Review: Wendell & Wild

Wendell & Wild

Trailer

Loving that boom box.

Teenage Kat (Lyric Ross), whose parents were killed in a car accident when she was a child, is introduced to a new school as part of a program to help troubled youth “break the cycle”. In a town that has become desolate under the predations of Klax Corp, a private prison company, Kat discovers that she is a “Hell Maiden”, imbued with dark power that attracts Wendell (Keegan Michael-Key) & Wild (Jordan Peele), demons who dream of escaping underworld imprisonment.

Curiously under-advertised given the big names involved, Wendell & Wild popped onto the Netflix queue just ahead of Halloween, immediately drawing my interest for the two men voicing the titular demons – Key and Peele may be the best comedic duo of the last decade – and the director, Henry Selick, who was behind the helm of The Nightmare Before Christmas (go read some recent interviews with the man, and you’ll get a sense of how annoyed he is that Tim Burton tends to get all the credit) – probably the best film of this animation style ever made. Could the entanglement of these varied talents produce something greater than the sum of their parts? I sure as hell hoped so.

The end result is decidedly mixed however. Wendell & Wild – a bit oddly titled, as neither of those two characters are the protagonist – is certainly an ambitious feature that does great things with stop-motion animation, using it as a medium to tell a decent story that mixes in themes of transgenderism, private enterprise run amok and racism within the American prison system. But it’s also meandering, far too long for its own good and can never really seem to settle for lack of a better term. There’s lots to admire here, but this is not the home run its cast and production team gave it the chance of being.

I can perhaps put it no better than to say that Wendell & Wild has lots of interesting ideas, whether it is demonic hair cream that can bring the dead back to life, or a villainous pair of private prison oligarchs out to wreck peoples lives for their own profit, but can’t stitch it all together. Kat’s story, wherein she tries to use newly found power as a “hell maiden” to bring her dead parents back from the grave is interesting stuff, but then there is another hell maiden, a wheelchair bound demonic bounty hunter, a trio of misguided Plastics in the school, a crooked monsignor, a murder investigation, a deep-seeded exploration of grief, avant-garde art pieces and that’s all before you put the demonic duo of the title into the mix too, as they try and create their own afterlife theme park without the approval of their scary dad.

Wendell & Wild suffers from that trait has sunk many a film and will do so again: it doesn’t really know what it wants to be. Even with the running time, probably twenty minutes longer than it really needs to be, Wendell & Wild can’t find the signal in the noise. It really should be about Kat’s journey to come to terms with her parents death, with one of the two other plots – the demonic effort to take to the surface and the private prison stuff – to serve as an allegorical accompaniment. But Wendell & Wild just can’t help itself, and the end result is a groaning thing that borders on a mess.

From the animation perspective however, it’s a wonder. Maybe not quite a match for Halloweentown and its varied mix of inhabitants, but Wendell & Wild gives it a good go with this otherworldly look at a small American town, a creepy all-girls boarding school, plenty of time in the local cemetery and even a few trips down into the underworld. It’s in the character models that it’s the most eye-catching though, from the green-haired afro-punk rebel stylings of Kat, though to the little and large dynamic of the titular characters and on to everyone else: a personal favourite being the hunch-backed priest who runs the school, a rotund head situated a bit too far down on the body. The effect is horror-esque, but never so much so that it isn’t still touching on amusing. Throw in a varied assortment of African-American artists in a carefully curated soundtrack, and you have an experience that is worth tuning in for from a production standpoint.

It is perhaps not especially worthy as a criticism, but Wendell & Wild wants so very much to be a poignant, deep reflection of real-life issues in society – transgenderism, the broken system, private prisons – that it misses out on actually being a good narrative. In essence, it sacrifices the chance to be something more focused and palatable like The Nightmare Before Christmas in favour of being an allegory that at times strays over the line and become a lecture. Iconic experiences, no matter how good the animation is, are not made of such things. Wendell & Wild is overflowing with interesting ideas, but they didn’t all fit. Not recommended.

(All images are copyright of Netflix).

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