Death’s Rich Pageant – Wendell & Wild

There is one true master when it comes to stop-motion animation filled with delightfully macabre imagery, and that’s Henry Selick. Beginning his directorial career with The Nightmare Before Christmas, he’s never shied away from giving audiences a dark, funny, and sneakily emotional treat through his work. But it’s been a long time since his most recent film, the transcendent Coraline, which launched Laika Studios into the collective consciousness.

A whopping 13 years later, Selick is back in the driver’s seat with Wendell & Wild on Netflix, and more than any other film he’s put out so far, this is the one that will hit you in the feels while still delivering a vibrant and wonderfully creepy world. There’s a loving ambition to this latest work as Selick goes out of his way to teach the young target audience important lessons alongside the usual surreal laughs, and he sprinkles in some clever subversions of animated family films for good measure. I was certainly caught off guard by the number of times I felt my eyes welling up.

First and foremost, Selick decides to set his tone by turning one of animation’s biggest tropes on its ear in the first five minutes. Kat (Serelle Strickland in this opening scene and flashbacks, then Lyric Ross the rest of the way) suffers an early trauma with the tragic death of her parents (voiced by Gary Gatewood and Gabrielle Dennis). The circumstance is nothing new in family films, even though it is extremely fucked up for studios – Disney in particular – to lean on this as a means of robbing their main character of anything resembling structure and guidance before their hero’s journey starts. However, Selick adds in an element that far too few other films would even dare to include: survivor’s guilt. Kat blames herself for the accident that cost her parents their lives, and that profound sadness and anxiety fuels an adolescence filled with uncertainty, conflict, and self-imposed exile as she’s shuffled through foster homes, schools for troubled children, and juvenile hall. Her grief becomes her only true companion, snowballing into a potentially wasted life that she almost willfully accepts as penance for what she feels she did wrong.

Years later, as a punkish teenager (her design, with green afro bobs, high cut boots, and paperclipped skirt is just outstanding; she even has a boombox where the lone speaker is drawn like a bloodshot eye), Kat gets her ostensible last chance as she’s returned to her hometown of Rust Bank (a vibrant suburb in her childhood, now essentially a ghost town after the destruction of local businesses), where she’s enrolled in the local Catholic girls school as part of the state’s “Break the Cycle” program. She’s immediately accosted by three perky girls called Siobhan (Tamara Smart), Sloane (Seema Virdi), and Sweetie (Ramona Young), along with their mascot and Siobhan’s personal pet, a baby goat named Gabby who is just goddamned adorable. Their plucky, over-the-top cheerfulness – including referring to Kat as “K.K.” – is more than Kat is willing to tolerate on day one, and she tries to brush them off. However, at that exact moment, the school’s lone transgender student, Raúl (Sam Zelaya), puts all the girls in danger from up above as he slips and nudges a loose stone from the window he’s spying from. Kat gets a premonition of the falling rock and shoves Siobhan out of the way, the first appearance of her strange powers.

Kat, as it turns out, is a “Hell Maiden,” a rare being capable of communicating with and summoning demons. She is recognized by Sister Helley (Angela Bassett) and the school janitor Manberg (Igal Naor), who hunt the forces of the underworld away from the watchful and patronizing eyes of the school’s headmaster, Father Best (James Hong). Everyone takes an interest in Kat for one reason or another, none more so than our titular pair of devilish misfits, voiced by Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele. They are the sons of Buffalo Belzer (Ving Rhames), a version of Beelzebub who tortures the souls of the damned through a deliciously evil “bemusement park” on his giant belly. Wendell and Wild are the last of his children still in the underworld, and are resigned to an eternity of servitude, constantly using a magic hair cream to regrow their father’s coif every day. However, when alerted to Kat’s presence, the two see her as a way out, intending to use her as a conduit to the world of the living so they can open their own fair.

Discovering that the cream can reanimate the dead, Wendell and Wild make a pact with Kat. In exchange for her allegiance, they will revive her parents. It is an offer too good for Kat to pass up, a chance to get back what she lost and atone for the tragedy for which she still feels at fault. Using Raúl as her witness, she summons the demons, and chaotic hijinks ensue, with Kat longing for her family reunion, while the opportunistic Klaxons (Maxine Peake and David Harewood), who also happen to be Siobhan’s parents, try to use this supernatural loophole to close their grip on the town once and for all by building a for-profit prison.

