"KEEP BUSTIN'."

Wendell & Wild

Henry Selick, the director of THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, just made his first movie in thirteen years. Stop motion animation takes a long time, of course, but not usually that long. (With the exception of MAD GOD.)

It’s not like he took a vacation. Only a year after CORALINE Selick moved from Laika to Pixar to start a new stop motion division called Cinderbiter. They actually animated much of a movie called THE SHADOW KING – $50 million worth – and then cancelled it. And then he developed a bunch of other movies with a bunch of other people that didn’t even get that far.

But now, finally, he has a new, completed and released one called WENDELL & WILD. He wrote it with Academy Award winning screenwriter Jordan Peele, it stars the voices of Key and Peele, it’s about demons and zombie skeletons and shit, and it has Selick’s eye for design and increasingly sophisticated stop motion, so it’s the kind of thing some people ought to be interested in, in my opinion. Only trouble is it was produced by Netflix, so they just squirted it out in a little glob exactly like Wendell & Wild squirt the cream that grows their father’s nose hairs (more on that later), so most of the people I’ve mentioned it to never heard of the fuckin thing. I read that it didn’t even make it into Netflix’s top ten when it came out, but the computer animated movie THE BAD GUYS did a couple days later when they picked it up after it had already been on DVD, blu-ray and Peacock for five months.

That doesn’t seem fair. I figured I should write a review just so it’s on record somewhere that WENDELL & WILD is a real, existent movie that was made and released and can be viewed with your eyes and everything.

Poster for the 2022 Netflix stop-motion animated WENDELL & WILD directed by Henry Selick.It’s the story of a teenage girl named Kat (Lyric Ross, This Is Us). When she was little her parents (Gary Gatewood and Gabrielle Dennis), owners of a hipster indie brewery in a town called Rust Bank, died in a car crash. Since then she’s had a hard life growing up in group homes, but now she’s being transported in cuffs and inmate stripes to attend a “fancy girls school” in Rust Bank (or “Crust Stank,” she says the locals call it) as part of a program called “Break the Cycle.”

The brewery is now burned down and the town around it is dead, but at least the Catholic school experience isn’t as bad as it could be. She tells everyone she doesn’t “do friends” because bad things happen to people that are close to her (Paul Kersey Syndrome), but they keep being nice to her. This trio of girls led by Siobhan (Tamara Smart, Are You Afraid of the Dark?) seem like they’re gonna be the mean girls making fun of her, but they turn out to think she’s really cool and want to welcome her. And she turns heads but doesn’t get in trouble when she tears her uniform, puts safety pins in it, wears above-the-knee leather platform boots and blasts X-Ray Spex on her dad’s boombox ”The Cyclops” on the way to class.

That’s only one part of a soundtrack with an emphasis on Black rock: Fishbone, Death, The Specials, TV On the Radio, Living Colour. (“Cult of Personality” was also just prominently featured in the finale of The Walking Dead, so hopefully they got a couple good checks this month.) It should be noted that this has the most Fishbone t-shirts of any animated movie I’ve seen. Kat’s dad is only ever seen in a Fishbone shirt, and she has one as a kid and a different one as a teen, and the band’s song “Ma and Pa” is playing in the opening scene. Seemed random at first because I had already forgotten my recent realization that Selick directed the video for “Party At Ground Zero.”

Meanwhile there are these two demons, Wendell (Keegan-Michael Key, THE PREDATOR) and Wild (Jordan Peele, TOY STORY 4), who live inside their dad’s nose as penance for committing treason. Their dad is Buffalo Belzer (Ving Rhames, DEATH RACE 2), who is giant, looks like Isaac Hayes, and has an amusement park called the Scream Faire built on his belly. Birds called “soul jockeys” carry in “the souls of the danged” (animated paper cut outs of ghosts) and drop them onto his rollercoasters or his spinning teacup ride that pours actual hot tea on them.

Wendell and Wild’s crime was planning their own park called the Dream Faire, so now they spend all day marching along with a giant caterpillar or worm or something named Sparkplug, who bites Belzer’s skin, Wendell plants plugs of hair into the welts, and Wild squirts a little hair cream onto them that makes them grow. But Wendell likes to eat the cream because it makes him high. It’s kind of a weird movie.

