Wendell & Wild Review: Another Spooky Stop-Motion Classic From Henry Selick

Even if you don't know Henry Selick by name, there's a good chance his films have had an impact on you. Selick is the director behind groundbreaking stop-motion masterpieces The Nightmare Before Christmas and Coraline, as well as whimsical childhood favorite James and the Giant Peach. That's as good a three-film run as you'll see from any director, and Selick's work in stop-motion has elevated the form to new heights. For the first time in more than 13 years, Selick is finally releasing a new movie. It's Wendell & Wild, and it's every bit as spooky and superb as the rest of Selick's filmography.

Wendell & Wild is a Netflix original film based on an unpublished book that Selick wrote with Clay McLeod Chapman. Selick penned the screenplay with Get Out and Nope writer/director Jordan Peele, who also took on a role as producer and stars as one of the titular characters. The movie tells the story of a 13-year-old orphan named Kat (Lyric Ross), who is dealing with the lasting trauma of the death of her parents (that she believes she caused) and the complete shutdown of her hometown. After unknowingly becoming a "Hellmaiden," Kat is convinced to summon demons Wendell (Keegan-Michael Key) and Wild (Peele) to the surface world to bring her parents back. Little does she know, they have plans of their own, which involve quite a few more people being raised from the dead.

This film is exactly what you'd expect when you think of what Henry Selick and Jordan Peele would make together. It's haunting, fantastical, macabre, and deeply (darkly) hilarious. It also has a lot to say about the state of the world we live in and the way in which we love those around us. Familial trauma, gentrification, the prison system, capitalism, trans rights, the failing state of education — there are so many things addressed in this movie. All of them are relevant to the story and each point packs a punch when it reaches its conclusion, but it does cause the script to be a bit overstuffed. Between everything Wendell & Wild wants to say and the very unique world it builds from the ground up, there's a lot going on at any given time. Fortunately, while that can be a little frustrating, all of those things are working to help one another, so the story's crowded nature rarely ever takes away from its effectiveness.

The tale itself is wonderful, filled with interesting directions and characters that feel as lived-in as any in a live-action movie. Kat is rough around the edges but has so much to her that it will take a couple of watches to really get to know her as well as you want to. Sam Zelay's Raul is an empathetic hero and Angela Bassett's Sister Helley is a scene-stealer. Taking the spotlight and attention, however, are the demons the film is named after.

Wendell & Wild is a Key & Peele reunion, with the longtime sketch comedy partners portraying a pair of demon brothers with theme park dreams. They are ghoulish and zany to the nth degree, in a way that they both feel like equal parts Jack Skellington and Oogie-Boogie. Both are inherently silly and optimistic souls, yet they're also slightly evil and sadistic. They will make you laugh and want to throw up, oftentimes in the same scene. 

The performances of Key and Peele shine bright with these characters, but they wouldn't hold the same weight without the impeccable character designs made by the sculptors and puppeteers. That really gets to the core of what makes the entire movie as spellbinding as it is. The world built for Wendell & Wild is jaw-dropping, as are the characters that inhabit it. Every ounce of this design was executed to perfection, making it the most unique-looking project of Selick's career. Days after watching it, I still have vivid and very specific memories of several different set pieces, most notably a torturous theme park built on the belly of a massive demon in the underworld. You'll see things in Wendell & Wild that you've never seen on film before, and you'll want to rewind on more than one occasion just to try and take it all in.

Wendell & Wild has its flaws, but they're far overshadowed by everything it gets right. Selick and Peele deliver something only the two of them could, a film filled with heavy hearts and dark humor that can both appease longtime horror fans and act as a gateway to young viewers who haven't taken a dive into the genre. There's nothing out there quite like it, which makes me want to watch it again, and that's one of the highest compliments I believe a movie can earn. 

Rating: 4 out of 5

(Photo: Netflix)

Wendell & Wild is hitting select theaters on October 21st, followed by a global Netflix release on October 28th.