Just in time for Halloween comes a film that isn’t afraid to lean into the darkness frame by frame.
In the first five minutes of Wendell & Wild, our teenage heroine loses her parents in a car accident, her town is devastated economically, and she ends up in the back seat of a prison bus with her legs bound and handcuffs.
This is cold stuff. Director Henry Selick’s return to stop-motion animation is icy, from the muddy potholes in the streets to the clouds of steam billowing from the characters’ mouths. His script, starring Jordan Peele, is equally chilled, a place where alienation, deviousness and intrigue abound.
Selick, whose previous films include The Nightmare Before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach and Coraline, this time has attracted a star cast of actors to provide voices: Ving Rhames, James Hong, Angela Bassett, David Harewood and Peele reunited with his old comedy partner Keegan-Michael Key.
Peele and Key play the title characters, a pair of mediocre, not-too-smart demon brothers who hope to escape the drudgery of Hell by fleeing to the living world and opening a carnival. Unfortunately, their banter is a little cramped, a little less hysterical than expected.
They think they’ve found their way out of Hell in the form of 13-year-old Kat Elliott (Lyric Ross), a goth-like rebellious orphan with green hair, pierced eyebrows, knee-length platform boots and studded fingerless gloves. She wears a boombox and a don’t play with others mood. “I don’t make friends,” she says. “Bad things happen to people close to me.”
It’s a dark tale where the action is never far from the town’s graveyard and coffins always seem to be broken open. There’s a stab at social criticism involving an ominous for-profit corporation that wants so badly to build a prison it’ll raise the dead to get city council votes, and a parish school willing to do with them make a deal with devils to stay open.
Throughout is Selick’s idiosyncratic vision. It takes a certain spooky humor to bring a Catholic priest back from the dead with hair growth cream while our two demon brothers celebrate with high-fives while Hot Chocolate’s “You Sexy Thing” soundtrack plays. In many ways, this movie has the creepiness of The Nightmare Before Christmas fused with the girl power of Coraline, but for less payoff than either.
The animation style encompasses the hyper-realism of backgrounds and exciting details, such as a messy, bubbling saucepan or a rusting bulldozer, to human characters with seamed faces and often long, skinny legs. A pair of nuns resemble strange fat birds, and skeletons with worms in their eyes stumble along. The sophisticated character designs are credited to designer Pablo Lobato.
Underneath it all is the story of a child’s love and guilt – and an education and justice system that’s failing her – that drives her to bring her parents back from the dead, but that gets a little lost in the gross humor, Addams Family -Level madness and shock-to-shock visual gags like a demonic teddy bear. For all the lovingly crafted spectacle, Selick’s excruciating shot-for-shot film is as crowded as this bear.
Wendell & Wild, a Netflix release, is rated PG-13 for some thematic content, violence, drug use, and short expletives. Running time: 106 minutes. Two stars out of four.
MPAA Definition of PG-13: Parents Urgently Warned. Some materials may be unsuitable for children under 13 years of age.
Mark Kennedy is there http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits
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