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“Wendell & Wild” is a bit messy, but wonderful

Stop-motion horror films might be one of my favorite niche genres. For some reason, the medium intertwines with the genre so well. And Wendell & Wild just proves my theory further.

Since I first heard Jordan Peele and Henry Selick would be collaborating on this project, I was hyped. Two masters of their craft working together? The only person who could have possibly improved this project is Guillermo del Toro – and he has his own stop-motion movie coming to Netflix very soon.

The film isn’t perfect – there are plot points and ideas that could use some expanding on – and while, the film overall is very diverse, I have some concerns regarding its sole Jewish character. 

And while it can be a bit on the nose at times – it is a great commentary on the prison industrial complex This film, Wendell & Wild, is an exception to the idea that the idea that “hammering home the themes” negatively impacts a consumer’s view. You just gotta do it right.

Plot

Kat Eliot, a troubled orphan, returns to her hometown of Rust Bank – to attend a new program at a private all-girls school. She soon finds out that she’s a Hell Maiden – who is bonded to the demon brothers Wendell and Wild.

The brothers work for their father, who hosts a sort of theme park for the damned on his stomach. They dream of running their own amusement park one day and decide to use Kat as a way to achieve their dreams.

Meanwhile, Kat and her classmate Raul – uncover the truth behind a fire that destroyed Kat’s family’s brewery and Klaxon Korp – the company that has taken over the town in Kat’s absence. 

Kat must confront her grief and guilt regarding her parents’ deaths and ensure the town doesn’t become a prison. (Literally.)

The Good

Of course, the animation is wonderful. I love the art style and how it perfectly sets up the goofiness and creepiness of the setting. It’s a treat just to view. And it’s absolutely perfect spooky season viewing; right up there with Coraline and ParaNorman.

I usually never comment much on the animation and art style aspects because I don’t know all the technical terms. I just know if I like an art style, if it’s good but just not to my taste or if it’s just outright bad.

And this one is good.

The Diversity

Kat is a black female protagonist; a rarity in animation in general but particularly stop-motion which has long been associated with the racist Tim Burton. She has strong motivations and personality – while her skin color is implied to have been part of her struggles with schools and her time in juvenile detention – Wendell and Wild wouldn’t have quite the same impact if she were white.

Her Blackness is an important and deliberate choice.

Then there’s Raul – who is Kat’s classmate and happens to be a trans guy. The words “trans boy” are never explicit in the script but we have all the information we need, given to us through lines and hints throughout the film. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a trans-man of color in anything except 9-1-1: Lone Star and certainly never in a cartoon.

It’s a bold choice and I’m glad they did it – because it adds something to Raul’s character that would be different if he were cisgender.

Then there are little things here and there – Sister Helley is also Black, an old family friend of Kat’s is Native American, and Kat has a lot of non-white classmates. And for animation – you need to understand these choices are done on purpose.

They’re not accidental. This is stop-motion animation – detail, and purposeful execution is everything. I think it’s something we need to talk about more when we talk about character designs in animation.

Characters

Man, I loved Kat. She makes a very strong impression and there’s clearly a lot to her. She has a strong love of music, particularly punk, and I like how that music plays into the movie as an artistic choice, even if the music itself doesn’t play a significant role in the film.

Demon brothers Wendell and Wild aren’t nearly as complex, but they aren’t the main characters despite their names being in the title. Frankly, they’re both pretty much the same character. I could barely tell you which one was which during the movie. But they play their role well enough that I don’t really mind.

Though they didn’t need to – I like how they gave Raul a very active role in the film. His gender identity helps cement him as an outsider and gives him a reason to connect with Kat. And it’s not like he’s just there for diversity points – he does a lot to help further the plot and is genuinely a nice, friendly person who helps Kat out of the kindness of his heart and a desire to save Rust Bank.

Themes

It was a bold choice having the whole movie focus on the prison industrial complex and the school-to-prison pipeline and the idea of rehabilitation. Not many children’s movies are willing to do that. But, unfortunately, the message does become a bit muddled since the whole rehabilitation thing never seems to apply to the souls of the damned nor is it ever bought up, even though the private prison system is seen as an undeniable evil.

It’s not something that can always be covered in such a short timeframe. Wendell and Wild is a very ambitious film – but I think trying to fit in so many ideas harms it and that the film could be amazing if it narrowed down its focus.

The Bad

Honestly, there is a huge disconnect between Wendell and Wild’s plot and Kat’s plot. The demons are essentially working in a prison for souls, and they want to open their own. It’s never clear what would be different than their father’s park, except for the fact that their dad wouldn’t be running it.

And in the end, they still get their park, but it seems to be that theirs isn’t a punishment park; since Kat’s parents get VIP passes…But, it just doesn’t gel together quite well enough to make an impact.

Not to mention, Buffalo Belzer, the demons’ dad, has a change of heart out of nowhere. Like literally, he sees an art installation made by Raul and realizes that he’s been mistreating his sons because he was afraid of losing them.

I don’t know.

It just didn’t really fit in with the rest of the film and its themes. 

What the Hell is a Hell Maiden?

I’ve watched the movie and I don’t understand what the purpose of a Hell Maiden is. They have their own demons who they can make a contract with…and they have powers, but the responsibilities and purpose of Hell Maidens are just never explained.

Are they supposed to protect the living from dangerous beings? That’s certainly the implication – as the school janitor, Manheim trained nun and Hell Maiden, Sister Helley. They collected demons – but that was for his own personal benefit more than anything. 

There’s also some weird teddy bear that helps connect Hell Maidens with their demons that’s never quite explained.

And whether or not Kat’s bad luck is linked to her Hell Maidness is also unclear.

I don’t need everything spoonfed to me, but showing a connection between these details would make the film more coherent, and make the themes stand out more. I’m kind of disappointed because, in his other films, Peele has shown himself to be BIG on details.

Antisemitism?

So there’s one detail in this film, that frankly, I don’t understand. Manheim is clearly Jewish. He has a Jewish name, and a Jewish accent, and wears a “chai” necklace. Fine. Nothing wrong with that.

But he exploited Helley and her powers – and it feels slightly weird to me. They have the sole Jewish character in the film be a demon collector. There was no reason for Manheim to be Jewish. 

It feels like it’s veering into antisemitic tropes because of that.

I don’t think this was intentionally antisemitic. But it still bothers me.

The Scoop

Wendell & Wild might be Selick’s best film. And while the plot is a little all over the place and the two stories never quite seem to mesh together thematically, it still tells a good story.

I definitely recommend watching it if you haven’t already. We need more films willing to take the same kind of risks Wendell & Wild did if we want animation, particularly stop-motion, to thrive. 

That’s the scoop

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Grade: B+

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Release Year: 2022

Length: 105 minutes

Director: Henry Selick

Screenplay: Henry Selick, Jordan Peele

Producers: Henry Selick, Jordan Peele, Ellen Goldsmith-Vein, Win Rosenfeld

Voice Actors: Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Angela Bassett, Lyric Ross, Ving Rhames

3 thoughts on ““Wendell & Wild” is a bit messy, but wonderful”

  1. Thanks for articulating the antisemitism – it felt really weird to watch and I was wondering if others caught it.

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