Wendell & Wild comes to us from director/co-writer/producer Henry Selick, mastermind of such perennial animated fantasy horror favorites as The Nightmare Before Christmas and Coraline. And he’s working with star/co-writer/producer Jordan Peele, who revolutionized the industry with his unique brand of socially-minded horror comedies. And they made an animated film together with the stop-motion masters here in Sweet Home Portland.
Yeah, let’s fucking go.
We lay our scene in Rust Bank, a rural town whose entire economy rests on a massive brewery owned and operated by Wilma and Delroy Elliot (respectively voiced by Gabrielle Dennis and Gary Gatewood). Inevitably, the two of them die in a car accident and their young daughter (Katherine “Kat” Koniqua Elliot, voiced by Lyric Ross) blames herself for the fatal crash. It certainly doesn’t help that the brewery burns down under questionable circumstances shortly after the accident.
Over the next five years, Kat bounces around from one foster home to another while going in and out of juvie. As part of a program to give young convicts a chance at getting their lives on straight, Kat is enrolled in Rust Bank Catholic school, bringing her back to her old home for the first time since her parents died. In addition to that bit of PTSD, Kat has made it her life’s mission to alienate herself from anyone else, lest any friends or family die like her parents did.
Meanwhile, the brewery’s destruction set of the economic implosion of Rust Bank. There’s no money anywhere in the town, and most of the citizens have moved out over the past five years. Enter the wealthy assholes Irmgard and Lane Klaxon (respectively voiced by Maxine Peake and David Harewood), the owners and operators of numerous privately-run prisons through their Klaxon Korporation. And the Klaxons are now set on rigging the local government in any way they can so Rust Bank can be leveled to make way for a new prison. Oh, and the Klaxons also have their hands in Rust Belt Catholic, so no points for guessing that they’ve rigged the system to fail its students so they end up in prison and make more money for the Klaxons.
Yes, we’ve got a kids’ movie that goes this hard into corporate greed, political corruption, the school-to-prison pipeline, and the evils of corporate prisons. Seriously, Peele goes even harder in this animated kid’s film than he ever went in any of his live-action offerings to date. God damn.
Anyway, while all of this is going on, we’ve got our underworld shenanigans as well. Ving Rhames voices Buffalo Belzer, a giant demon who hosts departed souls in his own custom-built Scream Faire — it’s basically Hell in the form of an amusement park. But Belzer’s two sons (the eponymous Wendell and Wild, respectively voiced by Key and Peele themselves) got too big for their breeches and went to Papa Belzer with their concept for a bigger and better amusement park — their “Dream Faire”. For their hubris, Belzer sentenced Wendell and Wild to an eternity of menial labor.
The two worlds collide with the revelation that Kat is a “Hell Maiden”, and therefore somehow capable of summoning demons to the living world. What’s more, Wendell and Wild discover that Belzer’s hair cream is capable of reviving the dead. (Yes, you read that correctly.)
The bottom line is that Wendell and Wild trick Kat into setting them loose on the living world, where they hope to build their Dream Faire without the permission or interference of Belzer. And with a stolen tube of the magic hair cream, the demon brothers can revive any dead people who might be willing or able to help them. Hilarity ensues.
Right off the bat, we’ve got a classic case of trying to cram too much movie into too little runtime. This is all way too much to do justice with only 100 minutes of runtime, and I didn’t even get to all the various storylines and themes in the plot! This leads to a sadly lackluster third act and an underwhelming climax, in which everything gets resolved far too quickly and too easily.
We’ve also got some serious gaps in the world-building, though some cases are worse than others. For example, we never learn how or where Belzer gets his packaged tubes of magic hair cream, which in turn leads to questions as to why Wendell and Wild can’t simply get more. Then again, all that really matters is that Wendell and Wild are hucksters dealing with stolen magic they don’t completely understand and are nowhere near qualified to operate. That’s cool, that’s all we need to know, let’s run with it.
But then we have the issue of Kat and her special powers. At no point in the movie do we ever learn exactly what a “Hell Maiden” is, where they come from, or why Kat is one. She’s got a weird kind of birthmark on her hand, and it’s never explained exactly what this is or how it works. I might add that we do have a character (Sister Helley, one of Kat’s teachers, voiced by Angela Bassett) who was perfectly capable of explaining all of this, yet she tells us all of jack shit and stays cryptic for no good reason whatsoever.