Little does Kat know that she was born a “Hellmaiden” with a connection to these demons. She only finds out because one of her teachers, Sister Helley (Angela Bassett, F/X), is also a Hellmaiden, and game recognizes game or whatever. (Actually, Kat stands close to the tank of an octopus that can mimic predators to protect itself and it turns into a demon face.)

There’s also non-supernatural shit going on. Siobhan’s parents Irmgard (Maxine Peake, BEST LAID PLANS) and Lane Klaxon (David Harewood, THE BROTHERS GRIMSBY) run a sinister company called Klax Korp that was trying to buy the brewery in order to wreck it and build a for-profit prison. Kat’s new not-friend-because-she-doesn’t-do-friends Raul (Sam Zelaya)’s mom (Natalie Martinez, DEATH RACE 1) has been trying for years to prove that they burned down the brewery.

Their scheme gets worse thanks to Wendell and Wild discovering that putting hair cream on a squished tick brings it back to life. They figure they can use Kat to get access to the living world and build their Dream Faire; to get money for it they agree to reanimate dead city council members to vote in favor of Klaxon Korp’s private prison plan. It’s convoluted, but I love that it literalizes the idea of people today having to put up with fucked up bullshit most of us don’t want because of the decisions of a long dead generation. And prisons are a real good villainous occupation for the Klaxons that ties into our heroine’s situation. Basically it’s the same as Harry Potter being an orphan growing up under the stairs or Selick’s James living with his cruel aunts after also losing his parents in the first scene, except it more specifically reflects how shit is today. The Klaxons even spell out their excitement for the schools-to-prison pipeline, showing their daughter a miniature model where a little bus rolls down a hill from the school right into the prison.

But this is an extremely overcomplicated plot. I haven’t even mentioned the haunted teddy Bearzebub (Phoebe Lamour, CHILLERAMA) marking Kat’s hand (the skin forms the shape of skeleton teeth and nose, which light up when she holds it over her face), or Sister Helley working with a legless Marlon Brando lookalike named Manberg (Igal Naor, 300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE) to collect the demons she summons in jars, or Father Bests (James Hong, BATMAN: SOUL OF THE DRAGON) corruptly using the Break the Cycle program for money, getting murdered on the golf course by the Klaxons to cover their crimes and then resurrected by Wendell and Wild. Or the pretty big deal of Kat and Raul resurrecting her parents. Or many other things.

The overstuffed turducken of a plot is a stark contrast to THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, which has sometimes been criticized for the exact opposite. Tim Burton had originally conceived the idea as an animated TV special, presumably about 22 minutes. The poem he wrote was brief enough that he turned it into a picture book. Selick’s movie takes the very simple concept of the Halloween Pumpkin King trying to switch holidays, peppers it with Charles Addams style jokes about how monsters would respond to sweet holiday traditions, and illustrates it with a more opera-style approach than the standard animated musical. More of the plot is told through songs, and the best of them (“Jack’s Lament,” “Poor Jack”) go all-in on the uncomplicated emotional center of the story – what it feels like to be bored with your life and passionately throw yourself into something else that maybe you weren’t meant for.

Personally I think NIGHTMARE’s combination of straightforwardness and un-self-conscious emotionality is poetically beautiful. WENDELL & WILD can’t possibly be as involving when it’s got so many subplots and concepts to explain. Like do we really need two separate traumatic past incidents being mentioned over and over again (the car accident and the brewery fire)?

But Selick’s visual artistry continues to grow. There’s nothing quite like stop motion when it’s done on this level – since everything on screen has to be designed and sculpted and painted in miniature, but is visibly hand made, it gives us a heightened respect for the details of each face, each article of clothing, each prop. I find myself impressed by the desks in a classroom, a rattling radiator, Kat’s eyebrow rings, her winter jacket and grey hoodie, cobblestones, a tire cracking a frozen puddle.

I read that one of the character designers, Pablo Lobato, is a caricaturist – that explains the cultural specificity of the faces and hairstyles, and why Peele’s and Hong’s characters so perfectly capture the essence of the actors. Wendell and Wild become stylized in different ways – their head shapes stretch and change like drawings, their faces can be simplified, sometimes flattened like Picasso drawings, or they become floating heads and hands, no bodies, like an unfinished sketch.

