“A wonderfully well-crafted movie in tone and aesthetic – funny, tense, and interrogative in equal measure, and so spectacular to look at.”
by Ken Bakely
There’s something so rich, complex, and absorbing to the look and feel of Henry Selick’s Wendell & Wild. It’s vivid and vibrant in appearance; its universe is full and every character and setting is uniquely realized. This is a work of animation that stands out with its imagination of form, coming from a veteran of the field, who co-wrote the script with Jordan Peele. The story is that of Kat (Lyric Ross), a teen girl who has bounced between facilities and children’s homes since the deaths of her parents (Gary Gatewood and Gabrielle Dennis) in a car crash she narrowly escaped. The trauma has caused tremendous survivor’s guilt and left her struggling to connect with others. Her parents were owners of a brewery that was part of their town’s lifeblood, and in their absence, it mysteriously burned down and the community quickly collapsed. Klaxkorp, a private prison corporation, is chomping at the bit to move in and take over the area.
Kat has been sent to a Catholic school on the outskirts of this decaying town, and it’s there where she discovers she has special powers, and with it, the ability to communicate with two demons named Wendell (Keegan-Michael Key) and Wild (Peele). They have power over reincarnation, and persuade Kat to help bring them into the physical realm so they can get to work. But while she longs to reunite with her parents, Wendell and Wild’s arrival in this town on the brink wreaks more than their fair share of havoc, with their mischievous personalities leaving them susceptible to the whims of nefarious actors who want to assist Klaxkorp in their own bid for power, and hatch a particularly bizarre scheme to grow their nefarious industry.
There is, indeed, a lot going on in this movie – and there’s still more that I couldn’t get to. Peele and Selick’s script touches on a myriad of subjects – some quite heavy: from trauma, to identity, to corruption and the carceral state. For the most part Wendell & Wild is able to set up its story and themes with a deft and smooth handling, especially when it focuses on Kat’s own experiences and feelings. It’s also able to carry itself with a smooth, low simmer of comedy throughout, alleviating weighty ideas with a charming humor that seldom rises to overt jokes that might derail its intentions, but helps keep a younger (but not too young) target audience in mind. There’s a balancing act here, and to a point, the movie pulls it off. Yet there comes a time, particularly in the film’s second half, when it keeps piling on ideas and conflict that makes it waver from an otherwise steady rhythm, particularly when things come to a chaotic climax. Considering its scope, it’s probably not a coincidence that the movie was first conceived as a book – it seeks to advance to depths that its runtime is awkwardly positioned to fully accommodate, and there are times when it’s caught between feeling like it should have been longer or shorter; either fleshing out its ideas or slimming the project down.
It’s better, then, when the film stays on a more direct path that allows it to keep the characters and their fantastical world front and center. A lively voice cast brings these characters to life – not only among the lead parts, but through a strong supporting cast, including (but not limited to) James Hong as an eerie priest in charge of the school, Angela Bassett as a nun who helps Kat along her journey, and Sam Zelaya as Raúl, a classmate who becomes an exception to Kat’s self-imposed rule against forming bonds with other people in the wake of her formative loss. Indeed, for whatever else happens, the narrative arc Selick and Peele set their protagonist on weathers even the most harried of storytelling missteps. There is a sharpness to Wendell & Wild that endures all throughout, from an entertaining spirit to a wise emotional and philosophical core. It’s a wonderfully well-crafted movie in tone and aesthetic – funny, tense, and interrogative in equal measure, and so spectacular to look at. This is a meeting of two accomplished artists that may fall short of what its early promise suggests it can be, but is far more often a sincerely exciting and enjoyable experience.