Animation is such a great way to deliver on artistic expression and powerful messages. The variety of ways to tell a story using hand-drawn creations, CG-animated work, or stop-motion allows for a level of creativity that can feel unmatched in the way life comes through in the effort on display, knowing every scene had to be considered, given the hours that go into designing each frame. Henry Selick (Coraline, The Nightmare Before Christmas) is one of the greats in the realm of stop-motion animation. His films have a distinct look and feel that traffics in the macabre, dark comedy, and spooky imagery. That’s certainly the case with Wendell & Wild, a film that looks great and packs in plenty of good messaging amid a wild genre adventure.
This story is based on an original idea by Selick, and while I have little knowledge of what it looked like before, it’s easy to see what adding the voice of Jordan Peele (both as a co-writer and literally) brings to this tale. With Peele’s Monkeypaw Productions involved, breaking away from being a story that’s perhaps only focusing on grief, the film can declare an even grander identity given its focus on people of color and inherent implications that would otherwise be buried in subtext.
While the two demons, Wendell and Wild (voiced by Keegan-Michael Key and Peele), are the titular characters, the story focuses on Kat Elliot (Lyric Ross). Before we follow her journey as a troublemaking 13-yeard-old, we are given a backstory justifying her attitude. Years earlier, Kat was with her parents on a drive home. An accident occurred, leading the car to drive off a bridge and into a river. Only Kat survived. Having been bounced around through the system, Kat now finds herself back in her hometown of Rustbank, in a Catholic school for girls. During this time, the demons develop a scheme to use Kat as an aid to bring them to the land of the living, with other ramifications to follow.
So many deliberate choices are made to add an extra bit of texture to what’s taking place. The town was a thriving industrial city thanks to the efforts of a black-owned business keeping everyone employed. The death of Kat’s parents and the actions of an antagonist very explicitly designed to resemble a certain President says plenty about how the town has essentially gone under. Having Rustbank under the threat of further destruction due to the expansion of private prisons only adds to the types of conversations attempting to be had in this film.
However, this is merely a series of topical ideas providing some context. This is ultimately a coming-of-age story built around the idea of a young teenager needing to work through assumed guilt and getting rid of her demons to better herself. The presence of actual demons, however, allows the film’s already stylish visual to become further enhanced by the presence of what boils down to black girl magic. Factoring in magical gifts and a supernatural component lets Wendell & Wild further define its lead as a unique individual who needs to learn how to focus and open up.
A series of supporting characters aid in this process, including Sister Helley (Angela Bassett), a teacher with a dark past of her own. There’s also Raul (Sam Zelaya), a talented artist and now the only boy in the school, functioning as just another element concerning inclusivity without feeling as though the film needs to pat itself on the back. The other key supporting characters are Wendell and Wild.
While Key and Peele obviously lend plenty of humor to this film, there are sinister qualities that come through and end up adding emotional stakes to what’s taking place. Without delving too far into their ultimate goal, including how the demons team up with the manipulative Father Bests (James Hong), the school principal, the concept of these two turning up and making bargains is quite suggestive. At the same time, as the film takes time to peel back layers of its key characters, there are plenty of reasons to find a level of care in all that’s taking place.
In visually realizing this story, it may not surprise many that the animation looks terrific, but it should still feel impressive. LAIKA has undoubtedly done the work to keep the appreciation for stop-motion animation running high, but Netflix had Selick and his collaborators really put in their all to fully realizing the look of this world and the characters. The use of colors, production, and costume designs all add to letting Wendell & Wild stand out, but one can also look to the authenticity of seeing all of this come alive.
At a time when the little imperfections are continually being smoothed over, despite being CG-enhanced in areas, one can still spot the details that allow a viewer to understand the craft on display. Given the complexity of various scenes in this film, including ones really emphasizing the scale later on, it’s a true joy to see Selick back doing his thing at this level.
On top of all of this, with so many ideas bouncing around in the midst of a fully realized world, one can still center on the emotional journey of Kat. Given the darkness featured in Wendell & Wild and how much the film can create an understanding of a sense of reality within all that is fantastical (this film’s PG-13 rating certainly comes from the ‘some thematic material’ angle), there is a lot to appreciate about how far it is willing to go in coming after Kat’s heart. Certain developments suggest second chances and having realizations about how the world works. The way it turns this material into heartfelt messaging meant a lot more to me than I expected.
One could argue the movie is overstuffed with themes, ideas, and story. However, I can’t say I ever felt particularly lost. While having a limited number of thematic and narrative throughlines may work well enough in plenty of animated features, I found myself entranced enough by a film willing to take chances on complex ideas and merge them with strong emotions. Not hurting at all is the strength of the imagination on display and the sense of wonder and fun that comes from seeing everything from an impressively designed school to the demon world to a falafel-serving food truck.
I found plenty to appreciate and enjoy in Wendell & Wild. It has arrived as a wonderful piece of original storytelling that’s not afraid to dive into the murkiness of real world social commentary while exploring the nature of demons and the undead at the same time. The talents involved all put in a tremendous amount of effort, and while it may sacrifice tighter pacing in favor of being a more detailed study of this strange and astonishing world, there’s a benefit to knowing it may inspire other films to embrace the medium’s possibilities and not hold back. Plus – how about getting a movie like this that happily utilizes Afropunk on the soundtrack to further expand on its character and story? Selick and Peele have done excellent work here.