If you were waiting for Netflix to call your attention to the premiere of Wendell & Wild, you’d be waiting a long time. There’s been an astonishing lack of ballyhoo celebrating the return of Henry Selick, stop-motion animation genius of The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) fame, and whose last film was the masterpiece Coraline in 2009. And returning in such a spectacular fashion, in a daring creative collaboration, cowriting and coproducing with Jordan Peele, which is surely newsworthy.
This odd lack of publicity has been resentfully noted:
When a film like Wendell & Wild is released theatrically through a traditional studio, we expect to see an extensive advertising campaign and promotional tour. With Netflix though, new releases often seem to arrive without warning and then vanish within a week, failing to find their audience. . . . There’s also a widespread belief that this is particularly true for projects by nonwhite or otherwise marginalized creative teams — and, indeed, for animation. Unlike Henry Selick’s previous films, Wendell & Wild stars a majority-Black cast, leading some fans to wonder if this played into its seemingly low-profile release.
It’s weird to have to do a Netflix search to find an exciting new film like this one, especially when it was designed to be a spooky, timely Halloween release. Wendell & Wild also features the return of comedy team Key & Peele, Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele. They voice-act the title characters, who are wonderfully rendered to resemble them. They’re low-level, laboring demons working for their huge devil-father Buffalo Belzer (Ving Rhames). They find a chance to get sprung from hell when an Afro-punk teen rebel named Kat Elliot (voiced by Lyric Ross), a recently recruited “Hellmaiden,” seeks the power to raise her parents from the dead.
The film is dark even by Selick’s standards, which makes sense given Peele’s status as horror film maven. Wendell & Wild begins with a sequence that leads up to the drowning death of Kat’s parents when their car goes off a bridge and her mother pushes Kat out of the rapidly sinking vehicle. The Elliots’ tragic accidental drowning deaths put an end to their new family brewery, and the loss of that central business helps drag down the entire town of Rust Bank.
The traumatized Kat blames herself for the accident and decides, “What else could I do but hate myself forever?” She grows up to be an angry thirteen-year-old who’s always in trouble, getting bused off to Catholic school in a last-ditch effort to reform her. But it turns out there are already shady secrets there, too, involving Sister Helley (Angela Bassett), Father Bests (James Hong), and the sinister efforts of Klax Korp to turn Rust Bank into a giant private prison.
The gorgeous animation is so inventive throughout, you really have to watch the movie twice to absorb it all — just to see, for example, the wonderfully papery 2D spirits shrieking as they descend into the harrowing 3D “Scream Fair” full of nightmarish roller coasters and whirling teacups. And even the ordinary Rust Belt reality portrayed in the film is blindingly beautiful. There’s a bus ride through the wintry streets to the Catholic school that’s such a combination of glittering snow and gritty bridge girders and pavement, it’s impossible to overpraise it. Just the bus wheel breaking through an ice-covered puddle is a masterpiece of detailed observation.
Wendell & Wild provides a huge relief from the increasingly formulaic efforts of Pixar and Disney animated filmmaking, as Henry Selick himself can attest after his aborted attempt to make The Shadow King, his intended Coraline follow up, at Pixar.
Basically, [former Pixar chief creative officer] John Lasseter couldn’t help himself. He tried to Disney-fy it until the budget went through the roof. It got shut down, and I was kind of down, I wasn’t sure I was going to make another movie again. But then the Key & Peele show started on Comedy Central, and it was Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele who kind of inspired me to do another film. I loved what they did so much.
But as thrilling as a Selick comeback is, Wendell & Wild can’t match Coraline for perfection. You might need to watch the movie twice not just to appreciate the animation but to absorb all the plot points in the narrative, which gets pretty convoluted in its world-building. The script definitely could’ve used another pass, preferably by Key and Peele working at their old comedy show standards, in order to make it faster and funnier.
Selick, still smarting over the way “Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas” (which is how the film was billed) seems to give directing credit for Selick’s most famous and profitable film to Burton, is keeping Jordan Peele’s creative contribution firmly in its place, saying, “With Jordan, it’s 90 percent me and 10 percent him at the most.” Maybe it needed to be 20 percent Peele, with Key helping him punch up the dialogue?
Still, the animation is so stunning, why carp? In Wendell & Wild, Selick consciously sought to restore the idiosyncratic, hand-crafted wonders of stop-motion animation:
Since Coraline till now, which is 13 years, I think a lot of stop motion has gotten a little too perfect, too CG-like. . . . Me and the animation supervisors for this — Jeff Riley and Malcolm Lamont — we wanted to pull it back to feel more handmade, to make it very clear that this was touched by human hands directly, and didn’t go through all these other steps. The animators literally shaped these characters a frame at a time and breathe a performance into them.
Selick even got to preserve the seams in the characters’ “split faces” — that is, faces cut into upper halves and lower halves to allow fast shot-by-shot replacements to get different mouths and eyes and brows and chins, creating a greater possible range of expressivity. Coraline characters had “split faces” too, but the seams weren’t visible in the released film because “the studio, Laika, was too freaked out about showing them.”
So if you care anything about animated film, definitely search Netflix for Wendell & Wild, buried somewhere among so much lesser content it’s really a disgrace. By no means for the first time this year we say, “Shame, Netflix, shame!”