When one looks at stop-motion films over the past 20 years, it is difficult to find a more interesting and layered film than Coraline, a chilling coming-of-age fairy-tale about the complications of family and learning to make the most with the circumstances of one’s upbringing. The director of this amazing film, Henry Selick (also the man behind The Nightmare Before Christmas), is back, but this time he has teamed up with writer and horror-master Jordan Peele to create WENDELL & WILD, a horrifying and hilarious story with demons, corruption, magic and many other things that are seldom found in a typical animated feature. WENDELL & WILD was given a PG-13 rating from the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) and contains such an abundance of adult themes that children may not even understand what they are watching. Given the maturity of a film like Coraline, this is a logical next step for Selick, with the addition of Peele cementing the thematic ambition of this project.
From the very first shot of WENDELL & WILD, Selick forces the audience to remember just why his work is so coveted in the first place. The animation is beautifully weird, with the skilled team of animators creating absurd and creative images that can hardly be described without taking up a large amount of time to cover all the details. Despite the odd look and feel of this film, by the 15 minute mark it is easy to forget one is even watching stop-motion without actively thinking about it. The other aspect that Selick sets up from the very first scene of the film is the macabre and tragic themes of the narrative, with the opening scenes centering around a young Kat (Lyric Ross) enjoying a night out with her parents before they are killed in a tragic car accident in which Kat survives. Already the film establishes its darkness — both visually and thematically — and expands on this by flashing forward to Kat as a 13 year-old, dealing with the grief of having lost her parents at a young age.
13-year-old Kat is a delinquent who is being sent to a Catholic school back in her hometown of Rust Bank. She hasn’t returned to Rust Bank since the accident and the town is now in ruin and disarray. Once she gets there, the plot takes a turn for the heavily supernatural and weird, and I wouldn’t know where to start when attempting to describe these visually twisted elements. Essentially, in a turn of events that involves hair cream, a deadly amusement park for tortured souls, and a giant Hell-demon played by Ving Rhames, two Demons named Wendell (Keegan Michael-Key) and Wild (Jordan Peele) are summoned to the land of the living to achieve their dreams and break free from the constraints of their father. However, they also promise Kat to bring her parents back from the dead, along with promising some nefarious political figures to do their bidding, which complicates both the surface to underworld relationship and the political landscape of Rust Bank.
If this sounds like a lot of plot elements, then you would be right to assume so. WENDELL & WILD is jam-packed with themes and various plot elements to the point where keeping track of it all becomes tiring by the final act. Nothing that Selick and Peele are exploring is unjustified, but because this film has so many various subplots, the characters feel more distant than they perhaps should be, especially given the personal themes of grief and trauma. Kat is dealing with about as terrible of a childhood as one could imagine, and she still has not forgiven herself for surviving the car crash that claimed her parents. Much of the film is about learning to survive the grief and trauma of one’s past, and using that pain as a tool for empowerment not frailty.
However, this incredible theme is almost overshadowed by an equally prevalent and socially important subplot involving greed, the corruption that capitalism breeds, the horrors of the prison industrial system, and the school-to-prison pipeline. (Yes, you read that right.) The fact that all of these important issues are being addressed in a stop-motion animated film is incredible, and the fact that they hammer all of them home is even more incredible. Credit must be given to Peele and Selick for crafting a tale that addresses all of these real-world problems, but the surface-level plot and characters of the film suffer because of the thematic ambition. Most of the side characters, including the title characters Wendell and Wild, are shoved to the side because of how much content the film attempts to cram into an hour and 45 minutes. When thinking about Coraline, a relatively simple film with powerful themes in which the characters are rich and reflective of one’s own life at times, WENDELL & WILD feels less consequential and memorable in comparison because the characters never quite come to life (ha) compared to those in Coraline.
Much credit must be given to the ambition of Selick and Peele for taking on this creative and thematically absurd story, but the film doesn’t succeed with flying colors as many might have wished. I do not envy the task of having to take on several complicated themes in a stop-motion film, most of which are less than two hours because of the time-consuming nature of the animation. Making WENDELL & WILD longer or pacing it differently would probably mean putting months, if not years of more hard work in, so the flaws are all understandable from the creators’ points of view. It is impossible to view this film without being in awe of the art form and the massive talent of the numerous animators who worked on it. With that being said, I wish the movie either had more of a focus or gave more time for each subplot to breathe, since despite these faults, WENDELL & WILD definitely has no shortage of creativity and talent.