Wendell & Wild review: troubled teen makes a deal with some devils

The titular demons in Wendell & Wild, directed by Henry Selick.
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Wendell & Wild marks director Henry Selick’s first feature film since 2009’s Coraline – and his return to stop motion is devilish fun. 

Known for his excellent work on spooky stop-motion animated classics The Nightmare Before Christmas and Coraline, Henry Selick returns to direct his first film since 2009. Like his two most famous movies, Wendell & Wild is a creepy, atmospheric and wonderfully fun adventure.

Co-written with Nope director Jordan Peele (who also serves as producer), Wendell & Wild is the tale of the titular demon brothers (voiced by Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, respectively) who seek an escape from their monotonous lives. They enlist the help of 13 year old Kat (Lyric Ross) to get into the Land of the Living. As with all instances of making deals with demons, shenanigans ensue in a way that’s both fun and chaotic.

From the outset Wendell & Wild isn’t afraid to delve into darker themes, with our protagonist Kat experiencing some significant trauma in the early scenes. Fast forward a few years, and she’s a teenager trying to find her way in a world that has largely been cruel to her. She’s sent back to her home town and enrolled in the local Catholic school. The fantastic thing about Kat as the lead of this film is she’s incredibly defiant, refuses to be beaten and is just super tough. While she might be more than a little bit stubborn, she’s a heroine who’s both sympathetic and admirable, and the screenplay gets the balance of toughness and vulnerability just right.

As is to be expected from a Selick film, the animation is stunning. The character designs are kooky and unique; it’s a film that’s unafraid to make even the ‘normal’ people inhabiting the Land of the Living look uncanny thanks to their exaggerated features. The production design in general is creative and fantastic to look at, from the fair run by the demon Buffalo Belzer (Ving Rhames) in the underworld to Kat’s punky costume design that perfectly reflects her defiant personality. From the character design to the landscapes, it’s just wonderfully spooky and fun – and the visuals are accompanied by a fantastic score and upbeat punk/rock soundtrack.

Kat (voiced by Lyric Ross) in Wendell & Wild, directed by Henry Selick

The story itself features two narratives that become intertwined.

On one hand you have Wendell and Wild’s plot to get to the Land of the Living, on the other you have a real-world subplot concerning a huge corporation trying to take over Kat’s all-but-deserted home town. Each thread manages to blend the darkness of the subject matter with some truly amusing moments, and each story involves plenty of colourful supporting characters.

The Klaxon family, who run the corporation, are despicable villains, with the patriarch bearing an unmistakable resemblance to Donald Trump thanks to his blonde hair. James Hong is wonderful as the desperate headmaster of the Catholic school, and Angela Bassett is a pragmatic voice of reason, and a character with an intriguing past, as Sister Helley.

In fact, there are so many elements to Wendell & Wild that it feels slightly over-ambitious. There are a lot of characters with a lot of backstory to unveil, and two separate plot threads that are woven together but have two very different conclusions. The film effectively has two endings that come one after the other, making it feel a bit disjointed. However, both of these are satisfying in their separate ways, and are different enough that you feel as though you’re getting a little bit of everything – an emotional ending and one with a bit more action as well.

In particular though, Wendell & Wild is a triumphant return for Henry Selick. It bears all of the hallmarks of his most beloved work. The movie has spooky and fun visuals, gorgeous animation and the serious themes that make his films feel like fables. A genuine treat.

Wendell & Wild is released on Netflix on 28th October.

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