It’s been a long time since writer/director Henry Selick has graced audiences with a spooky, stop-motion animated feature. More precisely, it’s been almost thirty years since he helmed the beloved classic The Nightmare Before Christmas. It’s been thirteen years since his last effort, Coraline, a gateway horror movie for many. Selick finally makes his long-awaited return with Wendell & Wild, a collaboration with Jordan Peele that matches the revelry and family spirit of Nightmare but with an edgier and darker style.
The story, co-written with Peele, opens with a tragic sequence that leaves our protagonist Kat Elliot (Lyric Ross) an orphan at eight. Cut to five years later, where a much harder and more troubled Kat gets deposited at a Catholic school in her hometown of Rust Bank for a tax credit. It isn’t just Kat that’s gone through turbulent times, but the entire town; her parents’ death set off a chain of events that left Rust Bank in an impoverished state that’s left it vulnerable to exploitive socialites. That gets complicated when Kat’s return awakens her powers as a Hellmaiden, putting her in the crosshairs of demon brothers Wendell (Keegan-Michael Key) and Wild (Peele). The bumbling but ambitious pair hope Kat will help them get out from under their father, Buffalo Belzer (Ving Rhames), and make it big on their own.
The demon brothers’ ambition also extends to the plot; a lot is going on in Wendell & Wild and the film has the robust and impressive supporting voice cast to prove it. James Hong voices the affable yet easily bought Father Bests. Angela Bassett plays the tough Sister Helley, who knows far more about Kat’s situation than she initially reveals. Tamara Smart and Sam Zelaya voice classmates eager to befriend the guarded Kat. These players tie into the many facets of Kat’s story in various ways, whether through school, her familial guilt, Hell woes, or the bid for Rust Belt itself.
Tying it all together is, of course, the animation and delightfully ghoulish sense of style. There are echoes of Selick’s previous efforts, but Wendell & Wild isn’t afraid to lean into more gross-out humor on occasion. Boogers, squashed bug guts, and more signal a variation on the more familiar macabre whimsy we’ve seen from Selick before. It gives an edgier feel and energy further enhanced by the earworm score and punk-leaning tunes. Kat’s a tough teen, and the entire movie vibes accordingly.
Beneath the hard edges and more ghoulish fare is softer, family-friendly messaging. The sight gags earn their chuckles. But much like its central demon brothers, the film struggles under the weight of its daunting ambition. The plot may be a bit too dense, creating a struggle with narrative thread cohesion and pacing sags.
From a visual standpoint, Selick once again demonstrates his mastery of delightfully dark and horror-tinged stop-motion animated storytelling. The characters are all striking and distinct, with lively personalities to match. It’s an entertaining, if a bit overstuffed, romp through hell and back, with memorable characters and amusing macabre hijinks. Kat’s a tough yet winsome heroine with no shortage of memorable supporting characters. All around, Wendell & Wild makes for a fresh and fun Halloween treat for all ages.
Wendell & Wild made its World Premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival and releases on Netflix on October 28, 2022.