Few animation art forms create division like Stop-Motion. Many fans of traditional 2D animation outright refuse to see these films. This unwillingness to watch stop-motion often stems from the real fears associated with The Nightmare Before Christmas or Coraline. For the fans of the medium, these films created our fascination with the art form. Luckily, fans of those two films are in for a treat. Henry Selick, director of both of those features, finally returns to the director’s chair. After a thirteen-year absence, Selick’s return comes in collaboration with Jordan Peele, as the two directors build a unique story of loss and horror. While Wendell & Wild cannot always reach the ambitious ideas it attempts to conquer, it deserves your attention for the unique visuals and breathtaking emotion on display.
Thirteen-year-old Kat Elliott (Lyric Ross) knows her fair share of tragedy. After being orphaned, she bounces around the foster care system for years. After failed attempts at rehoming, a state program offers funds to a school in her hometown if they accept her as a student. When the greedy Father Bests (James Hong) agrees, Kat returns to the very place where her parents died. At the same time, she begins to experience visions from the future. One night, Kat dreams of two demons named Wendell (Keegan-Michael Key) and Wild (Peele), who promise to bring her parents back from the dead. Can Kat revive her parents? Or should she listen to Sister Helley (Angela Bassett) and keep her unique powers to herself?
Selick’s return bodes well for grotesque images, and he immediately fulfills our wishes on that front. While Wendell & Wild aims for big ideas, Selick also allows the film to take weird turns. Few features would place their titular demons on house arrest, let alone house arrest in the nostrils of their father (voiced by Ving Rhames, no less). While Wendell & Wild displays many dark images, the production team expertly infuses greens, purples, and whites into the margins. There are few scary images in this one, but plenty of zombies and monsters to stretch the imagination.
As Selick pushes the film forward on a visual level, his collaborative screenplay with Peele opens the film up to some criticism. Questions about systemic oppression and for-profit prisons are addressed within the story, but with frustrating results. These ideas need to be communicated with clear, concise language. Instead, confusion runs over the story’s basic plot. This gets even messier when it attempts to fuse an emotional payoff for its characters. Sadly, Wendell & Wild cannot fully balance the two.
However, Wendell & Wild is at its best when the screenplay strays toward Kat’s emotional journey. There’s power in the story she must shape and the choices that go far beyond her. Selick & Peele take the time to build out character moments, and while these slow down the pace, they also open the door for the audience to care about these characters. Seemingly minor details, like how characters wear their hair or dress, become important storytelling beats for the audience to understand. This maximizes the heart of the film and strengthens the choice of medium for this feature.
Key, Peele, Hong, and Rhames deliver knock-out vocal performances in their roles. While this helps add some depth to the background characters, Ross does not get the material to showcase her own talent. Instead, Wendell & Wild frames Kat as a punk-rock girl with few edges to her character. If anything, it undersells her style and confidence as pure dress-up. While this helps on a thematic level, it forces Ross to deliver a more subdued and repetitive performance. One wonders if this issue falls on Ross or Selick, but regardless of where you land, the character feels underwhelming, given her placement in the film. Perhaps most appalling, Bassett has very little to do, leaving us wanting more from the two of the most powerful characters in the film.
For those who love stop-motion, Wendell & Wild will still check most of the boxes as a fun film. It’s spooky enough for the Halloween season and features some genuinely beautiful images. However, some frustrating storytelling choices and an underwritten lead stop Selick’s return from truly exploding off the screen. While it may be lower tier Selick, that speaks more to the enduring quality of Coraline and Nightmare Before Christmas than Wendell & Wild‘s struggles.