There’s so much going on in this movie, and all of it is spectacular. The character designs are exactly what you’d expect from someone who got his first directorial credit under the tutelage of Tim Burton. Siobhan’s giant, flat, angular lips are like something straight out of Beetlejuice. Raúl has a soft, rounded androgynous look to accompany his earnest personality in the midst of discovering his identity. Manberg has severed feet that are nonetheless attached to the footpads of his wheelchair. Father Best’s head sinks lower and lower as the film wears on. Wendell and Wild themselves have facial designs that match that of their respective actors, but with just enough alterations to give them unique personalities that children who don’t know Key & Peele will still be able to differentiate. They’re all so detailed and full of life – even, and especially, the dead – that when they’re set against the relatively normal-but-slightly-off set models, it makes for an absolute visual marvel.

This then supplements the incredible story and emotional core. Most of the characters are surprisingly layered for a film targeting a younger audience (it’s rated PG-13, but it’s no more graphic or potentially scary than the PG Nightmare). Kat summons literal demons because she can’t fight her personal ones. Siobhan, despite her obnoxious and oblivious nature, is still 100% genuine in her desire to be Kat’s friend and support her. Raúl lacks confidence despite his incredible artistic talent and the fact that everyone accepts him for who he is, and will defend him whenever his identity is questioned. Father Best does care about his school and the students, but he’s far too easily corrupted. Wendell and Wild, actual demons of Hell, want to do right by their father while still striking out on their own to do something positive with their talents. Really everyone except the Klaxons are refreshingly multi-dimensional.

Going further, the film gives its audience enough credit to understand some relatively complex issues. This is where I think the PG-13 rating comes from, because while the young viewers can certainly handle these nuanced ideas, the MPA sure as hell can’t. Even if she didn’t carry so much of a burden of guilt, Kat would be a victim of a social system that would rather shunt her away than give her the help she truly needs. The Klaxons’ attempts to simply buy out or starve out the entire town of Rust Bank for the sake of their own avarice is a cultural sin that the youth of America is waking up to, evidenced by their turnout in last week’s midterm elections, where their presence all but stopped the “red wave” of conservative momentum that many had predicted. The scourge of for-profit prisons operating as a revolving door of punishment and profit is a subject that deeply affects the black community, and should be on everyone’s radar, considering the United States has the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world. These sorts of concerns complement the character development that goes on throughout the film, which goes to great lengths to illustrate how much life can be hell and how there are just as many devils on the surface as we’d imagine down below.

But more than anything, the loving care with which Selick treats Kat’s story is something extraordinary. So many films of the genre feature orphaned children, but almost none deal with the real-life aftermath of such a devastating event. A lot of movies use parental death as a way to motivate the hero well into the future, or at minimum leave them unencumbered as their adventure plays out. But Kat is afforded no such luxury. She lives in this pain, a pain that can never be truly understood unless you’ve experienced it. She’s afraid to get attached to anyone, even those like Raúl, Siobhan, or even Gabby Goat, because she doesn’t want to feel that kind of loss again. Selick does not treat her with kid gloves, but ensures that there’s a constant support system ready to embrace her when she’s finally ready to begin healing, a gorgeously measured approach.

It works because Selick, as a filmmaker, isn’t afraid to confront mortality. We all fear the reaper, with a lot of the insecurity coming down to who and what is left behind. Will we get to say our last goodbyes? Will those we lose know how much we care about them? Will it even matter? Kat has to deal with something none of us would ever wish on our worst enemy, and in the midst of such unfathomable anguish, who among us wouldn’t be tempted to do just about anything for one last chance to get it all back? You just want to leap into the screen, give her the biggest hug, and remind her that she’s going to be okay. She’s strong, much stronger than she realizes, because even though it was only for a short while, she was loved. And in time, she’ll feel that love again, some from others, but mostly for herself, and that’ll make the world just a little less scary. Even a world full of demons isn’t so bad when that love shines through.

That’s why Wendell & Wild is such a triumph. It could have been just another pleasant bit of Halloween fun from the Mozart of stop-motion, and believe me when I say the movie has no shortage of eye-popping visuals and humor. But Henry Selick rightly reached for something more here, using darkness to show the light of the world. He beautifully took imagery and thematic material that could be downright scary to a young audience and spun it in life-affirming ways. And he did it while teaching viewers of all ages valuable lessons in inclusivity, empathy, and family, in all the silly, happy, confusing, and sad ways the universe can throw them at you.

Grade: A

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What are your favorite stop-motion films? How many times would you cuddle the fuck out of Gabby Goat? Let me know!

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