Thus we have a coming-of-age story that tracks the personal growth of our protagonist, but that personal growth does not involve any kind of discovery or mastery regarding her unique powers and status as a Hell Maiden. That doesn’t exactly make for a complete or fulfilling coming-of-age arc.
That said, the film does put significant emphasis on Kat’s struggle to make peace with her parents’ death. The movie really is all about Kat accepting her trauma and all the hardships that made her such a strong young woman, using that strength to protect her home and family rather than drive everyone away. It’s beautifully poignant throughout, and superbly delivered by Lyric Ross’ performance. But even then, the crucial turning point is only made possible through the powers we know nothing about. Though the sequence looks beautiful and it certainly makes sense on a metaphorical level, it still plays out like the writers are deliberately keeping the magic vague so they can make up whatever plot-convenient bullshit they need in the moment.
Another crucial factor is that Wendell and Wild are supposed to be Kat’s actual literal personal demons. It’s sold as a major narrative hook for the movie, this notion that our protagonist’s inner demons aren’t just a figure of speech but actual characters she can talk to and interact with. It’s a fascinating concept, except that Kat’s connection with Wendell/Wild is frustratingly vague. (The best we get is some kind of magical stuffed bear that serves as a bridge to the afterlife, which is itself given no explanation whatsoever.) What’s worse, Kat’s metaphorical inner demons are all about her parents’ death, something Wendell and Wild had nothing to do with. For that matter, Kat’s arc about accepting her parents’ death and the demon brothers’ arc about realizing their Dream Faire have not a goddamn thing to do with each other. This angle simply does not work.
In a way, it’s not unlike Nightmare Before Christmas. What exactly is a “Pumpkin King”? Where is this forest with all the different holidays and how did Jack find his way there without climbing through the Jack O’Lantern door? Are there multiple entrances and exits? Who or what decides which holidays get their own lands and doors? The details of the world-building make little sense, even and especially when such details are crucial to the plot. But the film looked great, the characters were compelling on an individual basis, and the themes were crystal clear in their examination of ennui, creative and emotional fulfillment, meddling in something not fully understood, sending everything straight to hell even with the best of intentions, and so on.
That’s basically what Selick has done again here. The world-building falls apart with even the most cursory examination, but the movie still works because it’s so damn beautiful, the social commentary is so incisive, the protagonist’s development arc is presented with so much heart, and the characters are all fascinating to watch.
Lyric Ross does a fine job voicing an obstinate protagonist without ever going so far as to make the character unlikeable. I was also rather fond of Siobhan (Tamara Smart), who isn’t really a bully so much as she’s a spoiled and self-righteous bitch who seems to be operating under the delusion that she knows best for all her peers. In execution, her development arc into a wiser and more sympathetic character is nicely satisfying. Angela Bassett is wonderful in everything she does, but it puts me off that her character was never really taken to task for all the shit that happened because she withheld critical need-to-know information for no reason at all. And of course I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Raoul (Sam Zalaya), a proactive and endearing trans male supporting character played by an actual trans Latino voice actor. Very nice.
Of course Key and Peele have their mischievous comedic timing down pat, but it’s nice that Wendell and Wild are only mischievous rather than outright evil, so they’ve got some internal conflict to work with. Likewise, James Hong (the GOAT himself) plays the headmaster of RBC as hopelessly corrupt, but he always makes a clear point of ensuring that the school is well cared for, so at least he’s got good intentions. Compare that to the Klaxons, a couple of transparently evil corporate assholes who are so much delectable fun to hate. As for Ving Rhames… really, what else do I have to say? It’s the movie’s Satan figure and he’s voiced by Ving Motherfucking Rhames.
Ultimately, Wendell & Wild is a film too ambitious for its own good. It’s almost like the filmmakers knew they had too many ideas to sufficiently explore in the space of a 100-minute kids’ movie, so they put all the focus on the visuals, the coming-of-age aspect, and the sociopolitical themes, hoping it would all be enough to distract from the undercooked world-building. It was the right call.
It’s a beautiful, charming, incisive picture that’s both scary and funny in a way that’s acceptable and entertaining for all ages. That’s more than enough to merit a recommendation, provided you can suspend disbelief long enough to deal with the unanswered questions and unquestioned answers.