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Directed by Henry Selick and packaged as a dark fable for children, Wendell & Wild deals with themes as mature as unmasking the facade of juvenile prisons and coming to terms with losing loved ones. It is available for streaming on Netflix.
Thirteen years after the release of his much-loved Coraline, stop-motion animation maestro Henry Selick is back with a new film, Wendell & Wild. For this Netflix horror-comedy, he has paired with Jordan Peele, another undisputed king of the eerie and scary. With a team as enviable as this, one would expect an unmatched Halloween extravaganza. But does Wendell & Wild live up to the expectation? Let’s find out.
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It’s the story of 13-year-old Kat Elliot (Lyric Ross), a punk-loving, green-haired African-American outlaw who is sent to a boarding school in her hometown after serving time in juvenile prison. She is still reeling from the memories of a freak accident from her childhood that killed both her parents when two demon brothers, Wendell (Keegan-Michael Key) and Wild (Jordan Peele), with a dream to build the most phantasmagorical amusement park ever, use her to come to the Land of the Living. Soon, the motives of the amiable, simple-headed, ghoulish siblings clash with Kat, who has parents to resurrect and a city to save.
Based on the book by Selick and Clay McLeod Chapman, Wendell & Wild is inclusive and political in the way most Peele projects are. Usually, one does not expect an animated film packaged as a dark fable for children to underline themes as mature as unmasking the facade of juvenile prisons that care more about money than the rehabilitation of its young inmates, or coming to terms with the irrevocable loss of loved ones. But Wendell & Wild does a fantastic job of using a teenaged orphaned girl’s story to address unresolved childhood trauma and systemic oppression.
What also works is the film’s upbeat music by Bruno Coulais, and its array of diverse, lively characters, each without pretense and with their own distinguished quirks. The key cast — Kat, her friend Raul, a trans-boy (Sam Zelaya), Wendell, and Wild — are all delightful. Though it revels in the grotesque, the film retains the old-world charm that is so characteristic of Selick’s work.
However, Wendell & Wild tries to put together too many ideas within its 105-minute runtime. Therefore, the narrative often feels inconsistent and uneven. The visuals, the music, and the animation are uniquely edgy but the dialogue is not, which is a letdown because Peele has contributed to the screenplay along with Selick. Moreover, the film relies heavily on pantomime for its humour, which works only in parts.
Wendell & Wild’s strongest suit is its incredible world-building. It is original, fantastical, and a riot of colours and pop references. But the horror bit is not spooky or grisly enough. The humour isn’t as sharp or haunting as you’d expect of a Selick-Peele film either. Other than Coraline, Selick has helmed classics such as The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and James and the Giant Peach (1996). Wendell & Wild is the fifth feature in his illustrious filmography. It sure pushes the envelope for children’s horror but isn’t his best or most memorable work.
Should you watch it? Why not. Because even a middling Selick film is better than the best movies of most other directors.
Read other pieces by Sneha Bengani here.