As a lover of animation, especially claymation, I was excited for “Wendell & Wild” (2022). Director Henry Selick is something of an icon in American claymation, having directed the beloved “Coraline” (2009) and “The Nightmare Before Christmas” (1993). Written by both Selick and Jordan Peele, the latter of whom has gained notoriety for his recent projects “Get Out” (2017), “Us” (2019) and “Nope” (2022), this film boasts a strong creative team. Nonetheless, I was left disappointed. Though an eccentric and fantastical story bolstered by incredible design, “Wendell & Wild” was ultimately bogged down by its bloated plot.
Released on Netflix Oct. 28, “Wendell & Wild” follows Kat Elliot (Lyric Ross), a 13-year-old orphaned delinquent, as she begins attending a new Catholic school after the death of her parents. The demon brothers Wendell (Keegan-Michael Key) and Wild (Jordan Peele) contact Kat, claiming they can bring her parents back to life if she summons them. The rest of the film follows Kat’s attempt to reunite with her resurrected parents and Wendell and Wild’s entanglement with Klax Korp.
From start to finish, I was gawking at the marvelous visuals. Each character’s design utilized expressive shape language, seen in the angular edges of Wendell, the roundness of Wild and the stout, pointy noses of the nuns. Every design was memorable and unique, with Kat’s punk-ified school uniform standing out as an effective expression of her character and an aesthetically appealing outfit overall.
My favorite aspect of the design was the use of texture. Kat’s yarn-like pigtails, the powdered sugar-like clumps of snow and the different fabrics in the clothes stood out, making the world feel tangible and alive. Selick stated that he wanted “Wendell & Wild” to look like stop-motion, not entirely smooth like CGI. Thus, Selick refused to edit out “flaws” such as the seam lines on the models’ faces in post-production. The beautiful character designs and sets were strengthened by their perfect imperfections, endearing the world to the viewer instantly.
Keeping in the spirit of stop-motion animation, this film is unafraid to be creepy and strange. For example, Wendell and Wild become intoxicated on demon hair-revival cream, which they later use to revive the dead. The entire demon world, or “Hell,” is an amusement park strapped on the belly of the demon Buffalo Belzer (Ving Rhames), who sadistically delights in the torture of souls. This film does not shy away from the grotesque, macabre and bizarre, and the scenes that played into those elements were the most entertaining and memorable.
Notably, this film made huge strides in Black and queer representation. Tim Burton, former collaborator of Selick and director of numerous acclaimed stop-motion films, has received criticism for his overwhelmingly white casts. To subvert the white norm of Burton’s stop-motion animation, Peele wanted “Wendell & Wild” to feature “stronger” Black representation. Moreover, supporting character Raúl Cocolotl (Sam Zelaya) is the first ever transgender character featured in a stop-motion film. Zelaya hopes queer youth can “feel seen in a way that they might not have before” through his portrayal of Raúl.
While the visuals, quirkiness and inclusivity are great elements of the film, I felt that the characters were unfortunately lacking in depth and development. Raúl is a clear example — he is seemingly meant to be Kat’s partner-in-crime, yet rarely interacts with her and doesn’t undergo any major character arc. On top of a lacking story presence, the emphasis on Raúl’s transness just makes it feel like he’s merely “the trans one.” Other supporting characters weren’t fleshed out, such as Belzer, Father Best (James Hong) and Marianna Cocolotl (Natalie Martinez). They all have brief, interesting moments that ultimately amount to little payoff and a rushed conclusion.
The world-building is another deeply underdeveloped element. For example, the concept of a “hellmaiden” is never explained. It is unclear if or how Kat and Sister Helley (Angela Bassett) possess special powers, what those powers are or if this trait is ontological or attained. Furthermore, the boundaries and rules of the demon world’s existence are incredibly ambiguous. Wendell and Wild’s primary motivation is to earn money in order to open their own amusement park for departed souls, but how does Earth money translate into demon world currency? Why is there money in hell, a presumably nonmaterial plane of existence? The supernatural concepts, rules and limitations are so poorly defined that I was left wondering if I had skipped over key expository scenes.
Ultimately, the underdeveloped characters and messy world-building are all symptoms of a greater problem: the Klax Korp subplot.
Irmgard (Maxine Peake) and Lane Klaxon (David Harewood) are the primary antagonists: capitalists aiming to establish predatory private prisons for delinquent teens to get funneled into. There is a whole host of problems with the Klax Korp storyline — the most pressing being it isn’t well integrated into the supernatural subplot. The Klaxons have no supernatural abilities, nor do they directly commune with demons. They’re just average mustache-twirling villains.
The Klaxons’ awkward story presence makes the whole message about private prisons feel unwarranted. It feels like an unnecessary political message tacked onto an otherwise fun and quirky horror flick. While private prisons are an important subject, I wish the film devoted more time to exploring Kat’s trauma and developing the supporting cast, not the boring villains and shoehorned political message.
Finally, there is no connection between Klax Korp’s goals and Kat’s character arc, as her misadventures with wacky demons does not relate to a corporation establishing private prisons. Her climactic and genuinely moving moment in which she learns to accept her trauma is later overshadowed by the battle against Klax Korp. The discordance of these two plotlines left the film with disjointed themes and messages.
I wish I could love “Wendell & Wild.” While it harnesses an incredible sense of design, features delightfully creepy and quirky moments and fights for a more inclusive cast in a straight, white-dominated genre, its bloated story ultimately falls apart. The unnecessary Klax Korp subplot bulldozes over the endearing characters and horror-comedy supernatural antics, leaving me unsatisfied with both aspects of the film. The story bit off more than it could chew, leaving viewers with a mess of parts that did not create a greater sum; however, some of those parts were nonetheless fun and enjoyable.