Director Henry Selick’s last feature film, Coraline (2009) is still unforgettable for just how disturbing it was. Selick matched the eerie menace of Neil Gaiman’s novella with unconventional imagery and stop motion animation, creating a fable that you couldn’t turn your eyes away from even though you knew it was going to haunt your nightmares. Understandably, when it was announced that Selick was going to direct a story about a Black teen protagonist, written by him and the horror maverick Jordan Peele, the project immediately became one of this year’s most anticipated releases. Wendell and Wild delivers on some accounts, while disappointing in others.
We begin with Rust Bank, a thriving town supported by its tight-knit cosmopolitan community. At the centre stands the lively Rust Bank Brewery, run by Delroy and Wilma Elliot. When an accident kills the two, their orphaned daughter Kat (voiced by Lyric Ross) turns into a bitter, difficult 13-year-old. She’s haunted not only by survivor’s guilt, but also the belief that she is the reason for her parents’ death. In the five years Kat spends alone, we see what life looks like for most Black, young and orphaned children: Bullying, foster homes, violence and finally prison. A fresh chance at life arrives in the form of the posh Rust Bank Catholic School — housing students whom Kat calls “prized poodles” — mysterious nuns and the answers to Kat’s past. Deep beneath this world lies a quirky Hell, run by the mighty Buffalo Belzer (Ving Rhames) who is grappling with hair loss and balances an amusement park on his belly (there’s a spinning cup ride for the souls, except when the ride stops, a large kettle pours boiling tea into the cup underneath it). Hell is reserved for torturing damned souls who come Buffalo’s way. His demon sons, Wendell and Wild (Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele), have their own grand plans of building a “Dream Faire”, but are forever banished to replenish their father’s falling hair with the help of a hair cream (regular father-son stuff). That is until Wendell and Wild realise the hair cream has other magical properties — like raising people from the dead. Around the same time, the two are (randomly) informed that they “have a Hell Maiden” – Kat – who could provide a door to the living world (What’s a Hell Maiden? Why does Kat get assigned to these two specifically? Your guess is as good as mine). The next thing we know, Wendell and Wild have hijacked Kat’s dream and brokered a deal with her: They will bring her parents back to life if she will summon them to the living world, where they can build their Dream Faire.
The stop-motion animation in Wendell and Wild is a visual treat. Eyeballs and teeth are knocked into undead men, vivid murals are drawn across rooftops to form a magnificent painting, and visions are conceived in trippy, drug-induced dreams. These are accompanied by spurts of cackle-worthy humour: The dead principal, whose closed-casket funeral contained many weeping students, cheerfully announces his return from the dead on the school microphone – “The reports of my death were greatly exaggerated”. We see the use of horror as a tool for commentating on social evils (the cornerstone of Peele’s work as a filmmaker) and ‘demons’ become more layered as a concept than what is conventional. Wendell and Wild seem to represent Kat’s fear, guilt and shame. They’re birthed from her belief that the people she gets close to die.
However, this portrait of self-sabotage lacks an emotional coherence and it begins with the film’s weak characterisation. Kat surely looks the part of an angry, cool teen — green, Afro’d ponytails; knee-length boots and a boombox on her shoulder — but she feels more like a stereotype than a person. It’s almost impossible to care for her even though she faces all the misfortune she does. Despite being set in a school and having an earnest sidekick (a transgender character), there is barely any friendship to lend humanity to the world. Even the town of Rust Bank, the resurgence of which represents the fight against good and evil in the climax, doesn’t feel enchanting enough to be a place that you want to save.
Wendell and Wild might bring to mind Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022) since both films explore the relationships between beings from different worlds. Both have central characters who ache for parental love and are fuelled by childhood trauma. Both are about conquering inner demons and question whether terrible things must be done to undo terrible things that have already happened. However, while Everything Everywhere All At Once presents a nuanced understanding of Joy’s generational trauma, Wendell and Wild seems to rely on easy tricks. For example, in a pivotal scene that shows Kat mastering her fears, she doesn’t get to arrive at her own conclusions. Instead, she is told – as are we – that the monster dancing before her is formed from her own memories. This is followed by Kat launching into a monologue that elaborates on the crux of Wendell and Wild: Our demons torture us and make us who we are. As superb as the animation is, there is a simplistic quality to the storytelling that insists on spoon-feeding both Kat and the audience. Ultimately, the easy resolution incites neither relief nor jubilance.
Animation can be an inspired device for storytellers because of the way it allows one to marry the real with the unreal. The impossible can feel probable; unbearable tragedies become bearable (case in point: Bojack Horseman). While Wendell and Wild touches upon complex issues of grief, trauma and empowerment, it stays perhaps too enamoured by its technology to fully delve into the themes it promised.