The animated films by director Henry Selick are all distinctively dismal, but they all have a timeless, cosy quality to their plots that makes watching them feel like catching up with a gothic childhood buddy. Lyric Ross, Jordan Peele, and Keegan-Michael Key star in Wendell & Wild on Netflix, which marks Selick’s return to directing for the first time in more than ten years. The film is an all-new, original story about a moody teen who discovers what it’s like to live with both literal and figurative demons.
Although Wendell & Wild explores a lot of timely issues about the American foster care system and the prison industrial complex, how it does so contributes to the film’s overall feeling of becoming an instant classic.
Wendell & Wild may be named after two demonic brothers from another dimension, but Kat Elliott (Lyric Ross), a 13-year-old from the little city of Rust Belt, is the true protagonist of the film. She recalls what the place was like before a terrible fire caused its economic decline.
Kat knows from personal experience how the fire wreaked havoc on the town as it burned through people’s homes and businesses, just like all of Rust Bank’s other residents who had prospered in the quaint, community-minded village. Wendell & Wild’s opening scenes show how Kat first encountered grief as a small child, long before the Rust Belt was set ablaze. However, like all of Selick’s protagonists, Kat’s inner pain goes a little deeper than the sadness that comes with losing things or belongings.
In Wendell & Wild, demon brothers Wendell (Keegan-Michael Key) and Wild (Jordan Peele) work as clumsy landscapers at a theme park that is a component of a much larger demon, voiced by Ving Rhames. The film is full of inventive, strange creatures that lurk in the underworld.
Wendell and Wild, who are both disenchanted with authoritative figures and feel misunderstood by their peers, are very similar to Kat in this regard. However, the demons only feel comfortable speaking in private about their desire to construct an even better park for the damned because of concern for what might occur if they were discovered, in contrast to Kat, who has no trouble being open and honest about most of what she is experiencing.
Wendell & Wild’s fundamental subject, which later on brings Kat and the demons closer together in a way that feels very much like classic Selick, is the yearning to realize one’s deepest desires. However, what makes Wendell & Wild stand out right away is the way it portrays Kat, a melancholy punk who is never without her gruesome-looking boombox and platform boots, as a bright girl who has survived the juvenile prison system. There’s no doubt that Wendell & Wild is a movie geared toward younger audiences.
Wendell & Wild make it clear that they want anyone watching the film to feel comfortable thinking critically about those aspects of our society because of how they affect us all, even as it addresses issues like the privatization of prisons and how inadequate funding for schools is its own form of structural violence.
As it follows Kat to her new home at Rust Bank Catholic school for girls, Wendell & Wild has its share of dark moments. She immediately gets the weirdest sensation from Sister Helley (Angela Bassett) and all of her new classmates. But the film is also wonderfully lighthearted and whimsical, and when Kat begins to get strange premonitions, the plot shifts into a Buffy-like mystery about her finding out what kinds of secrets the teachers at RBC Girls are keeping from their kids.
Due in large part to character designer Pablo Lobato’s stunning and slightly unsettling inventions, whose features spring to life with a magnificent flair and energy in some of the film’s more personal scenes, Wendell & Wild’s visuals are as muscular as they are agile. Ross’ Kat and Bassett’s Sister Helley stand out, especially for the way that their delicate, understated performances are able to break through the joke-filled tumult of the movie. Key and Peele both deliver more or less precisely what you’d expect from them as conniving, well-meaning ghouls from Hell.
As the film attempts to wrap everything up, some of Wendell & Wild’s late-story twists and the addition of new material wind up confusing the plot a little. Wendell & Wild is a treat to watch in large part due to how rich with visual information its entire universe is, so rather than making its closing sequences feel like they don’t work, it sort of pushes you to go back and focus in on some of the film’s features more closely.
Wendell & Wild, which just came out, manages to feel like a staple of the creepy Selick film canon that many of us grew up enjoying and will continue to be a part of the Halloween rotation for years to come.
Wendell & Wild also features James Hong, Tamara Smart, Seema Virdi, Ramona Young, Michele Mariana, and David Harewood. On October 28, the film will be available on Netflix.