Wendell & Wild review – Jordan Peele and Henry Selick craft a dark adventure | Toronto film festival 2022

We almost never see Black characters in stop-motion animation. You’d have to go all the way back to 1999’s The PJs – the short-lived crude sitcom about project housing produced by Eddie Murphy – for a memorable example. And that wasn’t even for kids.

That’s what makes Wendell & Wild such a moment, an opportunity for younger audiences to see their communities reimagined with the same stitched-together gothic aesthetic and hands-on care that director Henry Selick brought to The Nightmare Before Christmas and Coraline.

Wendell & Wild is an amusing, fascinating and ambitious meeting of the minds between Selick and modern horror impresario Jordan Peelewho’s here as co-writer, producer and voice actor. The former has carved out a space for carnivalesque horror in children’s fare. The latter inspired a Black horror renaissance with Get Out, which chipped away at racial politics and oppressive social constructs in a post-Obama era. Together, they try to make a movie that does both.

Before Get Out even hit theatres back in 2017, Peele and Selick pitched what would become Wendell & Wild, a comical fable about an orphan named Kat who tangoes with otherworldly ghouls, fiendish adults and the prison industrial complex. That’s a lot for a Netflix movie at least partly aimed at children as a Halloween season treat.

The challenge for Wendell & Wild begins with its guarded heroine. She’s voiced by This Is Us actor Lyric Ross, who is appropriately flinty but has precious few moments to hit any other notes. Her character, and her community, has a complicated and traumatic backstory but not as much personality.

We meet Ross’s Kat as a young child witnessing her parents drown in a car accident that leaves her an orphan. A chilling and emotional shadow puppet-style montage reveals how Kat becomes part of a dehumanizing system as she’s shuffled through predatory group homes and juvenile correctional facilities that calcify her demeanor.

The movie’s prison abolitionist sentiments are felt even before the story picks back up with teenage Kat wearing her hair in Lady of Rage-style afro puffs. She’s in cuffs in the back of a van, being returned to her community in a town called Rust Bank. Her driver, a figure of warm empathy voiced meaningfully by Cree and Métis icon Tantoo Cardinal, embodies a restorative justice approach as she brings Kat into a reintegration program called Break The Cycle.

The program is hosted at Rust Bank’s Catholic school. But wise-beyond-her-years Kat immediately knows something is up. The snivelling principal (a fantastic James Hong) is a priest who looks about ready to sell his soul and the decrepit state of the school makes it obvious they’re opportunistically taking in Kat as a ward strictly for the state funding. To make matters worse, Rust Bank has essentially been left a ghost town after a fire burned down the brewery that supported it, leaving the area vulnerable to a private company that wants to make it a prison town.

Selick and Peele thoughtfully set up this grim scenario before the ghouls from the underworld come crashing in at Kat’s behest. She’s also a hell maiden who can summon her “personal demons” Wendell (Keegan Michael-Key) and Wild (Peele) into the human world. The purple oafish phantoms are inspired by Key and Peele sketches and are even designed to look like caricatures of the comedy. More of their humour throughout could have lightened up a considerably overstuffed movie, which bites off way more than it can chew with its gnarly teeth.

Wendell & Wild struggles to find the balance between urgent reflections and childish antics, with its wide cast of characters voiced by welcome stalwarts like Angela Bassett (as a watchful nun) and Ving Rhames (as a kingly underworld demon) in between. I was left yearning for the twisted intimacy of Coraline just a bit.

But the more characters Selick has to work with, the more room there is for his deliciously strange and comic visual craft. That’s what we’re here for, ain’t it? The director and his animation team do predictably fun work with nuns looking like decayed minions, papier-mache-style ghosts, a cuddly but possessed teddy bear and enough clownish-looking undead to fill a circus.

And because he’s now working with Black characters, Selick and company also meet the opportunity to celebrate Black hair and its diverse styles and textures, including braids, bantu knots, those puffs and more. That’s perhaps the most beautiful thing about it.

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