Within the medium of animation (yes, animation is not a genre, it is a medium), I think the two most difficult forms are 2D hand-drawn animation and stop-motion animation. In order to make them look fluid and appealing to the human eye, artists, animators, background designers, virtual camera operators, VFX, and SFX supervisors have to ensure every frame is perfect and consistent with the frame that precedes it. The process is expensive and time-consuming. But the end result is much more beautiful, expressive, and impressive than the most popular pieces of 3D CGI animation. This is not a dunk on 3D CGI artists. It’s just a personal preference of mine. Based on that personal preference, I’ve always cherished Henry Selick’s work, which includes “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” “James and the Giant Peach,” and “Coraline.” And his highly anticipated return to the medium after 13 years in the form of “Wendell & Wild” is excellent.
Directed and co-written by Henry Selick, along with co-writer Jordan Peele, “Wendell & Wild” follows Kat Elliot (Lyric Ross), who has lost her mother and father to a car accident, and she blames herself for causing it. She has spent most of her childhood on her own and in juvenile prisons. But now she’s coming back to her hometown of Rust Bank to apparently learn some discipline and education in its Catholic school, which looks to be for kids from the upper echelon of society, i.e., people that Kat hates. To make things worse, during a demonstration of a mimic octopus by Sister Helley (Angela Bassett), Kat is cursed by a toy bear called Bearz-A-Bub (Phoebe Lamont). While all this is going on, two demons – Wendell (Keegan-Michael Key) and Wild (Peele) – are looking to get away from the tyrannical Buffalo Belzer (Ving Rhames), who also happens to be their father. And their best way out is by coercing the cursed Kat to bring them to the Land of the Living. In addition to that, a capitalistic organization called the Klaxon Corporation – headed by Irmgard (Maxine Peake) and Lane (David Harewood) – is looking to take over Rust Bank.
As you can see, there are a lot of complex elements working simultaneously in “Wendell & Wild.” The most noticeable aspects of the film are Kat’s grief and survivor’s guilt, which are eating her up from the inside. Then there is Wendell and Wild’s parasitic relationship with Belzer, who, in return, doesn’t treat Wendell and Wild all that well. On top of that, there’s the issue of the forceful destruction of Rust Bank and its eventual takeover, which involves the literal resurrection of the regressive dead in order to make way for a regressive future. Along with that theme of capitalism comes the involvement of a religious figure who has priorities of his own. And Selick and Peele handle all of these topics and themes so deftly that it’s jaw-dropping. They send a message about avoiding any emotion synonymous with self-pity by getting Kat to work on her past. Wendell and Wild’s whole journey is about realizing that one doesn’t have to plot, scheme, and lie even though their very nature dictates them to do so. Because even in one’s most desperate state, they have a choice.
However, with the Klaxon Corporation’s takeover of Rust Bank, “Wendell & Wild” sheds light on one of the most important tools of capitalism: gentrification. It is a practice that is made to look pro-employment and pro-development. Whereas in reality, it is incredibly exclusionary in nature as it robs a locality of its identity. Corporations like Klaxon stifle growth and make housing unaffordable so that those who’ve been born and brought up there have to move out so that those richer than them can inhabit those places. Although such corporations claim that they’re moving towards the future, all they are actually doing is modernizing exploitative practices from the past, something that is expertly portrayed through the resurrection of the old council members. And since this encroachment is relentless, as per Selick and Peele, the only way to counter it is by coming together as a society, especially if you’re from the privileged class, to stand against every form of oppressive force and preserve your culture. Be it through protest art, be it by upholding your duties in a government office, or by rebelling against your parents.
Of course, it goes without saying that the animation in “Wendell & Wild” is impeccable. Everything from the character designs to the character animation, the production design, the visual effects, the texture of every single building, material (be it solid, liquid, or something in between), or cloth, the dynamic camerawork is so good that you must pause every frame and appreciate it. There’s so much detail in Belzer’s hell or the town of Rust Bank or the school in which Kat studies that it makes you wonder how Selick and his team conceived it and then executed it. Well, if you sit through the credits (which is something that you should do for every film, FYI), you get to see how Selick and his team did execute it. However, despite having that information, the movie still feels magical. Emotional, whimsical, and politically sharp, but magical, nonetheless. Bruno Coulais’s score, Peter Sorg’s cinematography, and the editing by Robert Anich and Sarah K. Reimers are undoubtedly a big reason behind it. And so is the work of the film’s ensemble cast, who truly bring their A-game to the field.
Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele are technically the main attractions of “Wendell & Wild,” and they are expectedly amazing. The chemistry between these two is so good that it seems like you can listen to them come up with diabolical plans for hours, especially if their characters are animated. That said, Lyric Ross steals the show by utilizing every single character beat that Kat goes through to display her range. Kat’s sense of loss, pain, and teenage angst are palpable, and you truly feel for her when she has to grapple with the fact that her parents are gone for good. While she has some scenes with the titular duo, she spends more time with the great Angela Bassett, Sam Zelaya, and Tamara Smart. And all three of them are excellent, with the evergreen actress taking the cake. Bassett’s vocal range is otherworldly, to be honest. Ving Rhames as Belzer and James Hong as Father Bests are hilarious. So are Maxine Peake and David Harewood’s deliciously over-the-top performances. The supporting cast, which includes Gabrielle Dennis, Gary Gatewood, Ramona Young, Igal Naor, Natalie Martinez, and more, is fantastic. Therefore, kudos must go out to the casting director, Terri Taylor.
In conclusion, “Wendell & Wild” is a perfect film for the Halloween season. I will say that it isn’t high on horror. Or at least not the kind of imagery that horrifies. Some of the character designs, nightmare sequences, and the scene where Wendell & Wild make sculptures out of Belzer’s snot are definitely going to gross you out. The rest is going to give you that much-needed spooky feeling. In addition to that – and this is the important part – it’ll get you thinking about processing grief and the ever-rising nature of capitalism. Although these two factors seem poles apart, Selick manages to show that they are more connected than we think. We are in a constant rush to save our businesses and our homes or rebuild them once they are destroyed. We don’t have a minute to mourn what we are leaving behind and dry our tears. If that’s not as haunting as some of the best horror films out there, I don’t know what is.