And most of the puppets have visible splits in their faces because the mouth and eye pieces are changed separately – in Laika movies they digitally paint over those, but Selick likes leaving the seams showing.

The living world is huge, detailed, and realistically lit sets, while visions can be stark voids lit like an Argento tribute. There’s some 2D animation, some silhouettes, a digging underground sequence where the earth looks bisected like an ant farm. And there are so many other little characters and visual gimmicks. Lots of skeletons and corpses. I didn’t really get why there was a goat at the school, but I love Wendell and Wild’s worm-of-burden Sparky, especially when he wears a muzzle, fake ears and robotic legs to pass as a horse in the living world.

If this were a theatrical release I suspect somebody would call the anti-PC police to report the dreaded terror of a multi-cultural ensemble, plus one trans character. Oh my, I’m gonna faint! But I believe even some doofus who doesn’t recognize the importance of representation could one day understand that it’s simply more interesting to show us things we haven’t seen in this medium than to just keep doing the same shit every time. The minor character of the juvenile justice worker who drives Kat to the school could be anybody, but I’m glad it’s Ms. Hunter (Tantoo Cardinal, DEATH HUNT, EDEN, WIND RIVER), a tough looking Native woman in a Link Wray t-shirt. I’ve just never seen a character like her in animation. I like seeing new things.

It’s also nice that we’re getting to a place where different types of people can be represented without that being the topic. Raul’s identity is handled with such a light hand that I think I missed most of it the first time. With a few subtle lines of dialogue you get that it has been an issue but people are learning to accept it. Maybe I’m reading it wrong but it seems to me when Siobhan calls him by his former name it’s a mistake and the apology is sincere.

I guess when you start off with the death of parents and a little girl in shackles you ought to end up somewhere nice and warm to make up for it. I like that they even treat demons as misunderstood and potentially nice. And when the demon hunter Manberg realizes that all the demons in his jars are Belzer’s kids, and that Belzer thought they all ran away, he immediately releases them, saying “I, Manberg the Merciless, am a sworn enemy of demons, but not of families.” I did not expect a happy ending for the demons in jars!

So I’ve watched this twice now, and I think its visual wonder and overall attitude make up for its narrative muddiness. It’s a flawed but special movie. I’m not sure Selick will ever make another one I love as much as NIGHTMARE, and from what I remember I think I’d prefer CORALINE and probly JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH to this one if I watched them again. But there’s at least one Henry Selick film that I did not, at least at the time, like better than this. One that even shares this film’s concept of souls being trapped in an infernal amusement park. Yes, friends, the time has come. My next review will be MONKEYBONE.

 

This entry was posted on Wednesday, November 30th, 2022 at 10:18 am and is filed under Reviews, Cartoons and Shit, Comedy/Laffs. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

20 Responses to “Wendell & Wild”

  1. I knew that this existed, but I forgot to watch it. Probably because I kinda am sick of animated movie with dead parents. But in recent years that became less annoying than animated movies with shitty, toxic parents who are forgiven in the end because fAmIlIeS lOvE eAcH oThEr.

    My point is: I guess I’m gonna watch this one very soon, because Henry Fucking Selick, man!

  2. Didn’t realise this had done so poorly, although who can tell how legit streaming data is? Netflix have just said WEDNESDAY has been bigger than STRANGER THINGS and SQUID GAME, nothing against it (I haven’t watched it yet but am planning to), but does it feel like that to anyone? I guess the line between “cultural phenomenon” and “meh, I’ll put this on” is getting thinner.

    Not sure if it did any better in the UK, but I’m afraid I haven’t boosted the numbers yet.

    It’s interesting to me how Stop-Motion has managed to keep going in mainstream(ish) US feature films in a way that Traditional/Hand Drawn has not, outside of the odd TV Show spin-off. Obviously I’m pleased it has, but given how time consuming it is and that the aesthetic quality is honestly pretty similar to CG but with a more limited (if often more appealing) scope for acting, you kind of feel if any tradition were to go (or be put on ice) it would be that one. Although I guess the Chilly Tee family wealth goes some way to explaining that. Not a dis on Chilly Tee BTW, I like that he trained on THE PJs.

