Wendell & Wild (2022) ☆☆☆(3/4): Henry Selick’s new stop-motion animation film

Animation feature film “Wendell & Wild”, which was released on Netflix a few weeks ago, deserves to be welcomed for a number of good reasons. Henry Selick, who gave us “The Nightmare Before Christmas” (1993) and “James and the Giant Peach” (1996), has been rather quiet since his previous work “Coraline” (2009), but “Wendell & Wild” shows that he has not lost any of his dark wit and artistic sensibility yet, and you will willingly overlook its several shortcomings if you admire Selick’s works as much as I do.

At first, the story, which is based on the unpublished book of the same name by Selick and his co-author Clay McLeod Chapman, is mainly about Katherine “Kat” Koniqua Elliot (voiced by Lyric Ross), a feisty juvenile delinquent who, as she admits to us at the beginning of the film, has had some personal demons to deal with for several years. When she was a little kid living in one small town named Rust Bank, her loving parents, who had run a big local brewery together, died at one dark and stormy night due to an unfortunate car accident, and Kat still feels guilty and angry about what happened at that time.

After her parents’ death, Kat were moved around here and there outside Rust Bank without anyone to lean on, and then she is sent back to an all-girl Catholic dormitory school in Rust Bank as a part of its rehabilitation program funded by some wealthy local couple. Right from her first day, she surely shows others around her that she is not someone who will get along well with them, but then she comes to befriend Raúl Cocolotl (voiced by Sam Zelaya) a bit because, well, he is a loner just like her as a trans kid (The level of diversity shown from the characters of the film will put many of recent American major animation films to shame, by the way).

And then something strange happens to Kat on one day. During a class supervised by Sister Helley (voiced by Angela Bassett), she happens to acquire a sort of magical mark which somehow connects her with Wendell (Keegan-Michael Key) and Wild (voiced by co-producer/co-writer Jordan Peele), a couple of frustrated demons who have been hopelessly stuck in their underground world along with their big boss. Having been so eager to build their own amusement park, these two demons certainly welcome Kat because she can open a portal for their escape as a “hell maiden”, and they soon have her make a questionable deal with them.

Of course, their arrival leads to nothing but troubles, and it is fun to see how the film throws lots of various story elements into its plot. Besides Kat’s longtime struggle with her guilt and anger, there are also 1) a sleazy business scheme involved with privatized prisons to be built on the Rust Bank sooner or later, 2) a small but defiant local protest against that deplorable business scheme, 3) a bunch of old corpses to be revived by Wendell and Wild, and 4) a subplot involved with Sister Helley and one cranky disabled school janitor, who turns out to have a little twisted collection in his private place.

All these and other elements do not mix that well together at times, but Selick and his crew members steadily provide good moments to enjoy for style, mood, and, above all, personality. As shown from “Coraline”, Selick does not flinch at all from dark and unpleasant stuffs, and “Wendell & Wild” surely has a fair share twisted amusement for us. For instance, some of the main characters in the film look not just broad but also grotesque, and the film has a lot of naughty fun especially when those corpses are revived to become your average walking dead later in the story.

Furthermore, the film distinguishes itself via its distinctive qualities from stop-motion animation. While you can clearly see that Selick and his crew members also used a considerable amount of CGI for making the characters and backgrounds look more realistic and dynamic, they did put lots of painstaking efforts into every frame as shown from a series of video clips inserted into the end credits (Netflix thankfully lets us watch the movie to the very end this time, by the way), and you will come to appreciate more of their efforts.

I must point out that the film juggles a bit too many things and loses its narrative momentum as a result. Perhaps, it could be tighter and more focused, but this weak aspect is just mildly distracting as the film keeps hoping from one good visual moment to another, and the film has a bunch of good cast members who did a commendable job of bringing enough life and personality to their respective roles. While Lyric Ross holds the center with her plucky voice acting, Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele click with each other as well as they did in their acclaimed TV comedy sketch show “Key & Peele”, and several other cast members including Sam Zelaya, Angela Bassett, James Hong, and Ving Rhames are also solid in their respective supporting part.

Overall, “Wendell & Wild” is an enjoyable animation film packed with enough dark goodies for your autumn night, and it is surely a nice treat for anyone looking for something different from those run-of-the-mill digital animation flicks. It does not reach to the level of “The Nightmare Before Christmas” (1993) or “Coraline” (2009), but this is still a fun stuff on the whole, and you should not miss it in my trivial opinion. Yes, a good animation film is not just for kids but for everyone, and the boundless spirit and imagination of “Wendell & Wild” prove that undeniable fact again.

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