Netflix‘s Wendell & Wild represents several long-awaited landmarks. A reunion for Key and Peele! A return to acting for Jordan Peele since becoming a powerhouse director of original sci-fi/horror! A new stop-motion feature from Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas director Henry Selick! With those elements in play, it doesn’t have to be a lot more, and yet…it really is.
How much more is tough to say, since Netflix sent reviewers a laundry-list of plot points that they prefer remain unmentioned. It’s an odd request, since virtually nobody chooses whether or not to see an elaborately hand-crafted piece of stop-motion based on whether or not a given story element comes as a surprise. Was it shocking to anyone that Jack Skellington didn’t permanently ruin Christmas? Perhaps Netflix’s hope is that casual fans will expect The Nightmare Before Christmas Part II, which this is defiantly not. Left to his own devices, Selick prefers significantly more complicated narratives than Tim Burton’s perfectly calculated fusion of Disney and goth.
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Here’s a taste of the wild, Wild premise, without giving away major spoilers. In an afterlife where a giant demon has built an amusement park full of death and torture traps all over his own massive body, smaller demons Wendell (Keegan-Michael Key) and Wild (Jordan Peele) spend their days applying magical hair cream to the head demon’s massive follicles to keep him from going bald. It’s a task that’s complicated by the fact that they quickly realize they can eat the hair cream to get high. In doing so, the duo have visions of an orphan teen, Kat (Lyric Ross), who, for complicated reasons best saved for the movie, they develop a connection to. (It involves a third party: a bear demon that manifests in both the teddy and gummy forms.)
Wendell and Wild dream of opening their own, significantly less dangerous theme park, a fact their boss considers high treason. They suspect they might get a chance to if a deal with Kat could bring them into the real world. So they make one, as deceitfully as demons tend to do, with the empty promise of bringing her parents back to life in return. Something they have no idea how to do.
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Already, demons getting high on hair cream while dreaming of opening a theme park is a novel premise. But Kat’s life comes with additional complications from the humans she crosses paths with. In broad strokes, the sort of grown-up social commentary from Peele’s films is present. Although it’s not much deeper than pointing out one particular issue and effectively saying “Bad!” The story’s comparison of different kinds of families, noting key differences between having no parents, bad parents who are well-meaning, and the actively toxic is far more richly explored. An unforced sense of diversity is ever-present, as significant characters include an amputee, a trans boy, and an older indigenous women, without making their differences the defining characteristics.
As expected from the creator of James and the Giant Peach and Coraline, Selick’s world is richly imagined and stylishly designed. Peele’s input undoubtedly helped with an anime and African-American pop culture sensibility drawn from the ’80s and ’90s. Fans of Fishbone and Living Colour (the band, not the TV show) will feel seen, as will those familiar with Vampire Hunter D. The animated characters’ designs and movements are at times so slick that a viewer could mistake them for CG. No doubt they are somewhat enhanced — transparent ghosts don’t really exist as tangible objects to manipulate — but the smoothness makes it easy to forget the hand-crafting in the moment. Like the recent Candyman reboot, Selick sometimes changes things up with shadow-puppet effects, perhaps as a meta-reminder that the whole movie is that.
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So full is the movie with plot that it may sound hectic, but it doesn’t feel that way. Scenes get paced to breathe, and the ethereal score by Bruno Coulais (Coraline) evokes the dreamlike ambience of Neil Gaiman’s Mirrormask. This isn’t a musical, but it does feature some soundtrack numbers written by Selick that refer to the plot, as well as thematically chosen retro hits like The Specials’ “Ghost Town.” In Key and Peele’s scenes together, which may have involved some improvisation, animation-savvy viewers may recall Ralph Bakshi’s work animating to the audio of real conversations he had in Harlem. Likely on a budget of more money per minute than Bakshi ever got per movie.
Wendell & Wild‘s title suggests it’s about two characters, but its ensemble comes significantly bigger, and almost every character has their own narrative. The set-up is complex. However, if the movie has a weakness, it’s that the resolution isn’t particularly complex at all. There’s something nice about finding out some dubious characters are inherently good, but that feels glossed over.
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Without spoiling any specifics, it’s almost as if the writer’s room ran out of time, or the movie ran out of budget, before an appropriately involved ending could pay everything off more satisfyingly. To cite but one example, when a character specifically changes their “bad” nickname to a “good” one, it’s a head-scratcher because the movie never called attention to the bad one. Selick and Peele, who co-wrote the script, could have easily turned the story into a series — picture a TV pilot that suddenly has to end the whole show rather than continue. You’re probably picturing Mulholland Drive, but David Lynch can get away with questions and loose ends in a way that a more literal fantasy movie can’t.
There are two choices here: Harp on the ending’s weaknesses to dismiss the movie, or revel in the fact that the script contains more ambition than most American animated features. The fact is, for most of its running time, Wendell & Wild is far and away one of the most creative, imaginative movies of the year, animated or otherwise. But just like the amusement park rides its title characters want to create, the momentum inevitably comes to a sudden stop. Disembarking, a rider may wonder what just happened. But it sure was fun while it lasted.
Wendell & Wild is now streaming on Netflix.
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