Wendell & Wild (Review) – Selick & Peele’s Halloween Bonanza

DIRECTOR: Henry Selick

CAST: Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Lyric Ross, Angela Bassett, James Hong, Sam Zelaya, Tamara Smart, Seema Virdi, Ramona Young, Ving Rhames, Michele Mariana, Natalie Martinez, Tantoo Cardinal, Igal Naor, Gary Gatewood, Gabrielle Dennis, David Harewood, Maxine Peake

RUNNING TIME: 105 mins

CERTIFICATE: 12A

BASICALLY…: Two demons (Key and Peele) attempt to enter the Land of the Living…

NOW FOR THE REVIEW…

It almost sounds like a match made in heaven – or, more appropriately under this context, hell – to put stop-motion legend Henry Selick and leading horror maestro Jordan Peele together on the same project. With Selick on directing duties and Peele not only co-writing the screenplay (with Selick being the other credited writer, basing it on an unpublished book he co-wrote with Clay McLeod Chapman), but also producing and even taking on a major voice role, Wendell & Wild should be a fierce mishmash of two equally talented visionaries and their bright, creative ideas.

The thing is, though, while it’s nigh-on impossible to fault the movie on a technical level – after all, when you’re dealing with the same director who also did The Nightmare Before Christmas and Coraline (and, to a slightly lesser extent, Monkeybone and James and the Giant Peach), you know you’re in for some freaky designs at the very least – it’s ultimately the convoluted and surprisingly complicated narrative itself that threatens to drag it down.

We begin as a young girl named Kat (Lyric Ross) witnesses her parents tragically die in a car accident, for which she spends the next few years blaming herself for, as she’s passed around between several foster homes and, eventually, juvenile prison. After being placed in a school situated in her old town of Rust Bank – which has since been all but completely abandoned after the destruction of Kat’s father’s brewery – Kat struggles to fit in with the other students, and her teachers like the kindly Sister Helley (Angela Bassett). However, she finds a potential source of help in the unlikeliest of duos: a pair of demon brothers named Wendell (Keegan-Michael Key) and Wild (Peele), who declare Kat to be their “Hell Maiden” so she can summon them to the Land of the Living in order to fulfil their dream of constructing a theme park. In return for Kat’s servitude, the brothers declare that they will bring back her parents, but things soon become difficult when they get mixed up in a local conspiracy that threatens the entire town of Rust Bank.

While one can appreciate the ambition behind Peele and Selick’s script, it is nevertheless a rather tricky narrative to get behind. It’s the kind of plot that relies on a lot of convenience to move along, as well as a large amount of awkwardly placed exposition dumps to fill in an unnecessary amount of gaps, while making far too many detours with certain plot strands and supporting characters – including a sleazy headmaster voiced by the ever-reliable James Hong, and don’t even get me started on the two extremely Trumpian villains with the voices of David Harewood and Maxine Peake – which ends up making things feel oddly overstuffed. There’s so much going on all at once that you’ll start to forget about other characters who had been previously introduced, and by the time things start to overlap during a slightly rushed climax, you’ll need a minute just to remind yourself as to what everyone’s function in this far too busy narrative is.

If the script is not completely as well thought-out as it probably should have been (maybe one or two more rewrites to take out some of the more unnecessary stuff, and you’d have a much more solid foundation), then it’s made up for by its wildly fascinating visual style. The stop-motion animation is typically great, and as with practically everything else that Henry Selick has done, each character and location has its own unique design that makes them stand out, from the stick-thin body shape of our lead Kat, to the hunched look of James Hong’s character where it looks like his head is coming out of his chest, all the way down to the amusing fact that Wendell and Wild themselves are specifically designed to look near exactly like Key and Peele respectively. It’s a fun film to admire from a visual standpoint, as there will be plenty of neat little gags in the background in addition to the sheer artistry that Selick and his army of hard-working animators have hand-crafted in every single frame amidst the foreground, which does make it all the more disappointing that the script isn’t as focused or as tight as it ought to have been.

Narratively speaking, it’s far from the best work that Selick and Peele have done – hell, it isn’t even the best stop-motion animated Netflix movie this year; take my word for it, Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio will absolutely blow you away – but visually, Wendell & Wild is a beautifully-done mash-up of these two visionaries with enough life in it to look past all the demonic conveniences.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Wendell & Wild is a visually marvellous, but narratively flawed, animated horror from director Henry Selick and co-writer Jordan Peele, which boats some fantastic stop-motion animation and some truly unique designs for its characters and sets, but an overly complicated story overstuffed with unnecessary plot threads and convenient moments sullies the illusion somewhat.

Wendell & Wild is now available to stream on Netflix.

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