‘Wendell & Wild’ Is Middling Stop-Motion Madness

Is there any movie more synonymous with Halloween than The Nightmare Before Christmas? It’s pretty much the ultimate holiday movie, pulling double-duty as both the perfect film for the spooky season as well as its holly-jolly counterpart in December.

Plus, I’m pretty sure that it single-handedly keeps Hot Topic alive as a business model.

The tragic thing about it though is that people continuously lump in under the umbrella of Tim Burton Films, which has, essentially, become its own genre. And while yes, the concept and story is Burton’s, and the film undeniably relishes in his unique visual aesthetic, it’s actually from director Henry Selick, who also gave us the atmospheric, stylish Coraline years later. It’s a shame that Burton gets all the credit for Nightmare, because if Selick’s other works are any indication, it was his touch that made it the classic that it’s since become.

So I was ecstatic when it was revealed that Netflix had partnered with a Selick for a new stop-motion animated film, just in time for Halloween. I love stop-motion animation, whether it be from major industry mainstays like Laika Studios or from other, more obscure places like Phil Tippett’s Mad God. Unfortunately, it seems the style is a dying art, with fewer and fewer major studio releases choosing to animate by hand and instead opting for cheaper, less intensive CG. But if Netflix is willing to foot the bill, then by God, I’ll take what I can get at this point.

Even more exciting was the added bonus of Jordan Peele and Keagan-Michael Key (of Key and Peele, for those of you who need that spelled out for whatever reason) as both stars and producers on the film. The duo’s unique humor, coupled with Selick’s mastery of the art, gave me the utmost faith that this new film, Wendell & Wild, would be something truly special.

So, is it?

Well, yes and no. Wendell & Wild isn’t quite the return to form for Henry Selick that I was hoping it would be. Coraline, this is not.

That isn’t to say, of course, that it’s necessarily a bad movie. It’s a lot of fun, in fact. And visually, it’s a treat. Selick certainly hasn’t lost his touch in the animation department, as Wendell & Wild is chock full of distinctively wonderful buts of visual flair and macabre eye candy. Lamenting the fact that stop-motion technology has gotten so advanced that it’s almost indistinguishable from CGI at this point, the filmmakers opted to give Wendell & Wild a deliberately jerky and uneven framerate, which lends a unique, manic energy to the film. The characters are lively and full of personality, both in their design and in their movement, and the environments created by the art departments and animators feel lived-in and authentic, while still retaining a certain fairy-tail charm.

And out of all Selick’s films so far, Wendell & Wild feels the most tonally and thematically distinct. It operates with a riotous, anarchic punk-rock attitude, which is reflected both in its visual design as well as its soundtrack, which features music from black artists like Living Colour and TV on the Radio (and any movie that features “Wolf Like Me” automatically earns points in my book). This overall vibe matches well with the story at play within the film as well, which engages with all sorts of rebellious, anti-capitalist ideas which would make very proud the punk influences which it displays proudly on its ripped, spike-cuffed sleeves.

Our main character, Kay, is an orphan who has spent her most vulnerable years in the care of the state, which has hardened her into an emotionally-distant and defiant outsider. She feels immense guilt for the deaths of her parents, and has since closed herself off from any real emotional connections. After being sent to a decrepit and failing Catholic school for girls, Kay discovers she has some kind of mystical connection to the afterlife, which draws the attention of two scheming demons seeking to free themselves from servitude to their monarch father. It’s a far more personal and grounded story than we’re used to seeing from the man who previously gave us singing Halloween skeletons and dopplegangers with buttons for eyes, but there’s still plenty of magical mayhem to be found as the story unfolds.

If that was all the film had to offer, it’d be a memorable affair. Unfortunately, however, Wendell & Wild is bogged down by way too many plot elements and side characters to keep the flow of its otherwise simple narrative running smoothly. This is a choppy, messy film, one that can’t seem to decide what its central plot threads are, constantly throwing more and more variables into an increasingly over-encumbered story until it finally collapses on itself in a jumbled pile of unsatisfactory conclusions and rushed resolutions. Exposition is dumped in awkward, overbearing streams of consciousness that ruin scene pacing repeatedly, and the film continues to add more and more overly-specific lore as the film speeds recklessly towards the finish line. The titular characters in Wendell & Wild barely factor into the plot when all is said and done, swept aside amidst a sea of narrative sidetracks that touch on everything from private prisons to gentrification. There’s about a dozen separate films crammed into one here, and the movie suffers for its overambition.

It’s odd that the two stars of the film are so lightly used, especially considering the star power of Key and Peele as comedians and filmmakers in their own right. The joy of having the duo in any piece of media is their signature style of comedy and interplay with one another, which is almost completely lacking in Wendell & Wild. The same can be said for much of the talent in the film, with everyone from Angela Bassett to Ving Rhames being relegated to essentially nothing more than vanilla supporting roles with no real flavor to them.

And while sure, the film is pretty to look at, the substance gets lost beneath all that style, essentially reducing the whole affair to a series of colorful set pieces punctuated by one-liners, far more befitting something from Illumination that the mind behind Nightmare Before Christmas.

Maybe I’m being too harsh, but after so much anticipation on my part, I was truly expecting more from Wendell & Wild. Reception so far has been fairly positive, so I seem to be in the minority here, but I stand by my criticisms. Again, it’s not a bad film, but it could be so much better.

Great soundtrack though, go check that out on Spotify at the very least.

Happy Halloween!

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