'Wendell & Wild' review: Lush visuals compensate for occasionally hollow story
Courtesy of Netflix
Directing his first feature since 2009’s “Coraline,” Henry Selick is back and still finding inventive ways of pleasing our senses with gorgeous stop-motion animation. “The Nightmare Before Christmas” filmmaker has enough knowledge on macabre humor and spooky imagery to give his latest venture, “Wendell & Wild,” an edge. Sporting a PG13 rating and the deep pockets of Netflix, “Wendell & Wild” is a crash course in all the elements Selick loves exploring, from horror and comedy to relationships and displacement, his film also has the added benefit of co-writer and star Jordan Peele, voicing one of the titular characters alongside “Key & Peele” collaborator Keegan-Michael Key, in his corner. With the current state of animation being what it is, weather it’s Pixar’s recent commercial rut, LAKIA’s financial woes, or Studio Ghibli patiently awaiting Miyazaki’s final film, “Wendell & Wild” comes at an opportune moment to serve as both a homecoming for an acclaimed filmmaker and a reminder of what this medium is capable of.
Bursting with creative spunk and a sheen punk rock aesthetic, “Wendell & Wild” takes on a mind of its own, offering distinct visual palettes that overcome a shaky and stuffed 105-minute runtime. Peele and Selick’s screenplay might overcompensate in its pursuit of social commentaries on the corrupt prison system and the hierarchy of lower, middle-class America, the stimulating world they envision is easy to get lost in and you’ll want to pitch a tent and explore any chance you get, which, for my money, could’ve have been longer than what was given.
Though the movie’s title borrows from a pair of literal demons, the premise of “Wendell & Wild” is about the inner demons Kat (Lyric Ross) endures often. After her parents died in a car accident that she feels responsible for, Kat no longer sees the world in the same innocent and bicurious way she did before and would rather blare her ginormous boom box in solitude than in the company of friends. She ends up in a boarding school run by a nun named Helly (Angela Bassett) and Father Bests (James Hong) and is immediately irksome about her posh and pampered classmates, though one fellow peer, an aspiring artist named Raul (Sam Zelaya), thrives on being the outcast from the popular kids. Something tells me they’ll become friends.
Elsewhere, Wendell (Key) and Wild (Peele) plunder through the underworld, working for their father, Buffalo Belzer (Ving Rhames) who runs a theme park where bad souls go to be tormented. Their job isn’t exactly thrilling: they plant hairs with a fancy cream that, when ingested, gives a funny feeling in their bellies. The hair cream also, unbeknownst to Wendell and Wild at first, resurrect the dead, something that can be leveraged against Kat who would do anything to see her parents again. Things get complicated, however, when a pair of villainous real estate moguls (voiced by David Harewood and Maxine Peake) plan on using the cream to revive city council members who can approve their industrial prison complex the current (and living) members have shot down for decades due to its unethical business practices.
Sure, these characters are technically the antagonists, as are Wendell and Wild (voiced with the same comedic prowess Key and Peele brought to their sketch series), but the real villains of the story are corporate capitalism and greedy moguls who bleed small towns dry. Selick loves subverting expectations around traditional storytelling, substituting obvious villains with something more sinister and allegorical, allowing the viewer's imaginations free roam while the filmmakers bring forth expansive/nondescript locales and incredible character designs. There’s also well-timed needle drops by TV on the Radio and Death that have surely never been used in an animated film before.
Digging into the sight and sounds of a fictional world rarely yields such captivating results, but “Wendell & Wild” thrives on Peter Sorg’s flawless cinematography and the countless animators who work behind the scenes to make everything come alive. Having a solid ensemble doesn’t hurt either: Ross carefully avoids making Kat a rebel caricature and hits the right emotional sweet spots and Zeaya’s performance as Raul, a transgender teen still finding his place in the world, easily juggles the weight of the character’s dilemmas while understanding the importance a fictional entity like this brings to the animated realm.
Let's hope it’s not over a decade before Selick blesses us with his creative intuition. The animated world is better and nuanced with people like him sculpting these ingenious and inclusive stories for generations to come. We need them now more than ever.
WENDELL & WILD streams on Netflix Friday, October 28th.