Movies | Music News

REVIEW – “Wendell and Wild”: Spooky Demons Rule in Dense Small-Town Adventure

WENDELL & WILD – (L-R) Wendell (voiced by Keegan-Michael Key) and Wild (voiced by Jordan Peele). Cr: Netflix © 2022

Animator Henry Selick is a man on a mission. A hero for the future of animated experimentation in an experienced medium. When we all thought there wasn’t room to test the limits of stop motion, the art manages to surprise. And just in time for Halloween, when surprises often border on the macabre. Without any hesitation, Wendell & Wild makes its presence known off the bat, eliciting that nightmarish storybook vibe that makes the most sense in October. Its statement for animated art runs high, even if its desire for an all-encompassing novel-like plot leaves the adventure slightly weighed down.

And that does come with a nugget of truth, as Selick adapts his unpublished children’s novel (co-written with Clay McLeod Chapman) for screens no matter the size. Though one would imagine how daring this stylistic fever dream would play out in a theater. Not too far away from the roots of his most recent directorial work, 2009’s Coraline, he places a spry, oft-rebellious heroine in the driver’s seat. One with a rather dark, panicky backstory building upon itself over time.

Five years had passed since Kat Elliot (Lyric Ross) left the port town of Rust Bank under wrongful circumstances. She still blames herself for a random distraction that would kill her parents Wilma (Gabrielle Dennis) and Delroy (Gary Gatewood) in a bridge crash. Couple that with their brewery business quickly going under, and much of the community departing en masse in the wake of a disastrous fire. All that’s left of the bleak little suburb is a food truck and a prep school for wayward girls. Kat has dealt with her share of behavior faults, acting out as a defense mechanism, uncertain to face her demons. Those quirks come to a head upon enrolling, lost on how to make friends, and seek closure for a grim past.

Kat wants a fresh start, and an opportunity to see her parents one more time. All the while, land developers Lane (David Harewood) and Irmgard (Maxine Peake) see a fortune out of reshaping the burn-scarred town into a new prison development. And down below, the titular demons (Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele), trapped in landscaping work for a larger specter’s (Ving Rhames) theme park, view the needed leverage to spin off their own amusement concept. These three intersecting highways run in a fervent one-two step. They move with blistering pace as Kat slowly develops premonitory abilities visibly marked by a glowing tattoo on the back of her hand – the mark of a Hell Maiden.

Selick and Peele, both credited to the screenplay, seize their moment to densify Kat’s fractured self-identity, apply it firmly to every unique story facet. Perhaps to the point where there’s perhaps a bit too much to keep up with in a given frame of time. Though that may be what Selick’s aiming for, making up for an absurd amount of time and chances lost. Be it underworldly lore, the million or so dots connecting the likely arsonists, or its eschewing of professional business ethics, a distinct clutter belays the film’s mood if not also benefiting it, as the resourceful Kat flitters in for every mini-quest. Most of them at the demons’ behest, for better or worse. And it does tread some choppy waters on its worst side, with many late emerging threads still itching to be sewn up by its hefty third act.

That desire for re-connection extends so brilliantly to the very presence of Key and Peele, once more sharing on-screen billing again after what amounted to a figurative eternity. Their Comedy Central series remains sorely missed, so to witness their likeness lovingly rebuild by hand and familiar voice was a treasure in itself. A fair reminder how in the world of comedy, they were certainly the outspoken jesters. The pair whose sense of humor played like a defensive umbrella from the “popular kids”. Their brand of standing out is not too lost on Peele, writing Kat to embrace a rocker’s pluck, donning a denim jacket and an 80s boombox blasting an unexpected (for any animated film, in retrospect) alt-rock/new wave megamix. She’s a genuine punk, unashamedly so, and Ross slickly navigates her performance with a farcical impudence. How else to cut through her stress or turmoil, which she learns is a feeling shared with her fellow residents?

Even as the story comes off bloated, the characters completing Rust Bank’s population bear a sophisticated range and diversity, covering multiple corners. Allies and enemies alike inundate this story on a level keel, with the likes of Rhames and Angela Bassett (Sister Helley) chipping in as neutral voices of reason. Classmates oppose each other in similar fashion, like nerdy artist Raul (Sam Zelaya) and preppy Siobhan (Tamara Smart). Neither should be compatible, but like Kat, they express a fine blend of cool worthy of any eighth grade homeroom. For it being technically a catholic school, to find the open platform for reasonable countenance is to further embrace one’s originality. Another idea craving time and experience, and Selick is more than eager to emphasize its strengths.

Story wobbles notwithstanding, there may be no such thing as a weak spot in this wild romp. Even what falters smooths itself out before a foregone conclusion. And what the film thrives best with takes stunning effect from the opening shot. Peele’s proclivity for snark is one giveaway, Bruno Coulais’ (Wolfwalkers) musical footprint another with its notes of French choral polyphony and urban jazz. Visually speaking, between Paul Harrod’s (Isle of Dogs) design palette striking a rather ombre chord that shifts with each scene, and character designer Pablo Lobato’s eye for the uncommon, the eyes earn a captive treat with this landscape effectively holding attention at every turn.

All the last minute twists and added detail might preclude a miniseries subsisting various genres, versus a self-contained feature. That’s the lone hiccup in Selick’s book, possibly rewarding the viewer on annual viewings to discover something different about this cocky journey. One of self-forgiveness, personal guilt and reunification against hard-felt tragedy. Selick knows to keep his bases engulfed in all his films, and Wendell & Wild is no different. No stranger to his familiar canon, blending in without hesitation. At the same time, his quirks feel broader in size, scale, and especially maturity. It’s earned its PG-13, not so much due to any excess in gore or violence; even its usage of language is grade-schooler sparse. But more to its idea of growing up, embracing one’s flaws. Especially if, and when, they manifest into real apparitions who could win the heart every Halloween moving forward. (B+; 3.5/5 Horns Up!)

Wendell & Wild streams on Netflix October 28; rated PG-13 for some thematic material, violence, substance use and brief strong language; 106 minutes.