One of my favorite soap boxes is Netflix’s perpetual inability or unwillingness to market its new content. The only Netflix projects I see ads for are big hits or franchise material like Bridgerton, The Witcher, and Stranger Things. More than once, I’ve only found out about a film or series because of a friend or fans online. Free publicity is a commodity any business should feel lucky to have, but it doesn’t replace a professional marketing campaign. Netflix is also not very good at targeting content to the viewer, in my opinion. I rarely get recommendations for things I would actually watch. Instead, shows like Bridgerton and The Circle are pushed my way. I know Netflix has the resources to better serve the content and its users. I must conclude that they only have faith in stupid reality TV and shows with a track record or built-in fanbase.
You may be wondering why I bring this up. Henry Selick and Jordan Peele’s Wendell & Wild, a recent Netflix original movie release, is the reason. I’ve heard very little about this film and learned of its existence from a YouTuber, not any official Netflix promotional materials. They put out a couple of trailers, which is more than they do for other projects. Henry Selick is (or should be) a directing legend in the animation world. His creepy-but-heartfelt stop-motion films are frequently mistaken for Tim Burton’s work. The Nightmare Before Christmas and Coraline have become Halloween staples in my house and many others. His style is distinct from Burton’s films like Frankenweenie and The Corpse Bride. It’s also no secret that I love Jordan Peele’s recent foray into horror. It’s one of my least favorite genres, but he always finds an interesting theme to explore or angle to pursue. So when I heard about Wendell & Wild, I was sold. Let’s take a look.
Wendell & Wild follows Kat (Lyric Ross), a young girl who loses her parents in a tragic car crash. Kat blames herself for the accident and refuses to let anyone get close enough to her to get hurt. Kat is sent to a private Catholic school and learns that she has her own personal demons, and she’s not the only one. Sister Helle(Angela Bassett) is a hellmaiden like Kat, someone who can summon demons and swear an oath to them. In a desperate bid to get her parents back, Kat swears to obey demons Wendell (Keegan-Michael Key) and Wild (Jordan Peele). Hell breaks loose when the demons begin resurrecting people and jeopardize the town’s well-being. Kat must save Rust Bank, learn to forgive herself, and break free from her oath.
I really wanted to love Wendell & Wild. Stylistically, this is right up my alley; I love stop-motion animation and several of the people involved. The film’s cast also features James Hong and Ving Rhames. The animation is inventive, and I like the use of textures for things like Kat’s hair. The songs are uneven in quality and tonal appropriateness, but Bruno Coulais’ original score is excellent and very reminiscent of his work on Coraline. There aren’t many songs in the film, but if they weren’t going to make it a musical like The Nightmare Before Christmas or The Corpse Bride, more subdued choices would have served the film well. If I only cared about acting and visuals, Wendell & Wild would be an 11/10.
However, I care much more about characters, story, and themes than the film’s aesthetic trappings. I appreciate what Selick, Peele, and actress Lyric Ross tried to do with Kat. She feels guilty and blames herself for what happened to her parents, and many people can relate to that. Most probably didn’t lose their parents in a tragic accident, but feeling culpable for things that happen to you makes a lot of sense. I like the idea that she’s pushed everyone away and has to re-learn how to form friendships. It all sounds good, right? The problem lies in the execution, which is simply a mess. Kat isn’t very likable because she’s mean to everyone from the start. Not wanting to get too close is one thing, but being rude to well-meaning people like Raoul is too much. Even Siobhan Klaxon, daughter of the film’s villains, seems genuine to me. The only thing she does wrong is try to give Kat a nickname, “Kay Kay.” I can see how this would be annoying if you don’t want a nickname, but Kat is abrasive and dismissive right out of the gate. It’s too much for a harmless gesture made in good faith.
Siobhan also misgenders Raoul at one point; his name used to be Ramona. This is hinted at a couple of times in the movie but isn’t a recurring theme or anything. Anyway, Siobhan immediately corrects herself and apologizes. The film wants to make Siobhan into a pseudo-villain with a redemption arc, but I liked her from the beginning. Am I missing something? She’s a genuinely nice, considerate person who apologizes when she’s wrong and just wants to be friends. Kat puts Siobhan’s parents’ sins on her shoulders like it’s her fault. Girl, she’s, like, 12. It’s not her fault her parents are evil and want to imprison people to make money. In fact, Siobhan similarly owns up to and apologizes for her parent’s behavior when she learns the truth. This reads less like a character arc and more like Siobhan is a good person who didn’t know what her parents were doing.
Kat’s character development is sidelined for the entire film. So when she eventually does say she has friends (including Wendell and Wild), it feels empty. This comes out of nowhere; throughout the movie, she rejects every potential friend to come her way. I get what they were going for here, and it’s a good idea in theory. Screen time is divided among too many characters, concepts, and consequences for any one to succeed. The world-building in Wendell & Wild is questionable. How does Sister Helle feel about being a nun who can also summon demons and use magic? Why do she and Kat have this gift? Questions about character motivation and how this world functions should have come before resurrecting dead priests. But even this plot point is rushed; there’s initially some shock when Father Bests returns, but it’s quickly dropped. This guy came back from the dead! Don’t the students and staff have some questions about that? Isn’t it a little bit weird or concerning? As a Catholic, doesn’t he feel his salvation is compromised by this unholy restoration to the world of the living? He was saved by demons; you would think he’d be conflicted about that.
Kat and Siobhan aren’t the only characters done dirty here, either. Buffalo Belzer (Ving Rhames) starts the film as a slave driver. He’s Wendell and Wild’s father and forces them to run some kind of demonic theme park. Don’t worry about that; the film doesn’t explain it either. Anyway, in the end, out of nowhere, Belzer decides he wants to reunite with his children and be a merciful, loving father. What’s going on here? Themes of parenthood and unifying family bonds come out of the blue in the film’s last half-hour. Raoul’s art project is another recurring idea. In the end, the sun rises, revealing what looks like a Mayan or Aztec parent protecting their children. This prompts comment from Kat’s resurrected mother, Wilma, who says, “That’s what all parents try to do.” This provokes Belzer’s emotional outburst. This isn’t a satisfying approach to character development because Belzer doesn’t come to the conclusion on his own and hasn’t grappled with the idea before. Also, he’s a demon; he does worse things than be a mean dad every day.
Then we have the film’s antagonists: Siobhan’s parents and Father Bests… sort of. Father Bests wants to save the school and makes a deal with the Klaxons to do so. The Klaxons are beyond one-dimensional, mustache-twirling villains. And is it me, or is Lane Klaxon modeled on Trump? He looks just like him except for his skin tone. We don’t know anything about Imgard and Lane except that they like money and will do anything to get it. They’re willing to kill an entire town, forge counterfeit money, imprison countless people in bad conditions, and alienate their daughter. The latter really did surprise me because Imgard previously showed affection for Siobhan and worried about her coming to the unveiling ceremony. It’s inconsistent to show her care for her daughter until it’s inconvenient for the plot. Imgard orders the zombified council members to run over all protesters, including her daughter.
I went into Wendell & Wild expecting and hoping to love it. The film is gorgeous and brimming with good performances. However, I can only describe the script, character arcs, and story as unfinished. There’s so much going on here that nothing finds meaning or a cathartic conclusion.
Wendell & Wild is one of 2022's major disappointments. Its artistic pazazz can's mask a half-baked script and broken cast of characters.