‘Wendell & Wild’ Review: Struggles of the Hell Maiden

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After seven years of development, Henry Selick’s Wendell & Wild is finally out. The demon-filled horror comedy is a fantastic visual achievement, with prestigious stop-motion animation that rivals the best work of an all-star career which already includes CoralineNightmare Before Christmas, and James and the Giant Peach. But does everything else about Wendell & Wild deliver at the same level of excellence?

Wendell & Wild is a Masterpiece of Practical Animation

The film is loaded with style, personality, and fun in every detail of every frame. The delightfully designed characters come with thousands of unique poses, which are highlighted by the vibrant colors and nuanced textures in the costume materials and set design.

A few brilliant 2D sequences even honor Lotte Reiniger’s shadow work on Adventures of Prince Achmed from 1926, nearly 100 years ago. With the use of miniatures, shadows, mechanical gizmos, giant models, colored lighting, immaculately smooth animation, and genius sight gags bursting with creativity, Wendell & Wild is nothing short of a masterpiece of practical animation, crafted by some of the field’s best artists of all time.

Wendell & Wild Stop Motion
Behind the Scenes look at the creation of the stop motion. Wendell & Wild (Netflix).

The visuals are complimented by fantastic voice performances from Lyric Ross, Sam Zelaya, Angela Bassett, Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, James Hong, and Ving Rhames. It’s clear everyone working on this film was fully dedicated to it. Their passion infuses the project with joyful energy, and I was thrilled to see the different cultural backgrounds and strong personalities these actors brought to the film.

Speaking of the soundscape, the propulsive soundtrack is so good that I wish the film had dedicated itself to being a wall-to-wall musical. This could have helped carry the slower elements of the story – because when the fun music stops, serious problems start.

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Jordan Peele as Wild and Keegan-Michael Key as Wendell. Wendell & Wild (Netlflix).

The Script Problems of Wendell & Wild

The film comes with layers of sociopolitical commentary, which becomes its biggest burden. At first, I thought the myriad of side stories added rich complexity to the film, but there is so much happening by the end of the film that the core message is lost in the noise. The ideas Selick and co-writer Jordan Peele are juggling are well worth sharing, but the script struggles to balance everything it has to say.

The main motivation of the film is an orphaned girl trying to raise her parents from the dead. It’s a simple, great idea for a pathos-infused storyline about pursuing an impossible goal, making difficult sacrifices, and learning to live with loss. However, the film doesn’t go in that direction. Instead, we watch Ross’s Kat Elliot make bad decision after bad decision, which quickly becomes frustrating, especially when stories about resurrecting the dead are clearly always doomed to fail.

The ending of the film is equally unsatisfying, with Kat’s small personal story being lost in the collateral chaos of the various side stories. It’s a shame because mainstream fiction definitely needs the exquisite vibrance of women-led Afronative punk stories, but Wendell & Wild doesn’t give Kat enough opportunity to grow over the course of the film.

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Lyric Ross as Kat Elliot. Wendell & Wild (Netflix).

Zelaya gives a fantastic performance as her buddy Raúl Cocolotl, but the film makes the mistake of glossing over his own incredible story almost entirely. In the end, Raúl is reduced to merely providing plot conveniences with no arc of his own. Kat and Raúl are only two examples, but they are indicative of the lack of depth across all the characters. As a result, there’s no emotional hook for the audience to truly care about.

Wendell & Wild should have been a mini-series of smaller character episodes set within this town, giving the writers the space to fully flesh out all of their ideas without sacrificing Kat’s story. But as it is, while beautiful and fun to look at, it’s unfortunately almost a chore to sit through. Considering the overcomplicated plot, lack of emotional pull, and shallow characters, it’s a complete testament to Henry Selick’s brilliant direction and animation expertise that Wendell & Wild is as enjoyable as it is.

My rating for this film:

★★★ / ♥♥♥♥

Are you a fan of Coraline or Nightmare Before Christmas? Are you excited to check out Wendell & Wild? Let me know on Twitter @vinwriteswords, and remember to follow the site @MyCosmicCircus for more reviews coming soon!

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Reviews, reading guides, and crazy theories. Currently obsessing over Moon Knight, Blade, and Doctor Strange. Find me on Twitter @vinwriteswords!
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