Rating: 4 out of 5.

As a lifelong fan of director Henry Selick’s work, I was excited for his newest creation, Wendell & Wild, from the second it was announced. Selick’s career has had a stunning trajectory, from beloved cult classics (The Nightmare Before Christmas, Coraline) to unsung gems (Monkeybone, James and the Giant Peach). One visionary creator collaborates with another when one throws modern horror maven Jordan Peele into the mix! Director of instant-classics Get Out, Us, and Nope, Peele’s voice injects the film’s script with zinging humor and impressive world-building. Based on an unpublished book by Selick and Clay McLeod Chapman, Wendell & Wild is a surreal, creative nightmare, and a stunning accomplishment of stop-motion animation. Grab a fresh tube of hair cream, and prepare for a wild descent into the macabre underworld! 

13-year-old Kat (Lyric Ross, This Is Us) has been through the emotional wringer. Having just lost her mom and dad during a harrowing car accident in the opening scene, Kat is destined for a new life as she returns to her hometown of Rust Bank for school. In this case, that means attending the prestigious R.B.C., Rust Bank Catholic School for Girls. Returning to Rust Bank after several years, this is very much not the same place Kat left behind. The whole town seems dead, haunted by abandoned storefronts and boarded-up homes. At R.B.C., Kat is an instant outsider, not only being brand new at the school, but also bringing in her own sort of punk-rock aesthetic. She roams the halls blasting Afropunk music from her father’s massive boombox, the Cyclops; Kat does appear to have a special gift that others take notice of upon her arrival.

Through her connection with science teacher nun Sister Helley (Angela Bassett, American Horror Story, 9-1-1), Kat discovers that she is actually a Hellmaiden—a young girl who can summon demons! While our entrance to the Land of the Living is through Kat, the Underworld is a different beast entirely. Think: the land of Hades in Disney’s Hercules meets Pinocchio’s Pleasure Island. Overlord Buffalo Belzer (Ving Rhames, 2005’s Dawn of the Dead, The People Under the Stairs) rules over this Underworld, and a frolicking amusement park for the “Souls of the Danged” called the Scream Faire. Demon slackers Wendell (Keegan-Michael Key, Keanu, The Predator) and Wild (Peele) have been banished by giant Belzer off to Belzer’s Hair Farm to treat the bald spots on his scalp—a very important duty, apparently. If Belzer goes bald, he will “skin them both alive.” Still, high off the taste of hair cream, Wendell and Wild have a vision of someone who can help save them from their prison: young Kat, of course! 

What unfolds afterward has echoes of Coraline, Beetlejuice, and Monkeybone. Wendell and Wild make a deal with Kat to help summon them to the Land of the Living. In exchange, they agree to fulfill a special request to bring Kat’s parents back to life, but is this a prophecy they can actually fulfill? In addition to being a creative, visually-driven roller coaster ride, Wendell & Wild raises a variety of important questions about death, the afterlife, and the mark we leave on those we love. A cute, meaningful ending takes full advantage of the film’s painstaking, impressive creature design, and puts character first around every turn. The ensemble cast is perfectly cherry-picked for their respective roles, with Ross’s Kat and James Hong as Father Bests emerging as my two favorite voice performances.    

Due to the painstaking process of stop motion animation, Wendell & Wild doubtless took years of hard work to come to fruition. Passion for the project bleeds through into every frame, and the expressiveness of the characters makes for a truly immersive watch. Well before the titular demons do the makeup of a zombie to leave them looking like a drag queen pope or revive countless bodies with all-purpose hair cream, this duo makes their mark in a big way. I have no doubt in my mind that Wendell & Wild is destined for cult classic status, alongside other stop motion greats. Its eye-popping world of wonders is certainly one I plan on visiting again very soon!

Get ready to summon Wendell & Wild when it debuts globally to Netflix on Friday, October 28th. The film screened at 2022’s NewFest.

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