The stop-motion animated film Wendell & Wild is a visually lush experience. Directed by Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas), the character designs are unique, and the animation has a hand-crafted quality. Probably the biggest drawback is the script is juggling so many subplots it is unfocused. A sampling of the various themes it goes into are childhood trauma, dealing with the loss of loved ones and/or hair, schemes of demons to build fairgrounds, prison industrial complex, broken towns, acceptance into a new school, resurrecting the dead, and probably about 10 more. Happily, there’s the return of Key and Pelle comedic riffing, but now in animation!
Kat (Lyric Ross) is a young girl sent to a boarding school after the untimely death of her parents, Delroy (Gary Gatewood) and Wilma (Gabrielle Dennis), in a car accident. She becomes chummy with an artistic student, Raul (Sam Zelaya), and is confronted by two demons, Wendell (Kegan-Michael Key) and Wild (Jordan Peele). They have a magic cream that they are using to reanimate the dead which Kat wants to use on her parents. Meanwhile, two greedy corporate executives, Irmgard (Maxine Peake) and Lane (David Harewood), have easily gotten away with murdering Kat’s school principal, Father Best (James Hong), and want to set up a prison in the broken town. To do this, Wendell and Wild use their magic cream on the corpses of old politicians to get votes to build the prison. Now Kat is imbued with a magical power and with the help of Sister Helley (Angela Bassett) she attempts to defeat the demon duo. Which must happen quickly because Wendell and Wild stole the magic cream from the big demon Buffalo Belzer (Ving Rhames) and he wants it back.
There is way too much going on in the film. It should be just a straightforward coming of age adventure with some magic and demons as Key and Peele riff about various things. But the movie has a lot to say and while it gets points for being ambitious, it loses points for being so unfocused. The film sort of works better when it’s little vignettes of random quirkiness and somewhat gothic weirdness. Connecting the whole thing narratively is kind of pointless. But there is fun in lots of moments, like when the local town council thinks they have enough easy votes to stop the prison building plan, and then a bunch of reanimated corpses kick down the door and vote to let the prison be built.
The characters are very stylized. The demons, Wendell and Wild, sort of look like two-dimensional cardboard cut-outs which contrasts nicely with the rounded look of the other characters. One thing where the design stumbles is the older people are supposed to have “wrinkles” however it just sort of looks like they have cuts on the side of their face. Most of the designs are neat, like when Father Best comes back from the dead his head is floating in the middle of his chest making him look like a hunchback. Hong’s vocal performance as Best is consistently energetic, like when he gets on the PA system at school and proclaims reports of his death were greatly exaggerated. The big boss demon Buffalo Belzer has an awesome character design, he basically looks like Biggie Smalls / Rick Ross but a demon, and Rhames has a great baritone. Although the entire movie hinges upon Wendell and Wild stealing his special hair growth cream to reanimate the dead. In a film with lots of serious topics like death and loss, it’s weird the film happens because a big demon likes his hair growth cream applied daily. And not good weird but more like dumb weird.
The most enjoyable thing about the movie Key and Peele as the two demons. Their show has been gone for a while now with Peele crafting great horror movies, but there’s a very specific spark in hearing Key and Peele bounce off each other. They’ve shown up as a comedy duo in animation in Rick and Morty and Toy Story 4, so it makes sense to have them here again. Michael-Key’s Wendell is the fast talking one who often hollers at Peele’s slower Wild, and the only reason they found out about the hair cream is that Wild kept eating it because he thinks it’s tasty. Ross as the main character of Kat basically gets to be surly, and the character design for her has a distinct punk-rock aesthetic. There’s a whole lot of stuff about her having a magic mark and powers which feel like Chosen One cliches. As odd as the resurrection plot is, the stuff with her returned parents does work emotionally. Bassett as the teacher mostly delivers magical exposition. The two greedy corporate execs holler as one of them is cosplaying as Donald Trump which makes him easily hateable. A plotline about flattening a city to build prisons feels politically relevant but yet another plot in an already overstuffed movie.
As a cohesive story, Wendell and Wild falls short. But as just a weirdly trippy visual feast in stop-motion animation that has solid moments and a few laughs, the movie succeeds. It looks cool enough so it can skate by on charisma alone.
Wendell & Wild
Director: Henry Selick
Starring: Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Angela Bassett, Lyric Ross and Ving Rhames