Film Review

Portland-Made Wendell & Wild Is a Head-Spinning Display of Craftsmanship

The latest dispatch from the minds of Jordan Peele and Henry Selick is an overstuffed, overstimulating feast of delicious stop-motion animation.

By Conner Reed October 24, 2022

Wendell (voiced by Keegan-Michael Key) and Wild (voiced by Jordan Peele) in Henry Selick's Wendell & Wild

Image: Netflix

Wendell & Wild, the latest feature film to bubble up from Portland’s storied stop-motion wellspring, is your average, run-of-the-mill horror comedy about demon brothers who live in the devil’s nose and use his magic hair cream to help fund a private prison so they can secure enough funds to build their dream amusement park. If I had a nickel.

I kid, of course, but one of the most striking things about this insane movie—which sees stop-motion hero Henry Selick return to the director’s chair for the first time since he helmed Laika’s Coraline—is its breakneck, take-no-prisoners pace, which treats every brain-melting plot development as though it were the time of day or a pair of pleated khakis. It is riotously inventive and almost alienatingly unselfconscious. “Don’t understand why that shapeshifting octopus just turned into a skeleton for a second?” it asks. “Then get off the ride, baby!”  

Birthed from a story by Selick and Jordan Peele, the film is organized around Kat Elliot (voiced by This Is Us's Lyric Ross), a teenager who bears witness to her parents' drowning as a young girl and then lands in juvenile detention center as a teen. She's thrust back to her deteriorating hometown as part of a grant program and given a full ride to the local Catholic school, where she learns she has special powers and is convinced to summon the titular troublemakers (voiced by Peele and his former comedy partner Keegan-Michael Key) to the land of the living. If that sounds like a busy A plot, please enjoy plots B through Z: there is a brewery fire and subsequent coverup; an intergenerational conflict between a Trump-like prison mogul and his goat-wielding daughter; an undead city council election; a secret partnership between a footless demon hunter and a nun voiced by Angela Bassett; and an ongoing gag about the devil (voiced by Ving Rhames) refusing to go bald.

You might reasonably call Wendell & Wild overstuffed. It juggles so many threads and builds such an elaborate world that the dialogue can get overly expository and you sometimes have to squint to find its focus. That said, if you're on the right wavelength—or, frankly, the right drugs—its unbridled imagination can be exhilarating. Families and animation-lovers who were, say, underwhelmed by the invention on display in Minions: The Rise of Gru, will have their proverbial socks knocked off here, teeming as Selick's film is with original ideas given painstaking, handmade life. 

And what life it is. One of the first projects to come out of Netflix's new animation wing (the platform will also distribute Guillermo Del Toro's Pinocchio, made largely in ShadowMachine's Portland studio, later this year), Wendell & Wild looks unlike anything Laika or Selick have ever produced. The characters are angular and unsettled, hips jutting on unusual axes and seams visible at the forehead. The setting, a fog-choked industrial town laid with a thin layer of snow, is gothic and heart-swelling, the stuff of obsessive childhood immersion. It's easy to imagine this film shaping a very specific kind of 10-year-old for the rest of their lives.

It's hard, though, to imagine Wendell & Wild landing a spot in the culture as hallowed as Selick's Nightmare Before Christmas. There's plenty of effective humor here, and a squishy center, but the film's idiosyncrasies stretch beyond a bizarre visual style and loopy plotting. Jagged pacing and dark subject matter abound, both to the film's benefit and its occasional detriment. If it's not polished enough to land a merch line at Hot Topic, though, it's gutsy enough to ask contemporary stories aimed at young audiences to up their game—what other recent tale of BIPOC children, for example, takes on the school to prison pipeline so unflinchingly? 

I'm one of few critics who found Nope, Peele's alien-focused summer blockbuster, a little dull. As a fan of his Get Out and, to a lesser extent, Us, I wondered if perhaps he'd been prematurely anointed to the frontlines of 21st century horror and his well had run dry. If Wendell & Wild makes me more sure than ever that Peele could use an editor, it also makes me happy that instead, in Selick, found an enabler. Together, they've drawn from more wells than they know what to do with, and given us a truly one-of-a-kind concoction that delights through the sheer power of its "Did-you-just-seet-that?" image-making. 

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