Too many years might have passed since Henry Selick last graced the animation world with one of his unique stop-motion creations (2009’s Coraline to be exact), but he returns with a fresh, highly original concoction of playful Grand Guignol proportions in the form of Wendell & Wild.
A happy collaboration with Jordan Peele, who unmistakably adds his own personal creative stamp, the horror satire is nonetheless right up Selick’s nightmare alley, complete with demon siblings, reanimated cadavers and penguin nuns, all wrapped up in a subversive punk rock sensibility. While it would obviously never be mistaken for gentler Pixar fare, the Netflix title (it’s scheduled to land on the streamer Oct. 28, a week after a theatrical bow) packs an all-ages appeal, based on the roar of approval that greeted its TIFF world premiere screening.
Wendell & Wild
The Bottom Line
Based on the never-published book of the same name by Selick and Clay McLeod Chapman, the storyline wastes little time in getting to the creepy stuff as it introduces plucky Kat Elliot (voiced by Lyric Ross), a young girl who has had a rough time of it following the drowning death of her brewery proprietor parents in a freak car accident. She may have survived, but the guilt that she carried with her would take its behavioral toll, and when she returns to her crumbling town of Rust Bank five years later to attend Catholic school, she wears her Goth demeanor like protective armor.
Meanwhile, way down below, Wendell (Keegan-Michael Key) and Wild (Peele), a pair of scheming sibling hellions who look remarkably like Key and Peele with the snappy patter of Abbott & Costello, have been plotting to establish Dream Faire, their ambitious amusement park, up in the Land of the Living. Armed with a tube of restorative hair cream they stole from their bellicose dad, Buffalo Belzer (Ving Rhames), that turns out to have regenerative powers extended well beyond the scalp, they’re summoned to Rust Bank by Kat, ostensibly with the promise to bring back her parents.
It turns out they must also do the bidding of the Catholic school’s corrupt Father Level Bests (James Hong), who is beholden to Klax Korp., the evil corporation plotting to build a huge private prison on the site of the burned-out brewery.
You can certainly see Peele’s influence here, from the social commentary to the rich diversity of the characters and the casting — also including the compassionate Sister Helley, (Angela Bassett), a teacher who understands Kat better than she knows; a Link Wray T-shirt-wearing Indigenous bus driver (Tantoo Cardinal); and a trans classmate (Sam Zelaya) who teams up with Kat to take down Klax Korp.
But for all the clever satirical touches and asides, the gorgeously intricate, wondrous stop-motion landscape is ultimately pure Selick, imbued with a fitting color scheme of swirling, eerily glowing greens and purples choreographed against a mischievous score by Bruno Coulais that effectively sets the mood for the film’s pre-Halloween arrival.
And while there are admittedly a few laggy patches that could benefit from a little tightening, the production takes a refreshingly unorthodox path to the obligatory animated movie themes of family and friendship — right down to the inclusion of Bad Brains’ “How Low Can a Punk Get” on the soundtrack.
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentations)
Cast: Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Lyric Ross, Angela Bassett, James Hong, Tamara Smart, Natalie Martinez, Tantoo Cardinal, Ving Rhames
Production company: Netflix
Director: Henry Selick
Screenwriters: Henry Selick, Jordan Peele
Producers: Henry Selick, Ellen Goldsmith-Vein, Jordan Peele, Win Rosenfeld
Executive Producers: Lindsay Williams, Eddie Gamarra, Kamil Oshundara, Ian Cooper
Music: Bruno Coulais
Rated PG-13, 1 hour 45 minutes
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