Following a string of acclaimed stop-motion animated features that have cemented him as one of the most exciting voices in the enchanting world of animation, Selick teams up with Jordan Peele in this new outing that continues the director’s bold, boundless vision while pushing more limits and introducing mature themes that reflect today’s world as we know it.
Perhaps the best thing about Wendell & Wild, and its most likely element to be appreciated once it hits Netflix next month, is its bravery: never shying away from complex themes of loss, death, self-depreciation, and the horrors of capitalism. This is a mature, layered work that should have both adult and children appeal, though children may find it far less straightforward than mainstream shows and films they’re grown accustomed to watching, and that PG-13 rating isn’t kidding around, either.
As with any bold work, the film has some messy, overstuffed portions and is unevenly paced. Some parts land very well while others feel undercooked (the ending in particular feels very rushed and production constraints can be felt), but never do we not see Selick’s ambition wavering. His knack for gothic, dark and sophisticated narrative remains very visible here, and one can argue he takes up quite a few notches as he shows us what it’s like to struggle with your own sense of identity, esteem, and awareness.
Unpredictable, visually striking, and undeniably twisted, Wendell & Wild is the story of two mischievous demon brothers, living in the body of their older, much bigger demon dad in the underworld. They spend their days dreaming of creating their own theme park until they find the right conduit that can summon them to the Land of the Living. This ‘hellmaiden’ is Kat Elliot (voiced by Lyric Ross), a troubled teenager whose parents had died in an accident when she was just six – and she’s never truly recovered. Carrying so much anger, remorse, and pain within her, with no hope in sight, Kat is damaged and leads a life of despair and agony.
When she is taken back to her town, Rust Bank, after being granted parole (she went to jail during her early teenage years), a new chapter awaits. Her school, Rust Bank Catholic, does not seem to be ready for the force Kat is – her bursts of anger, rebellion and social apathy set her apart from the others. Until one day she gets in contact with her own demons, Wendell & Wild, who make a deal with her: if she is to help them get to the Land of the Living, they can help her revive her dead parents.
At its core, Wendell & Wild is a film about struggling with one’s demons – and the way out. Beautifully conveying this message in its mostly satisfying, if too rushed, third act, the film speaks to the notion that one can’t move forward without addressing – and making peace with – the past. Escape and evasion of pain can only lead to more demons, and the way one deals with memories of guilt or agony can make all the difference. Beautifully symbolizing the pain multiple marginalized communities (the film marks the first time we’ve see a stop-motion dark-skinned protagonist in a major animated feature film) have long endured, the film encourages viewers to embrace their pain so they can eventually heal. It is a timely, important message as we increasingly live in an unforgiving, harsh world where racism, hatred and lack of tolerance are all running amok.
Much like Selick’s daring filmography, the gifted filmmaker never sugarcoats his intentions nor panders to his audience, here dealing with traumas of death in a blunt, uncompromising manner, and it’s great children will be exposed to such a unique picture that invites them to look within and perceive the world around them, and assess their own place in the world in novel ways.
Innovative and ambitious, Wendell & Wild is not without its flaws. It remains, nonetheless, one of the year’s most exciting animated features.
This review is from the 2022 Toronto Film Festiva. Wendell & Wild will be released by Netflix on October 28.