Review: Wendell & Wild gets lost in its own themes – a muddy movie with an odd sense of pacing. Henry Selick was stuck in director jail for years, giving him too much time to conceptualize too many ideas for this film.
Henry Selick’s latest entry into the stop-motion microgenre Wendell & Wild contains every ounce of charisma and wonder that fueled his previous works and terrified children like myself growing up, but watching his newest effort as a more aware and critical viewer, there are just too many structural components that don’t connect into a larger, fully-realized puzzle.
There is a generational holdover that comes with each Henry Selick production. The 1990s kids claimed The Nightmare Before Christmas as a seminal Halloween and Christmas tale from that decade, 2000s kids (myself included) frequently speak up about that terror that Coraline instilled at such a young age. And now the late 2010s to early 2020s kids have a new film to marvel at and hide behind covers for with Wendell & Wild. So while this review is going to point out some misgivings and slight issues I had trying to connect with Wendell & Wild and its vast set of characters and landscapes, I recognize the fact that a generation younger than me could, and probably will, find it more engaging and fulfilling.
Its beginning premise involves a guilt-ridden teen named Kat troubled and scarred by the death of both her parents at a young age. When Kat encounters two demon brothers (of course voiced by Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele), she sets a bizarre and ridiculous set of events in motion that could spell trouble for herself and the town of Rust Bank.
Wendell & Wild has many of Selick’s greatest motifs – gothic, artificial sets and structures birthed straight from German expressionism, children having to self-mentor due to a lack of parental oversight (in this film’s case, Kat is an orphan after her parents drown from a car crash), ghouls and ghosts snickering and committing tomfoolery at every corner. Wendell & Wild melts many of these core Selick-isms together into a film that screams, but never really gathers enough attention from anyone listening.
The film’s first concrete issue is its attempt to be a straight two-hander juggling multiple A-plots at the same time. The title demons, Sir Wendell and Mr. Wild, are presented as a rambunctious duo brought to the human realm by Kat and they promise the teenager that they can resurrect her parents from the dead. For much of Wendell & Wild‘s remaining runtime, the demons head off on their own direction, not really applying much of a narrative but rather serving as the comedic crux of an uneven story.
The animation style is excellent as always, but I’ve always been drawn to Selick’s stories because they have felt driven by his style. Coraline couldn’t be made differently, and The Nightmare Before Christmas or even James and the Giant Peach wouldn’t be everlasting if it wasn’t for the style and story going hand-in-hand. Wendell & Wild fails in this regard. It isn’t too terribly difficult to imagine a live-action version of this story, one that feels destined to live on the Disney channel or be buried in the depths of a streaming service determined to churn out films by the dozen. And I’m afraid to say, I wouldn’t be surprised if ‘Wendell & Wild’ does this anyway.
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I could go on and on about the film’s plot feeling like it made itself up as it went. Nothing in terms of narrative really sticks. The characters feel less developed and, ironically, like clay statues of various feelings or hallow character types: the orphan, the rich kid, the mayor, the demons. Hell, Key and Peele played these exact characters in Toy Story 4 and did it in a much more endearing and effecting way.
It’s not the worst work released this year, or even this Halloween season, but it should’ve been so much better. I’ll admit I’m partially guilty of glancing down at a second screen for a few moments here or there, but when you’re not locked in with a film like this on the big screen with a crowd of loud children around you, it takes a seriously engaging and impactful film to tie you in. This just isn’t that, and it is a shame considering this is one of Netflix’s tentpole Halloween offerings.
Wendell & Wild delivers a few neat tricks, not enough treats, and one largely forgettable viewing experience. It has some fun around the edges, but it succumbs to poor script syndrome, as many gluttonous streaming drops do these days. I’m hoping we’ll get more Selick in the future, and hopefully it’s better than this.
Where to watch Wendell & Wild: Netflix
Film Cast and Credits
Keegan-Michael Key as Wendell
Jordan Peele as Wild
Lyric Ross as Kat Elliot
Angela Bassett as Sister Helley
Ving Rhames as Buffalo Belzer
Gabrielle Dennis as Wilma Elliot
Director: Henry Selick
Cinematography: Peter Sorg
Composer: Bruno Coulais
Wendell & Wild movie on Letterboxd
Wendell & Wild movie on IMDb