June 10, 2023

The mere existence of Wendell & Wild is miraculous — they don’t really make animated films like this anymore. But chuck in a couple of complex subplots, some mature themes, and director Henry Selick’s punk-rock sensibilities, and what you get is a movie that isn’t exactly made for kids who’d rather watch Encanto again for the 400th time, nor is it something that their parents can throw on as a distraction. Like any real movie — not the sort of stuff Disney has dedicated itself to making these days — Wendell & Wild requires attention and patience.

Whether or not it succeeds is another matter. But even if it doesn’t, at least it fails on its own terms. Netflix isn’t the easiest company to praise — the streamer would rather promote some nonsense Dubai-based reality show on its homepage than this — but the streamer deserves credit for quietly putting its weight behind a series of recent movies that truly nobody else would’ve dared to make. Although having Jordan Peele as a writer, producer, and co-star might have moved the needle in their favour.

Certainly, Selick has had a difficult time getting projects green-lit. After breaking out with the classic The Nightmare Before Christmas, he spent years in director jail after delivering two back-to-back bombs. Selick returned to his roots in 2009, with the eerie Coraline, produced by Laika, one of probably two animation houses — the other being Cartoon Saloon — that still seem to respect the medium. It has taken him a James Cameron-level of time to mount his follow-up.

Although Wendell & Wild are, as Lady Bird would say, the titular characters — they’re voiced by none other than Peele and his longtime creative cohort Keegan-Michael Key — the film’s protagonist is a young woman named Kat. She has the traits of a Disney princess; we watch as her parents perish in the film’s opening scene, leaving her orphaned and in an austere boarding school. She also happens to have magical abilities, which she learns to control and harness over the course of the film.

Kat is tempted by the demon slave brothers Wendell and Wild to magically summon them to the real world, where they claim that they can help bring her parents back from the dead. Wendell and Wild have their own trauma to contend with; they’ve been sentenced to a life of hard labour by their own father. Their job is to rub hair cream on his body, but they want nothing more than to own and operate their own fun-fair. Bonkers as the premise might seem, Selick pushes the film further into the realm of the absurd with his signature visual flair. A sequence in which the brothers reanimate the corpse of a cleric, which immediately cuts to “You Sexy Thing” by The Hot Chocolates as the newly revived padre begins performing a jig, could put a gleeful smile on a severed face.

If that sounds like a wild time at the movies, you ain’t heard the half of it yet. In addition to world-building that is both unnecessarily elaborate and oddly disengaging, the film also throws in a bunch of shockingly mature ideas for no reason other than to mess with children, I suppose. Would you believe it if I told you that a large-ish subplot in the movie involves a corporate real-estate scam, while Selick and Peele’s screenplay takes separate jabs at the prison-industrial complex and corrupt education system?

Kat’s principal, for at least half of the film, is deliberately made to look like the Pope. The principal, by the way, is the movie’s primary antagonist. Make of that what you will.

All of this is to say that there’s too much going on here, and it’s slightly sad that a filmmaker of Selick’s skills and experience — Wendell & Wild, despite its faults, is never dull to watch — feels that he must throw everything he’s got at the wall, perhaps because he’s afraid he might never get another shot again. This doesn’t seem like the work of someone who made their feature debut three decades ago; Wendell & Wild resembles something that a first-time director would make. Every second of it is brimming with the kind of inventiveness that the folks over at Pixar and Dreamworks seem to have forgotten. But the story certainly becomes collateral damage because of Selick’s go-for-broke style.

Wendell & Wild
Director – Henry Selick
Cast – Lyric Ross, Jordan Peele, Keegan-Michael Key, James Hong, Angela Bassett
Rating – 3/5

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