Between The Nightmare Before Christmas and Coraline, a gothic outsider story for kids in their tweens and up, stop-motion director Henry Selick filled a niche. Selick’s first feature film in 13 years is good and creepy, but there are some signs that he tried too hard to make up for the time since his last film.
Wendell & Wild is a phantasmagoric pleasure: a carnival of devilish mischief with punk combat boots and new twists on Selick’s favorite twilight turf. Whether or not these twists are the work of co-writer Jordan Peele (Get Out, Nope), the results are better for having social commentary and a welcoming attitude.
Along with unanticipated critiques of the prison industrial complex, a welcome focus on the heroine’s classmates’ and other people’s differences helps Selick to see more of the world. Kat, whose voice Lyric Ross gives as a troubled teen, is said to be the main character.
Kat kept her feelings locked up inside. As a child, she lost her parents, which she blames on herself. After being tossed around from school to school, she is sent to a “break the cycle” Catholic school in a bad part of town called Rust Bank. But not everything is as it seems.
Father Bests (James Hong), the headmaster of the school, works with businesspeople who want to make money from a cruel business plan. And it’s clear that Angela Bassett’s nun has her own scary secrets.
While other animated movies might use grief as a way to show sadness and emotion, Selick and Peele have a different idea. Kat is haunted by demons, and they have names. Wendell (Keegan-Michael Key) and Wild (Jordan Peele) are weird people from the underworld who live in the nose of the huge monster Buffalo Belzer (Ving Rhames).
Usually, Wendell and Wild work hard to keep Belzer from going bald by squirting him with magic hair cream. But then they realize that Kat could be their ticket to the overground.
Even though that sounds like a lot to do, Selick’s visuals make it even better. His (under)world building is full of details, from vivid color diagrams to the Belzer, who looks like an Oogie Boogie and has a fair on his belly.
Above ground, the colors are at first muted to match Kat’s feelings, but Selick soon adds new colors to the mix. The edges of the screen look like they are leaking bright purples and squished creepy-crawly parts.
Connoisseur-like needle-drops from Fishbone, the Specials, Poly Styrene/X-Ray Spex, TV on the Radio, Hot Chocolate, and others keep things lively, even if the action gets a little too busy at times.
Selick leaves nothing on the cutting board. He gets his ideas from a book he wrote with Clay McLeod Chapman. He waited long enough to make the movie, but sometimes it’s hard not to miss the elegant simplicity that Coraline’s short source novella by Neil Gaiman brought to the story.
Still, Wendell & Wild and Selick’s first movie are both about a girl who has trouble adjusting to a new place and strange things that happen there. Kat’s punk clothes might become as popular at kids’ Halloween parties as Coraline’s blue hair and yellow mac.
Selick’s ability to come up with new ideas is also a plus, as it keeps the audience’s attention even when the plot gets too complicated to follow. If you were to peel back Selick’s scalp and scoop out the contents, they would probably look like the secret room where one character keeps bottled demons.
Bruno Coulais’s score adds more pleasures with plucked harps and scary chorales. And if these devilish treats for the eyes and ears aren’t enough, what other horror movie for tweens ends with a fight between bulldozers over a cruel business idea?
Selick and Peele’s best trick is making the bad guys seem like real people. This is a cool twist in a movie that is clearly on the side of punks, freaks, and bad devils.
Friday, October 28, 2022, is when Wendell & Wild comes out on Netflix. Netflix costs £6.99 a month to join. Sky Glass and Virgin Media Stream are also ways to get Netflix.