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Wendell & Wild: Animated Demons Tackle Real-World Issues

EDITORS' RATING: 8/10
Pros
  • Great stop-motion animation
  • An extremely cool soundtrack
  • Serious commitment to diversity and progressive messages
Cons
  • The story's a bit over-packed
  • Humor is hit-or-miss

It's been far too long since the last new Henry Selick film. The director of "The Nightmare Before Christmas" and "James and the Giant Peach" last graced our screens with the 2009 Neil Gaiman adaptation "Coraline." Since then, he's tried and failed to get two projects off the ground at Disney, before spending seven years hard at work on his new film "Wendell & Wild," which premiered at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival and receives a limited theatrical release on Friday, October 21 ahead of its streaming debut on Netflix on Friday, October 28.

If a new Selick film wasn't enough to get you excited, "Wendell & Wild" is also the latest film to be co-written and produced by Jordan Peele. Having begun development well before "Get Out" was released, "Wendell & Wild" now marks a reunion between Peele and his former comedy partner Keegan-Michael Key, with the two stars lending their voices to the titular pair of demonic brothers. With its mix of the silly and the macabre, "Wendell & Wild" is a particularly strong fit for Peele's varying artistic sensibilities.

The resulting film deals in intersecting stories about a girl dealing with guilt over the death of her parents, demons trying to escape their father's underworld, and a for-profit prison corporation attempting to take over a town. Its ambitions arguably exceed its reach on the storytelling front, but despite some messiness, "Wendell & Wild" entertains, with outstanding animation and music backing up powerful themes.

A goth kid's dream

Let's be clear: Despite its PG-13 rating, "Wendell & Wild" is still aimed at the same youth audience as Selick's previous spooky kids' films. While it has plenty of darkness common in the best family movies, it's certainly less scary than "Coraline" (one of the few children's horror films that's actually scarier as an adult). If anything, I'd guess it was a drug-adjacent running gag about the demons getting high off of magical shaving cream that specifically pushed it over the PG line, on top of perhaps a general sense of just how many heavy or controversial themes are touched upon in the story.

But a certain type of kid — the ones who might have obsessed over Tim Burton or "Invader ZIM" in previous generations — is going to love this movie. With her tough attitude, tragic backstory, and cool-as-hell taste in Afropunk music and fashion, Kat (voiced by Lyric Ross) is gonna be a hero to so many baby goths, particularly African American ones. Wendell (Key) and Wild (Peele), the demons Kat makes a pact with to resurrect her parents, are like Beetlejuice mixed with Ren and Stimpy, devilish troublemakers from a realm of surrealism and gross-out humor.

As Selick's past films and other features like "ParaNorman" show, stop-motion is the perfect medium for a funhouse-gothic sensibility. Everything in this movie looks amazing, pulling off incredible feats of scale while proudly showing off its hand-crafted nature (you can even see the seam lines the animators use to replace parts of faces). Some of the visual gags are more weird than actually funny, but what beautifully crafted weirdness! The designs in the underworld are particularly fascinating: The souls of the "danged" (not quite bad evil enough to be "damned") appear like pieces of paper twisted through a three-dimensional world, while the demons have flat constantly-shifting features out of a cubist painting (they change to more traditional rounded models when they come to the surface). As is the case with a lot of recent stop-motion films, you'll definitely want to stick through the credits for glimpses of the magic behind the scenes.

A conservative's nightmare

While "Wendell & Wild" shouldn't be too scary for older children, there is one group that is going to find the film absolutely horrifying: right-wing news commentators. Admittedly, it doesn't take much to get said sect of the media in a tizzy (just casting some Black hobbits or Stormtroopers is enough to trigger these folks), but "Wendell & Wild" goes above and beyond in terms of making diversity part of its world. How many other movies, let alone animated ones, would include a character like Raul (Sam Zelaya), an artsy Latino trans boy who befriends Kat as a fellow outcast in a preppy girls' school? How many feature a Black Catholic nun and a Jewish man in a wheelchair fighting demons together?

Beyond mere diversity, "Wendell & Wild" directly takes a strong political perspective in favor of abolishing private prisons. It's not demons who are the villains of this movie, but prison owners. The troubled Kat already knows firsthand how the system emphasizes punishment over rehabilitation, and the worsening circumstances surrounding her speak directly as a primer on the school-to-prison pipeline for young audiences. The means by which the prison corporation takes over the town of Rust Bank through loopholes in the legal system also challenges the "just vote" school of passive activism; our heroes have to play rougher in order to save the day. The filmmakers are sending a powerful message, and it's as sure to leave progressive viewers inspired as it is to make others furious.

The main weakness of "Wendell & Wild" is that there's so much going on that some plot elements end up being underdeveloped in comparison to others. In particular, Kat's ability to see visions of the future, while enhancing her "hell maiden" connection to the supernatural and proving somewhat relevant in how the conclusion of the movie presents its progressive activist themes, is used so sparingly throughout the movie that it becomes easy to forget about for long stretches. Some of the weirder mechanisms of the plot feel built on randomness, while other elements of world-building seem like they've been thought out in detail by the artists but we only get a vague sense of as the audience.

It's possible to imagine a more fully satisfying version of "Wendell & Wild," but the one Selick and Peele have given us to watch is still a Halloween delight. I loved spending time in this world with these characters, and I expect to be listening to that soundtrack a lot.