    I tried watching JAMES & THE GIANT PEACH as a kid but gave up after about 20 minutes. I feel bad about that because there are worse films I watched multiple times, but kids are honest. I gave it another go a couple of years ago, and it was still a bit of an endurance test. I guess it’s not surprising, I don’t totally get Dahl and I definitely don’t get Randy Newman. If only his brother Gary had done the music. As far as Dahl goes, sure I liked the chocolate factory like every other kid, but you might say I got off at the glass elevator. More of a Suess guy, which might make me a traitor to my country.

    And, as you might guess, I am looking forward to the MONKEYBONE retrospective.

  3. I’m no Dreamworksphobe, but I didn’t think THE BAD GUYS was very good. Surprised it seemed to get good reviews because it embodies many of the typical complaints about modern animated film (*lots* of fart jokes). It jacked the SPIDER-VERSE visual style but not for any apparent reason, would have been more fun if they’d found a way to reflect the visual style of the children’s books its based on (like CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS and I guess those new WIMPY KIDS movies).

  4. I also thought this one was a challenge. Admittedly I did not finish it. I love Coraline, love Nightmare, so I was geared up for this, ready to look forward to it after such a long Selick draught. But you pinpointed the problem- it’s too confusing; it isn’t sure what it wants to be, so it takes a maximalist approach to the storytelling that seems to be more popular these days. It’s like the writers tossed everything into the blender and hit puree. Tonally there are lots of weird things. The death of the vicar is set up so that he is bludgeoned over the head and his body is disposed. I’m not sure that was totally necessary to be honest. For a kids’ movie there are many other ways to go about this, if you need that in your plot. Yet they choose the most oddly uninteresting way about it, and on top of it, make it a radical shift tonally from the rest of the movie. The only consistency was how inconsistent everything felt. Ultimately it was just too much of a bummer to finish it.

  5. Pacman – It just so happens I’ve watched six episodes of Wednesday and I think 2 or 3 of Stranger Things and zero of Squid Games. I hope I was the one that pushed Wednesday over the hump.

    From what I remember JAMES is very different from the Dahl book, because in the movie the bugs are nice and in the book they’re all total assholes. Also Selick had a falling out with Burton partly because he wanted Andy Partridge to do the songs and felt producer Burton didn’t protect him enough from Disney, who made him use Newman.

  6. I watched this after smoking weed and had NO IDEA what was happening so I’m thankful that Vern recapped it, because I was like “Oh yeah…. Oh yeah!” My wife was annoyed that it was over complicated but I had smoked myself way past the point of being concerned about stuff making any sense. So I don’t remember a lot but I remember grooving on it. The vibe is strong and the animation is cool. I enjoyed the ride.

  7. Hmm, interesting, I thought Newman’s songs were the achilles heel of PRINCESS AND THE FROG, which I assumed was a Lasseter move, but I guess the Newman loyalty runs or ran deeper in Disney then I realised (given that it only came out a few months after TOY STORY, I assume it wasn’t a “you need to use him because TOY STORY was so huge” move). I also didn’t realise Disney actually produced PEACH because in the UK it was distributed by Guild (I had to look that name up, but I knew it wasn’t Disney).

  8. I could see Wednesday being huge. Probably more appealing to younger kids, and I’ve been seeing it all over my Facebook and Twitter, at least as much as Squid Game and it seems more than Stranger Things (at least the past season). People putting up her dancing clip that I’m surprised watched it.

  9. Agree with Richard. I gave this about thirty minutes, but it seemed like every single scene was throwing a new concept or bit of worldbuilding bric-a-brac or baldfaced political analogy at me; there was no time for the story to breathe or have fun with some silly joke or musical number or setpiece (y’know, the point of storytelling?). Like Selick took the whole “this one ISN’T for kids!” as a license to not have to do anything to refine or streamline the storytelling. And then I guess it also is for kids? Because it’s important for them to see all the representation? But we’re also not really bothering to make it appropriate for kids? Because a bunch of people get murdered and sent to hell and tortured on-screen? Whatever.

