Henry Selick has been away for too long. Not since 2009’s Coraline has he directed a movie. But his name has become legendary in the world of animation and bringing real horror to children’s movies. Both The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach have allowed for an entire generation of children to feel like someone understand the terrifying process of being a kid. To show their nightmares to be on the big screen in a way that allowed them to feel control over it. There is a reason so many millennials dress up as Jack Skellington and Sally every year for Halloween. Unlike the onslaught of golden haired princess and cuddly animals it is Selick’s misunderstood creatures of the night that have made so many feel noticed. These are big shoes to fill for his next film, one that not only brings back Selcik’s classic and beloved stop motion animation but also reunites him with two big names in comedy (one who is already a staple in the horror community).
Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key reuniting seems like an easy win. After five seasons of their show Key and Peele the two have ventured into their own territories. Key has established a versatile career for himself as an actor/writer and Peele well we all know what he did. With three grandiose horror films under his belt Peele has had his name associated with all the greats. To see these two reunite attached with a man who was influential on their own style. Well that’s just too good to be true. And maybe that is the unfortunate reason that Selick’s WENDELL & WILD is greatly bogged down by the two people who would seem to be the golden ticket. WENDELL & WILD has a lot on its mind and what begins as a terrific stance on political and Catholic corruption finds itself greatly slowing down in the middle to focus on a mix mash of ideas that feel more bent on being in its own Netflix series than it is a cohesive movie.
Life isn’t looking great for Kat Elliot (Lyric Ross). An orphan by the age of eight she is forced into the Rust Bank Catholic school for girls in a reformed program that will allow the church a substantial tax break. Run by a sleezy head priest Father Bests (James Hong) and full of unusual and cruel nuns Kat’s only solace is her giant boombox blasting punk music as she storms the hallways. Kat’s problems wont end with just being a product to exploit, no just lurking way deep in the depths of hell are our titular demons Wendell (Key) and Wild (Peele). Two somewhat dimwitted demons who have been punished for a previous mutiny attempt. Wendell and Wild, who are sons of the great devil Buffalo Belzer (Ving Rhames), wants to build a giant carnival for all the souls both in heaven and hell to enjoy.
To connect these unusual characters and keep the story going seems to be a task that is a little more difficult than a script written by Peele, Selick and Clay McLeod Chapman can handle. The ongoing themes of corruption hold throughout, but the film always feels like its shoehorning Wendell and Wild into the structure. Imagine throwing Pain and Panic from Disney’s Hercules into any random horror movie and hoping it sticks. While the two may have less screen time than initially believed they still hold too much weight to the story in ways that aren’t fully necessary. In fact the film only feels the need to be called WENDELL & WILD due to the sense you get that Netflix desperately wants a full spinoff series following these two. Kat eventually makes a friend in Raul (Sam Zelaya) and their adventures trying to understand the horrors that lie within their school is enough to keep you entertained. It is also great to see Raul represented in the way he is and does more for LGBTQIA+ representation than the entirety of another queer comedy film to be released this fall. As the two go on their mission to fight demons, save their city and expose the school it becomes apparent that Wendell and Wild and the whole demon schtick is almost unneeded. There are plenty of real life creepy elements occurring. Sure this is a Selick film and you want the demonic side characters (where would Nightmare be without the Mayor or Lock, Shock and Barrel) but its hard to find a reason for their existence when they are so painfully unfunny.
WENDELL & WILD may benefit from being one of those Halloween staples you throw on just to keep the spirit of the holiday alive. There is no question that Selick’s stunning animation is in full force. There are several montage scenes that will remind you why he is one of the best to ever do it. It is practically a movie you can put on mute and just watch for the images alone. Even though it has a lot of important things to say it never can escape that feeling of Netflix’s hands in the process. If Key and Peele were the thing that allowed this to be made than they deserves that acclaim, but maybe next time pushing your way into a film should be something that is left for dead.
WENDELL & WILD PREMIERED AT THE TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL. IT WILL STREAM ON NETFLIX OCTOBER 28