‘Wendell & Wild’ Review: Jordan Peele x Henry Selick Collaboration Suffers from Jumbled Tones

‘Wendell & Wild’ Review: Jordan Peele x Henry Selick Collaboration Suffers from Jumbled Tones

Netflix’s “Wendell & Wild” may be on your radar as Jordan Peele’s first animated feature, but stop-motion fans will be flocking to their living rooms for the return of Henry Selick, the director behind such epics as “Coraline,” “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and “James and the Giant Peach.”

Selick hasn’t occupied the director’s chair since his spooky 2009 masterpiece “Coraline,” so “Wendell & Wild,” co-written by Selick and Peele and produced by Peele under Monkeypaw Productions, has had horror and animation fans everywhere counting down the days until its debut.

Unfortunately, while this eye-popping feature makes the most of Selick’s creative sensibilities, its bloated script hobbles the (blood)flow. This film has everything: demons, zombies, penguin nuns, prosthetic feet, priests in pope hats, arson — and, of course, dead parents. “Wendell & Wild” is jam-packed with so many characters and capital-I issues that one could likely fill an entire dinner conversation describing its plot.

Nevertheless, here’s an attempt at abridgement: Kat (voiced by Lyric Ross, “This Is Us”) lost her parents in a car accident as a girl. She blames herself for the incident and ends up in juvie, only to return to a Catholic school in her hometown thanks to a program called “Break the Cycle.” The school, and her hometown, are on their last legs, and the greedy Klax Korp is eager to take over. At school, Kat quickly discovers she has supernatural powers and can summon demons.

Meanwhile demon brothers Wendell (Peele) and Wild (Peele’s former comedy partner Keegan-Michael Key) are fed up with the underworld, where they must endlessly apply hair cream to their father’s skull. Their bad dad, Buffalo Belzer (Ving Rhames), runs a ghoulish amusement park that tortures lost souls. Wendell and Wild want to build their own park and see an opportunity for freedom when Kat appears to them in a vision. They promise to resurrect her parents using the hair cream, which has ambiguous magical properties.

If those sound like the plots of two different movies, that’s because they probably should be. Where Selick’s other projects focus on fairy tale–like plots with clear goals and rules, “Wendell & Wild” ping-pongs between indiscriminate topics and only occasionally sticks the landing. “Whiplash-inducing” scarcely begins to describe this viewing experience, where the sullen punk Kat takes on childhood trauma and prison reform while Wendell and Wild squish bugs and build booger sculptures.

And while the monsters in this socially conscious movie are far more real than the rhino in “James and the Giant Peach” or the Other Mother of “Coraline,” they’re not even half as scary. For one, the patriarch behind Klax Korp is styled to look like a Black Donald Trump. For another, it’s difficult to build real stakes in a movie with such erratic focus.

Yet for all its foibles, “Wendell & Wild” is undeniably a visual feast. It’s impossible to watch any stop-motion film without appreciating its artistry, even more so when that film is directed by Henry Selick. Care and style ooze from every shot, whether of a tire rolling through a slushy pothole or a shapeshifting octopus. Clips in the credits show the animators’ painstaking work as they navigate enormous sets to bring detailed puppets to life. (For instance, the little demon Peele voices strikes a delightful resemblance.) Even if you enjoy “Wendell & Wild” on the small screen, you’ll find it difficult to look away.

The movie’s best gags and scares are primarily visual, too. A maggot-infested zombie offers some trademark Selick horror, and a pair of nuns who look uncannily like penguins shine in the ensemble. (The script spoils this gag a bit when a character outright calls the sisters “penguins,” but their names — Sister Chinstrap and Sister Daly — are a stroke of genius.)

This film also marks a reunion between Selick and French composer Bruno Coulais, whose jazzy riffs and haunting choir pieces helped make “Coraline” so unique. Coulais lends a similar, but not repetitive, flavor to “Wendell & Wild,” though the soundtrack also pays homage to old-school punk. You’re likely to find yourself humming the film’s gravedigging jam hours after the credits roll.

“Wendell & Wild” is hardly worth condemning to the underworld, but it will probably leave eager fans cold. Where the film draws comparison to Selick’s other iconic work — like his last film, which also revolved around a young, teenage girl with strangely colored hair — it falls short. Perhaps most disappointingly, this film is lacking in creepiness, a quality Selick and Peele should have been able to provide by the hearseload. The most memorable villain in “Wendell & Wild” is a Trump analog. That reference will last for a few decades at best. The terror of the Other Mother is forever.

Given its authorial heft, the greatest sin of “Wendell & Wild” isn’t that it’s flawed; it’s that it’s forgettable. Its tricks and treats make it worth a watch, but like a pillowcase full of Halloween candy, this movie is jumbled, unwieldy and likely to leave you feeling unsatisfied.

“Wendell & Wild” opens in select US theaters Oct. 21 and premieres on Netflix Oct. 28.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *