Wendell and Wild is one of the most ambitious and bizarre films of the 2020s. It is also the second Netflix movie to premiere at TIFF this year that uses hot sauce as blood.
Bet you can?t figure out what the second one is.
The film follows young teenage Katherine Knoiqua Elliot (Lyric Ross)–though she would likely hate if you called her that as she much prefers the name Kat. Kat arrives as a transfer from juvenile detention to a private catholic school in her hometown of Rust Bank. Her arrival to ‘juvie’ began as she was in and out of problematic group homes for most of her childhood in the wake of her parents? death, for which she feels responsible. Now, Kat is surrounded by her new classmates, Siobhan, Sweetie and Sloane, who feel inclined to help her break her cycle of poverty and prisons.
Director Henry Selick?s return to stop motion on the big screen sees Kat?s desire to reunite with her parents clash with the dreams of her two demons, Wendell (Keegan-Michael Key) and Wild (Jordan Peele). The brother demons have been enslaved by their father to keep his full head of hair using a magical cream that can resurrect the dead. When Wendell and Wild encounter Kat, they offer her a deal to resurrect her parents in exchange for her using her power so that a hell maiden will bring them to the land of the living. What follows is a wild adventure of friendship, betrayal, and a fight to save Rust Bank from a scheme to create a profitable school to prison system. The supernatural meets the all too realistic as Wendell and Wild?s pursuit of building a theme park finds them working with Father Bests (James Hong) who wants to protect his school with the financial support of the Klaxons. With the help of fellow Hell Maiden and her teacher, Sister Helley, (Angela Bassett) and her new friend, Raul (Sam Zelaya), Kat fights to expose the corrupt nature of the Klaxons and restore hope to a town where only one falafel truck feeds its starving economy.
Henry Sellick is arguably the master of stop motion animation and the designs of the character and world make it hard to argue. His scope for miniature worlds seems only matched by Wes Anderson. Based on an unpublished book that Selick wrote with Clay McLeod Chapman, Selick wrote the screenplay with Jordan Peele who has gained a lot of credit himself for his ability to weave rich stories with searing thematic commentary. But, in Wendell and Wild, the story falls a bit flat. The film?s aim appears to be taking down the capitalist approach that many states take to prisons which incentivize governments to lead impoverished teenagers and adults towards committing crime. However, this commentary gets caught up in a convoluted plot where Kat must confront the grief of her parents? death. Wendell and Wild are supposed to be physical embodiment of the demons she must deal with. However, despite how tied the demon brothers seem to be to Kat, Wendell and Wild don?t have a lot to do with her (other than an order from Wendell for Kat to get them falafel). Rather, once the stories see the brothers accepting to help the Klaxons set up their prison with Father Bests, Kat runs off with Raul and Sister Helley to focus on confronting her grief. Exploring the relationship these demons had to the issues that Kat was dealing with in her life could have been much more effective. However, it feels like Selick, who had multiple cancelled projects during his 13 year hiatus, used funding that Jordan Peele attracted to shoot for the stars. He got somewhere but, like his story, the meaning is a bit cloudy.
The film is certainly worth experiencing and the sheer amount of story that they throw at you in this hour and fifty minutes is an entertaining and bewildering watch. As a result, you get a film that honestly should have been closer to 3 hours. By all indications, that?s what Selick was aiming for but, in this era of filmmaking, funding a 2-hour stop-motion movie won’t happen, even by the man who has made his career with the medium. As a result, Selick is forced to scramble to combine Peele?s idea to commentate on the prison system in America while trying to put his original story into the film. (For what it’s worth, 13th by Ava Duvernay, which is also Netflix, is an amazing documentary takedown of the prison system that explains all the realistic complexity that Wendell and Wild can?t get into. I?d recommend you check it out to see why Peele felt compelled to have it covered in this film.)
The story of Wendell and Wild follows a logical narrative but there are so many plot points attempting to be tied together its hard to feel the intended emotions. The film?s finale is a simple action climax that any kids? movie would use, despite most of the movie trying to convince me that it was something different. Animated movies are almost always for kids, but Selick uses a darker edge to explore more biting themes. In Wendell and Wild, its use of demons, light ‘cuss words’ and zombies convey its haunting tone. But, as a result, you get a movie that doesn?t really know its audience. Who this film is for may be answered as its released but Wendell and Wild may simply fade away in Netflix?s vast catalogue (which would be a shame). Wendell and Wild is certainly a worth a watch for its ambitious story and animation. Hopefully, Selick will write an airtight emotional screenplay during the next few years that will convince a studio that is willing fund his artistry. His first two stop motion films alone justify funding his films but perhaps he needs to find a collaborator less ambitious than Jordan Peele as the scope that they aimed for loses sight of the emotional connection that a story like this should achieve.
Wendell and Wild is available now on Netflix.
*And, for what it’s worth, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery was the other Netflix film that premiered at TIFF this year that used hot sauce as blood.