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.
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.