Wendell & Wild is the triumphant return of stop motion animation legend Henry Selick. Based on a screenplay by Selick and producer Jordan Peele, this new animated tale follows Kat Elliot (Lyric Ross), a green-haired punk rock tween who, after a stint at juvie, is brought to an all-girls boarding school in her hometown. The small urban village of Rust Bank has seen better days and holds dark secrets and sad memories for Kat and her family. Adjusting to a new life in an old place ain’t easy, but a pair of demon brothers, voiced by Peele and his long-time comedic partner Keegan-Michael Key, is about to turn Kat’s world upside down by unraveling her destiny as a hellmaiden.
There should never be any doubt over Henry Selick’s craftsmanship because Wendell & Wild is the larger-than-life spectacle we all hoped it would be. Most modern animated features aspire to be as spellbinding as this. The animation style is unique and paired with staple stop motion cinematographer Peter Sorg, Wendell & Wild is truly a sight to behold. From the widely original character designs to the intricate details that make each setting and environment feel alive and lived-in, Wendell & Wild boasts an impeccable production – one that brilliantly showcases how the painstaking process of stop motion animation is worth every drop of sweat because the end result will touch so many lives and endlessly inspire.
Just like what was seen in Henry Selick’s last impeccable feature, Coraline, our lead’s journey here is a dark one, to say the least. Whereas Coraline dealt with mature themes of parental neglect and wanting an idealized home life, Wendell & Wild tackles grief and survivor’s remorse. The path that Kat goes on may be viewed as perhaps a bit too off-putting or bleak for a children’s film, especially in a time when the animation medium has gone through hell and back finding a place for more mature stories in the mainstream, but these are still issues that most children are likely to encounter. Even though kids shouldn’t always have to deal with these kinds of heavy ideas, this is where Wendell & Wild finds its heartfelt place.
If there is anything to actually criticize this film for, it’s a lack of decisive storytelling. The tale of Kat, an angry young Black goth girl, gets a little muddled with side plots and the inclusion of several characters that relate to her struggling hometown and her turn as a hellmaiden. All of these elements don’t always meet in a unifying way. The film’s overarching message is consequently underplayed, and Kat, as the lead, gets lost in the shuffle too. Understandably, Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key are two enormous talents that will take up space in any project they encounter. Still, it feels unwarranted how much excessive time is dedicated to the troublesome demon brothers. Since it is Kat’s movie, after all, they ought to act as an accessory to her journey, not the other way around.
This is not to say that Kat is without her moments. Wendell & Wild does undoubtedly revolve around her; the narrative itself is just slightly uneven and plays with one too many plot threads. You can’t help but think how the script overall is merely one draft edit away from perfection, which is nonetheless pretty darn great compared to many other recent animated features that carry loaded themes and stories. In the end, Wendell & Wild does thankfully resolve in a gratifying way. It proves to be a ride worth taking over and over again, especially with how rich the text and characters are.
The production of Wendell & Wild was reportedly a difficult one, and with a stop motion job that requires intensive in-person work, a pandemic along with a rash of fires and political and social unrest are the last things this creative team needed. However, the final result showcases how all the artists present in Portland, Oregon for the production did wonders with numerous stressors barring down on them. Stop motion animation is an intimate art form, it requires diligence, immense focus, and determination, and Wendell & Wild just speaks for itself.
To call this film gorgeous would be an understatement; the craft seen in the characters, settings, and everything in between is the very definition of awe-inspiring. You can obviously tell in these designs how Key & Peele’s influence impacted the creation of this world, particularly the titular demon brothers they play and Kat’s look. The details on Kat’s wonderful green afro-puffs nearly brought me to tears because I know for certain that many young Black girls, goth or not, will want to do their hair just like hers.
Wendell & Wild illustrates that the long wait since Coraline was worth it. Henry Selick is a legend for a reason, and he proves that quantity is never as impressive as quality. Wendell & Wild is an exceptional piece of art that deserves a deep dive into the production and the skill and artistry needed to bring this vision to life. Sadly, as this is a Netflix joint, we won’t ever have the pleasure of owning the film on home video with all the behind-the-scene goodies readily available. The greatest curse of the streaming era is that the novelty of owning home video is dead, and great projects like Wendell & Wild are doomed to be buried after a few weeks on the top half of Netflix’s front page. Let’s just hope the streamer serves this film the longevity it deserves.