Henry Selick’s Wendell & Wild shares a little DNA with Disney movies — mostly in the requisite inclusion of dead parents — but this PG-13 stop-motion film couldn’t be farther from the oft-anodyne animated output of the House of the Mouse. Co-written and produced with Jordan Peele, this is dark and strange, full of anarchic punk rock, hair-cream-guzzling demons, and trenchant commentary on social issues. It’s somehow exactly what you’d expect from the pairing of Peele and Selick, and something surprising even for these wildly creative minds.
Its ideal audience falls between Peele’s adult-oriented fare — Get Out, Us, and Nope — and Selick’s kid-friendly movies — The Nightmare Before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach, and Coraline. That viewer is probably about the age of Wendell & Wild’s protagonist, troubled teenager Kat (voiced by Lyric Ross). After witnessing the death of her parents as a child, she has been shuttled throughout the system before finally landing at Rust Bank Catholic. As the head of the formerly posh boarding school, Father Level Bests (James Hong) is happy to take money from the “Break the Cycle” program for accepting Kat as a student. Her classmates are friendly, but Kat keeps herself walled off from close connection because of the demons of her painful past.
Yet literal demons plague Kat, too. Wendell (Keegan-Michael Key) and Wild (Peele) are desperate to escape the underworld, where they spend their nights living in the nostrils of giant devil Belzer (Ving Rhames) and their days planting fresh hair plugs on his scalp and getting high off eating his hair cream. (Just … go with it.) Chosen as their “hell maiden,” Kat reluctantly agrees to summon them to the land of the living if they can grant her the one thing she truly wants.
In press notes, Selick adorably grouses, “Despite no sex, very little violence, and nothing stronger than damn and hell, our film is rated PG-13. My theory? Our film is so original it scared the bejeebers out of the ratings board.” He’s not wrong about the film’s content, but Wendell & Wild oozes a darkness rarely present in films for kids or even young teens. This movie takes a step beyond the gleeful gloom of Coraline and The Nightmare Before Christmas in its themes and some elements of its plot. It’s geared toward a slightly older audience, who aren’t often the target demo for animated films — or films in general. They deserve something unique if they’ve outgrown movies for younger kids and aren’t yet ready for the gore of grown-up horror.
Wendell & Wild does tackle serious themes, beginning in its startling early scene with the death of Kat’s parents. The trauma and guilt linger years later (along with panic attacks), hardening Kat into a resilient young woman. Selick and Peele’s screenplay comments on the power of the past and the value of being able to move beyond it. Though often macabre, Wendell & Wild avoids being too grim, offering pleasures in its goofy, gross-out humor and marvelously detailed animation. The stop-motion technique allows for a texture beyond even what the best CG-animated films can offer. You look with wonder at a nubby school blazer and a fuzzy teddy bear — and then with queasy horror at how well they’ve captured the glistening gelatinous nature of snot.
For all its disgusting delights, Wendell & Wild loses a bit of juice by the time it gets to its third act. Though based on a short story by Selick and Clay McLeod Chapman, it’s sprawling, ambitious, and a bit overstuffed at 100-plus minutes, feeling more like it was distilled from something much longer. It’s hard to get too bored with the wild images on screen, but the script could’ve been better paced to keep both teens and adults (and brave kids) engaged throughout the running time.
Wendell & Wild marks the long-awaited reunion between the brains behind the beloved sketch show Key and Peele, and it’s great fun to see (hear) these two long-time collaborators working together again. Similarly, Selick’s previous film, Coraline, was over a decade ago, making this one feel like a rare gift. Stop-motion movies — and films this bizarre — aren’t easy to get made. Wendell & Wild is something special: a little messy, but so weird and wonderful.
“Wendell & Wild” is out now in limited release and on Netflix Friday.