"Wendell & Wild" stars Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Lyric Ross, Angela Bassett, James Hong, and Ving Rhames. Released on October 21, 2022, the film has a teenager encountering two scheming demon brothers.
The film was directed by Henry Selick, who also directed "The Nightmare Before Christmas", "James and the Giant Peach", "Monkeybone", and "Coraline". It is based on an unpublished book by Henry Selick and Clay McLeod Chapman. Many people warn us never to make deals with demons. However, if the demons happen to be Key and Peele, then it would be okay to make one deal with them. The comedy duo that rose to fame with "Key & Peele" reunite for the first time since the sketch comedy show ended with the latest stop-motion movie on Netflix. Considering how successful they are together and individually, this reunion seemed somehow appropriate. More importantly, it also features the long-awaited return of stop-motion expert Henry Selick, who's known for combining creepy imagery and family-friendly fun in his filmography. Although, his first movie since "Coraline" seemed to be a bit more mature than his previous animated movies. Hopefully, it'll serve as another reminder that animation is not just a "made for kids" thing. The film is an automatic sell for me because I love some of Selick's works, and I appreciate Key and Peele's talents in front of and behind the camera, mostly Peele for his take on the horror genre. But are they enough to deliver a spooky and dazzling experience for me and its audience? Let's find out.
The story centers on Kat Elliot (Ross), a bitter teenager who's gone in and out of juvenile hall after her parents died. She's later enrolled in an all-girls school in her hometown of Rust Bank headed by the greedy Father Bests (Hong). Meanwhile, two demon brothers, Wendell (Key) and Wild (Peele), dream of making their own hellish fairground like their father, Buffalo Belzer (Rhames). They eventually encounter each other, with Wendell and Wild promising Kat they could revive her parents if she summons them. As the brothers' plan slowly comes to fruition, Kat comes across the shocking truth about her parents' deaths and her hometown.
Stop-motion has been one of my favorite animation styles since I was introduced to "The Nightmare Before Christmas" and many others. It's not just because of the effort put into this painstakingly long process but also the artistic and entertainment values in the projects' storytelling and animation. Plus, it emphasizes the creepy factor in the character designs and imagery regarding the horror genre. Selick's previous stop-motion entries, "The Nightmare Before Christmas" and "Coraline", have proven that point despite the PG rating. However, with "Wendell & Wild" having a PG-13 rating, Selick was allowed to go beyond the limit with the narrative and horror elements. So keep that in mind before you choose this for your next family movie night.
Regardless of the rating, the movie has the task of providing similar vibes from Selick's earlier works while delivering an entertaining story involving an orphaned girl and demons. Unsurprisingly, it accomplished that objective with a darkly fun and visually appealing piece of stop-motion art. It's what I would imagine from the combined minds of Selick, Key, and Peele regarding its bizarre macabre tone, and I couldn't be happier with the final result. Although, when compared to Selick's previous outings, the film fell a bit short of being the next stop-motion classic.
The story offers the wackiness and spooky charm Selick is known for, with enough creativity and finesse to envision a bizarre yet fascinating world of greed and demons. More importantly, it isn't afraid to be ambitious with its themes. "Wendell & Wild" is a darkly amusing ride that balances its humor with scary imagery and understands the aesthetic of its classic form of stop-motion. However, the movie is also about grief and the guilt that consumes us due to our past actions. We see Kat Elliot feel isolated and bitter towards others because she believes she's responsible for her parents' death, and she's been carrying that guilt ever since. The story depicts her journey to overcome her own demons and come to terms with her past while battling the other demons she unleashed. It's a clever and heartfelt take on the process of grief and acceptance that can be a bit unsettling for young kids but also essential for their parents to help them understand.
One of my only issues with the film's story is the pacing. There were moments when the movie flew by without allowing me to take the time to appreciate the craft and the narrative's emotion. Additionally, the film has too many fade-to-black transitions, with some of them feeling unnecessary and ruining the narrative flow. It's fine for keeping the young viewers' attention since it's 105 minutes long, but its inconsistency is as soul-crushing as Buffalo's torture fair. The movie's world-building was also a bit underwhelming regarding the underworld and its dark comedy, but everything else managed to make up for its limitations.
One of them is the cast, particularly Key and Peele as the titular characters. Despite not watching "Key & Peele", I had a blast watching these two put on one hell of a show in "Wendell & Wild". It felt like a skit that would've belonged in the sketch series for the right reasons. The chemistry between the two is infectiously entertaining, and their energetic charm is an absolute delight. Lyric Ross from "This Is Us" also did a solid job with her performance as Kat. It seemed like a challenge for Ross to share the spotlight with the talented comedians, but she managed to hold her own effectively whenever the demon brothers were absent. Angela Bassett and Ving Rhames were also decent in their roles of Sister Helley and Buffalo Belzar, respectively.
But what about the animation, you ask? Well, to no one's surprise, I thought it looked great. I don't want to go into full detail on how amazing the animation is, but I will say that this is exactly why I admire this art form. The movie offers the usual old-fashioned look and feel of stop-motion, along with a couple of sequences involving silhouette animation. Not only were they creepily dazzling in the film's tone and locations, but they're also quite imaginative with the character designs, especially the demonic creatures. Most of the characters are unique in their physiques and facial expressions, like they're from paintings at an art museum, emphasizing the appeal of classic stop-motion animation.
Overall, "Wendell & Wild" is an amusingly spooky treat that's also admittedly ambitious and visually imaginative. While it's far from Selick's best work regarding the pacing and world-building, the movie is nonetheless a solid return to form for the stop-motion filmmaker. More importantly, it showcases the fascinating talents of Key and Peele and the amazing effort put into stop-motion compared to CGI and 2D animation. It may not top "Nightmare Before Christmas" as my favorite film from Selick, but "Wendell & Wild" left me excited to see what the director is cooking up next. I wonder if the demon brothers can help make the wait shorter.