFF 2022.