Wendell & Wild Review: Jordan Peele + Henry Selick = A Funny, Frightful Film [TIFF]

Move over "The Nightmare Before Christmas" — there's a new stop-motion horror flick in town, ready to steal the hearts and inspire cosplay. Premiering at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival, "Wendell & Wild" is the much-hyped collaboration between the king of stop-motion animation, Henry Selick, and acclaimed horror director and funny man, Jordan Peele. The two filmmakers have very different styles, but are able to blend them beautifully; "Wendell & Wild" is grim, and vibrant, and weird while also being poignant, and stylish, and funny — everything you could want for a PG-13 horror movie for kids. 

"Wendell & Wild" is the most punk-rock Selick film yet. Kat Elliot (Lyric Ross) is a tough 13-year-old girl fresh out of juvenile detention. She suffered great tragedy in her childhood, which has hardened her; afraid to let anyone get close to her, she exudes a confident, aggressive energy to keep people away. This works — until she is sent back to her former hometown, Rust Banks, to attend an all-girl Catholic school as part of a "second chances" rehabilitation program. Before long, Kat finds herself in the company of demons, the undead, and — perhaps most terrifying — nuns. 

Kat is great. Ross gives an excellent performance as the angry yet vulnerable teen girl, trying so hard to let attitude and appearance mask how lonely and sad she really is. She's convincing, she's relatable, and she's just so cool. Her overall design is basically the best OMG Surprise doll never made (possible crossover possibility for Netflix?) that embraces Black features. In fact, we get several BIPOC characters here, including the trans student Raul (Sam Zelaya). While I enjoy movies like "James and the Giant Peach," "The Corpse Bride," "Coraline," and "ParaNorman," they aren't exactly diverse. It's refreshing to finally get a stop-motion animation that puts Black, Asian, and Latinx characters at the forefront.

Spooky scares & a message

There's a lot to love about "Wendell & Wild." This is exactly the kind of family-friendly film that entertains grown-ups just as much as the younger viewers; Selick has infused a lot of personality into the visuals, which are captivating to watch from start to finish. The animation itself is, of course, gorgeous. We've never really had a Selick film that wasn't stylish and expansive, but the 2022 Netflix film manages to top even 2009's "Coraline." All the Selick trademarks are here: dark humor, neon lighting, and insects getting smushed (leaving a gooey mess, of course). There's even a big, bad giant demon, Buffalo Belzer (Ving Rhames) — keeping with the Selick tradition of larger-than-life villains for the film's climax.

Where Peele comes in — and really what makes "Wendell & Wild" special — is the character development and social commentary. Kat's journey from troubled teen to found family is organic and satisfying. She came from a broken system, and her problems were created as a result of her getting bounced around in group homes. The "bad guys" here aren't even really the demons; clearly, the most evil force at play is old fashioned, human greed. The titular demons, Wendell (Keegan-Michael Key) and Wild (Jordan Peele), also get some growth by the movie's end. There's a message mixed in with the spooky scares teaching kids about overcoming trauma, learning to move forward, and fostering community. For a film about demons entering the world of the living and raising undead, "Wendell & Wild" ends on a surprisingly hopeful note. 

A new Halloween favorite

"Wendell & Wild" is also just very funny. That shouldn't be surprising — anyone whose ever seen the series "Key & Peele" knows how funny that duo is together. What is surprising though is that the scenes with just Key and Peele alone were among the movie's weakest; there's something off about their energy together, especially in the film's first act. Wendell and Wild get some funny bits — including one particularly good visual gag involving their pet — but much of the back and worth felt slightly dull. It's almost like they were holding back a bit, perhaps restraining themselves since its a children's film? Or maybe it was simply an issue with how the dialogue was directed. 

In terms of the story, "Wendell & Wild" suffers from feeling a bit rushed but also a little convoluted. There are several elements at work here, and while it does all come together at the end, there's not a lot of time to fully flesh out each storyline. I won't spoil anything here — but suffice it to say, I wish the story had been more focalized on Kat, rather than having scenes developing the B, C, and D plots with other characters. Had this been a miniseries, each of these competing plots could have been developed more, but since this was a relatively short kids film, the side-plots just took away from Kat's story. 

"Wendell & Wild" is a triumph — in terms of animation, of representation, and of being very, very fun to watch. Netflix was smart to get this out when they did; I suspect the movie is going to get lots of views when it drops on the streaming platform on October 28 — just in time for Halloween.

/Film Rating: 7.5 out of 10