    My main takeaway is that if you’re going to make your whole movie a political statement–maybe it should be more complex than “bad developer trying to shut down the youth center” in an eighties dance movie? Apologies if they explain in the second half of the movie why the bad guys have to close a brewery to open a prison; that just seemed contrived and like you could apply it to any industry you’re trying to portray as evil. “Oh, the evil self-help seminar manufacturers are going to shut us down!”

  10. It’s a PG-13 movie, I think they’re going for a YA type feel, the giveaway being the needless Hellmaiden mythology that seems like out of one of those books. (Also it’s based on an unpublished book by Selick.) I know what you’re saying about the evil developers, but acknowledging the prison-for-profit industry and schools-to-prisons pipeline is in fact more complex than just shutting down the youth center. (Even if I prefer BREAKIN’ 2.)

  11. But I’m saying “the for-profit prison industry is bad” is an entirely different thing from “these people are bad because they resort to deplorable means in order to shut down a brewery,” to the point where they don’t have anything really to do with each other. If the bad guys were trying to do something tied up in jailing, like pushing a law to give prison time to minor crimes because they’ll profit it off it by providing the jailing–okay, makes sense, no problem.

    And if this is Selick & co’s pet cause and if they think it’s an appropriate topic to build a YA kids’ family movie around, then they should have something concrete they can incorporate into the story and not just a Mad Libs bad people doing bad things because they’re bad.

  12. Yeah, there are many problems with the writing, as I detailed. I just think it’s cool that the bad guys are prison builders, which is true to life and not what has been done previously in animation (or ’80s movies). I agree that everything with the brewery is a mess, but it does connect thematically to Kat’s treatment in the system and at the school. With some streamlining it could’ve been great.

  13. It’s less that stop motion has any special powers of perseverance, and more that Laika is a passion project of the Nike CEO’s son, unfortunately.

    W&W isn’t super great but I appreciate children’s entertainment that is extremely weird and I do have a soft spot for indulgence. The soundtrack is the most ‘parent trying to raise a cool kid’ nonsense and I appreciate that

  14. Three stop motion features were released this year – WENDELL & WILD, THE HOUSE and Guillermo Del Toro’s PINOCCHIO, and next year there will be a CHICKEN RUN sequel. All four are produced by Netflix. Laika unfortunately slowed down during Travis Knight’s foray into live action directing, though he’s now working on an animated one again. I imagine Netflix’s interested will dry up soon, so hopefully some other money-burning operation will get interested in the medium.

  15. I should note for the record that The Bad Guys is actually really well-done. It uses that Into The Spider-Verse type animation to pull off some genuinely thrilling action sequences, has a fun sense of visual design that isn’t the usual super-realistic live-action wannabe stuff, and hey… what Sam Rockwell movie *isn’t* worth at least a cursory glance?

  16. grimgrinningchris

    December 2nd, 2022 at 6:40 am

    Kaplan…

    The POLTERGEIST remake for one.

    GLORY DAZE is pretty bad too. Though it does have a great punk/90s pop punk soundtrack and I do like Spalding Gray’s scene in it. That guy was a treasure. It’s in no way a good movie at all and Rockwell just isn’t doing it for himself any favors in it. But I have watched it a few times over the years just for the soundtrack and the Spalding Gray scene.

    But I can’t think of much else that Rockwell wasn’t great in and that he didn’t elevate.

  17. I recently ordered the original Poltergeist on 4K, so I suppose I should find where the remake is streaming and give it a look. Just from the sound of it, it’s a bad idea–you can do a haunted house movie about anything, so why redo a movie that was already done masterfully the first time around?

  18. Hey, even the POLTERGEIST remake has some moments of greatness and some really interesting bits about masculinity in the 21st century (even if that angle falls apart by the end). See more about that in the comments for the original P-GEIST review.

  19. I’ll have to get back to you on that. But as the guy with a sign on his lawn saying Remakes with a circle around it and a line through it, I’m thinking Insidious is the only real Poltergeist ‘update’ we needed.

  20. Oh, it’s definitely not the kind of remake that NEEDS to be seen and adds anything interesting to the original, but it’s not like it’s a shitty Platinum Dunes production either. It’s competent. Not sure if it would be more popular as a standalone movie, but yeah. Competent.

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