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‘Wendell & Wild’ Review: Henry Selick's thrilling return recalls a more thoughtful side of animated filmmaking

The "Coraline" director partners with Jordan Peele for his latest creepy-crawly adventure, this one spotlighting institutional evils.
Credit: Netflix

TEXAS, USA — Sometimes the best response to baseless claims about movies and those who watch them are the movies themselves. 

At least that seems to be the case this week, after Disney CEO Bob Chapek flippantly suggested adult storytelling doesn’t exist within the realm of animation, saying parents instead “want something for them” after putting their kids to bed at night. Not three days later, Netflix released “Wendell & Wild,” a devilishly entertaining and ideas-packed stop-motion adventure that represents director Henry Selick’s moderately triumphant return to feature filmmaking 13 years after “Coraline.”

Given that many of that beloved movie’s fans are now parents themselves, one wonders how Chapek might react if he knew the same people he presumes to be animation-phobic likely flocked to his company’s streaming service competitor over Halloween Weekend to catch “Wendell & Wild,” a thrilling follow-up that’s got plenty to offer adult audiences and their kids alike. 

Though little about moviegoing and filmmaking resembles the Hollywood of 2009, Selick’s warmly creepy sensibilities have not dulled with time. Rather, they've made admirable attempts to mirror it: His “Wendell & Wild,” centered on the bargain a young orphan strikes with the two eponymous demons, takes the creepy-crawly emotionality of “Coraline” and applies several twists of the thematic dial. We can likely chalk up a villainous subplot about the construction of school-to-prison pipelines to the contributions of Jordan Peele, who not only cowrote the film but also voices Wild (partnered with longtime creative partner Keegan-Michael Key, voicing Wendell). The bulk of the story is set five years after a movie-opening tragedy, in a former worker’s community that’s since become ensnared by corporate greed, the kind of evil that won’t budge to clean up smoldering remains of long-ago disaster until it’s time to build something new in its place. 

And then there’s Wendell and Wild themselves, two scheming imps who long to escape servitude from the movie’s chummy Satan stand-in to pursue some rather harmless aspirations: building their own theme park in the world of the living. Who best to save them but their own personal Hell Maiden, Kat (voiced by Lyric Ross), a lost soul who could use some of that plot-advancing supernatural trickery as she struggles to come to terms with her past?

Kat, it turns out, has a lot on her plate, and not just because of the deal she enters into with Wendell and Wild. A young Black heroine against which systems have already deemed expendable, she’s the fulcrum through which Selick and Peele’s script tries hard to balance various plot nuggets, only some of which are given enough animating life as the undead begin to literally rise. In fits and starts “Wendell & Wild” retains the musicality of Selick’s best work, but because the movie strives to touch base with one or two too many rotten worms that run the world, if ends up eating away at its full potential. 

“Bad things happen to people I’m close to,” Kat warns a friendly schoolmate, a proclamation that sets into motion a messy tumble of storytelling dominos that are otherwise lovingly (read: freakishly) designed. Delicately dressing “Wendell & Wild’s” beats is the ever-endearing animation style that made Selick’s movies – including “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and “James and the Giant Peach” – so visually distinct just as the industry was being overtaken by CGI mania. Here, the aesthetic ethos is to give characters and places a particular level of zombification, in turn giving visual clarity to their shadowy motivations (at least for those the movie blesses with more than one or two fleeting scenes). Greedy corporate matriarch Irmgard Klaxon’s (voiced by Maxine Peake) bulging eyes look like they could pop out at any second, for example, while the pastor who runs the boarding school Kat finds herself in is already half-shrunk into his depraved means by the time we meet him.  

For all the creative ways Selick and his animators literally shape their characters and the boldness by which they figuratively shade the institutions they represent, what’s most gripping about “Wendell & Wild” is the near-fatalistic pace with which Kat and her peers move through the world. I found myself quietly marveling at the hushed voice performances provided by Ross and Sam Zelaya – playing a trans-coded student of color, Raul – in a pivotal scene that finds them reflecting on the ways the world has cheated them (not for nothing, the setting is a graveyard at night). One of the worst misconceptions about modern American animation is that it needs to be bombastic to capture the attention of children, or their parents. 

Listen up, Mr. Chapek: Sometimes kids don’t need to be sent to bed with patronizing swells of grandeur, but with the gentle hum of curiosity that helps them realize their place in the world as we know it. Parents, I trust, will follow suit... or rather, continue to. 

"Wendell & Wild" is rated PG-13 for some thematic material, violence, substance use and brief strong language. Streaming on Netflix now. Runtime: 1 hour, 45 minutes. 

Starring Lyric Ross, Jordan Peele, Keegan-Michael Key, Angela Bassett

Directed by Henry Selick, written by Selick and Jordan Peele




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