Henry Selick, whose last feature was 2009’s masterpiece “Coraline,” is back at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival with “Wendell & Wild.” It’s a delightful return to form for the man who put stop-motion back on the map, and a charmingly devious collaboration with comedy duo Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, reunited after their groundbreaking comedy series ended TK.
After watching her parents die in a tragic car accident, troubled teen Kat (Lyric Ross) spent her adolescence shunted from juvy home to juvy home, getting in trouble, and hating the world. When she returns to her childhood hometown of Rust Bank to join a local Catholic school’s teen rehabilitation program, she finds a ghost town where there was once a thriving community. Wealthy bureaucrats have overrun the town and now hope to bulldoze the last of the community’s resources to build a private prison.
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Meanwhile, in a technicolor demonic dimension, brothers Wendell (Key) and Wild (Peele) are living out their eternal punishment as hairdressers living on the scalp and inside the nostrils of the dimension’s overlord, Buffalo Belzer (Ving Rhames). (He traps the souls of the dead inside a hellish theme park ride strapped to his giant belly.) Wendell and Wild dream of escape, making cut-paper blueprints of their own theme park, the Dream Faire. Contacting Kat through a troubled dream sequence, they make a deal with her: Swear allegiance and release them into the mortal world by becoming their hellmaiden, and they’ll bring her dead parents back to life.
There’s a lot that Key, Peele, and Selick want to fit into this movie: There’s the school’s crooked headmaster, scheming to bring the town’s corrupt Board of Directors back to the world of the living; the school’s basement-dwelling janitor, who has a secret demon obsession; and a former hellmaiden who tries to caution Kat, all meant to ground a child-friendly horror story with a cautionary tale against the school-to-prison pipeline.
This compulsion makes “Wendell & Wild” feel a tad overstuffed by the end, with a breathless final 20 minutes that ties up every plot thread. The movie might have been better served by picking one or two themes among the dangers of necromancy, facing one’s demons, the importance of supporting local businesses, the hollow promises of the juvenile rehabilitation system, and learning to accept death, but the film never allows anything to fall by the wayside, either.
Aside from that, the movie is a giddy joy, hilariously gross, and earnestly heartfelt, with the kind of icky-gooey attention to detail that makes Selick’s movies such a visceral experience. The demons gloop hair rejuvenation cream onto reanimated corpses, giant leggy ticks bounce around and explode, the demons have a steed in the form of a hair mite dressed to look like a hellish horse. Wendell and Wild’s purple personas even look like exaggerated versions of Key and Peele: Wendell gaunt and stooped, Wild beardy and round.
“Wendell & Wild” is a movie with a gratifyingly multicultural cast — rare for a Western stop-motion film, whose characters are often white or white-coded. Most of the voice cast and their animated counterparts are Black, and one student at the school, Raul (Sam Zelaya), is a trans boy. The animation itself is some of the most striking and fluid of Selick’s career, with golden-tinted 2-D dream sequences and neon-lit undead resurrections. (A soundtrack featuring The Specials, TV on the Radio, and the like make it clear this is one for the goths and the weirdos.) “Wendell & Wild” feels like a comeback in many ways, while also conjuring something totally new.
“Wendell & Wild” premiered at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. The film will be released in select theaters on October 21 before streaming on Netflix on October 28.
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