'Wendell & Wild': Henry Selick and Jordan Peele Deliver a Fun, Overstuffed Stop-Motion Horror Comedy
It's always great to see a filmmaker make another movie after a long hiatus, especially when that filmmaker is someone as visually inventive as Henry Selick. Selick's stop-motion animated films have had a lasting impact over the years, from the iconic The Nightmare Before Christmas to the delightfully creepy Coraline. With those two films specifically being his most successful and well-known, it's no surprise that his first film in 13 years is yet another stop-motion horror comedy. This time, however, he is collaborating with another iconic filmmaker, Jordan Peele. While these two might be a bit of an odd pairing at first glance, their darker sensibilities and ability to craft horror makes them an excellent match. The two wrote the screenplay and it acts as a blend of both of their signature styles. Selick's more straightforward and simple writing style meshes with Peele's penchant for tackling social issues quite well, and makes for a unique film. However, there seems to be a lot that Selick and Peele are trying to accomplish, which makes the film feel a bit overloaded with characters and themes, which takes away from the film as a whole. I admire what they are going for, and the film is still rather fun, but it does get undercut by just how much it tries to cram into it.
The film centers on Kat (voiced by Lyric Ross), a teenage girl who lost her parents in a horrible accident when she was a child. After going in and out of various group homes and juvenile halls, she returns to her hometown of Rust Bank, which has become run down in the years since the accident. She is enrolled in an all-girls Catholic school, and after an incident in class one day, finds herself connected to two demon brothers named Wendell and Wild (voiced by Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, respectively). Wendell and Wild spend their days as prisoners of Buffalo Belzer (voiced by Ving Rhames), a demon who tortures souls via a fairground that sits on his belly. The two brothers dream of starting their own fair, and find out that they can be summoned to the land of the living by Kat. But the road to their dreams is much more complicated than they realize, and are torn between a deal they made with Kat, and an evil corporation who seeks to take over the town.
There's no denying that the story is inventive and original, but Selick and Peele have a lot of ideas and themes that they want to incorporate, and the film feels overstuffed as a result. I admire a lot of what the film is saying about greed, capitalism, and the school to prison pipeline, but in addition to all of the other strange narrative elements and characters, it just feels like it's trying to do a little too much in the grand scheme of things. I can't be too mad at it, but it just doesn't fully come together in certain parts. Some of the commentary does work, however, and the film's characters and some of its narrative details are so unique that it gives the film a distinct personality. It feels very similar to Coraline in terms of its style, and has some of that signature Selick blend of horror and comedy as well.
If nothing else, the film's animation is incredible, which is to be expected. Selick is a master of stop-motion, and with this film, he continues to prove himself in this area. The character designs are impressive, and have such a distinct look to them. The production design is also quite great, especially for the scenes in the underworld, and give the film a larger scope than I was expecting. The visual effects are also quite solid, and the animation on the whole give the film such a unique look that feels so refreshing amidst a medium that has become more reliant on CGI. I am always impressed by stop-motion films, purely due to the time and precision that goes into them, and this film is no exception.
The film also assembles a killer voice cast, with Lyric Ross, Ving Rhames, James Hong, and Angela Bassett especially standing out. But of course, the MVPs are Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele as the titular Wendell and Wild. This isn't that surprising given that they made names for themselves with their successful sketch comedy show Key & Peele, but they once again showcase their amazing chemistry with each other, and are genuinely funny all throughout the film. I'd argue that Peele is more of the standout, but that's mainly because Key is more of the straight man here, so he is a little more subdued by comparison. Regardless, the two are excellent together, and bring their characters to life so well.
Wendell & Wild might be a bit overstuffed with ideas, but it still has that same blend of darkness and comedy that is present throughout Henry Selick's entire filmography, and is genuinely a fun time. Fans of The Nightmare Before Christmas and Coraline will undoubtedly be pleased, as this film feels perfectly in line with them. It is beautifully animated, wonderfully inventive, and even if some the ideas its reckoning with don't fully work in execution, I appreciate the ambition. This isn't my favorite of Selick's work, but it is still rather solid overall. If nothing else, its a delightfully spooky film that makes for a great Halloween watch, and is so refreshingly original that it makes up for some of its shortcomings.