Everyone has demons, but not everyone has personal demons. That is to say, literal demons who offer services that they can provide for a particular benefit, expressly to make them happy and fulfill their wishes. Anyone who has ever seriously thought about demons or the place where they dwell should know that trusting them is not a good idea since they rarely stick to their word. Wendell and Wild presents a playful if still very dark and peculiar look at the way that one teenage girl responds to a too-good-to-be-true offer to be reunited with her late parents.
Kat is orphaned while her parents are driving across a bridge and the car goes off the edge, and she finds herself headed down an uncooperative and unproductive path. She arrives at the Rust Bank Catholic School for Girls ready to stir up trouble, but finds that she’s not its main cause when the headmaster, Father Bests, ends up dead. Demon brothers Wendell and Wild see Kat as their perfect chance to be transported to the Land of the Living, but all Kat cares about is the chance to bring back her parents, resulting in unintended consequences that happen when the lands of the dead and the living are intermingled.
This is an animated film that isn’t necessarily for children given its adult themes and the trauma that its young protagonist experiences in its opening minutes. It absolutely makes sense in the context of its director’s previous feature films: Coraline, James and the Giant Peach, and The Nightmare Before Christmas. Henry Selick, returning with his first film in thirteen years, has carved out a niche for himself in stop-motion filmmaking with a dark, ominous touch. Those who appreciate his past works will surely be delighted by his latest offering, one filled with humor but defined by a foreboding gloom which casts a shadow over the entire film.
Though the demons are the ones who get title billing, it’s Kat who is its true star. This film initially begins in two pieces, with Wendell and Wild complaining about their tyrannical father, Buffalo Belzer, the Lord of the Underworld, and seeing distant visions of Kat while she discovers her own link to a faraway hellscape when she comes to the school. Kat’s interactions with the demons are entertaining and worthwhile, but she gets the best guidance and support from Sister Helley, a nun with a hidden past, and Raúl, a fellow student experiencing his own feelings of isolation from his all-female peers.
The screenplay comes from Selick and comedy duo Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, who also voice Wendell and Wild. It’s fun to have Key and Peele reunited and engaging in their signature banter within a new space and story. The voice cast also boasts other top-tier talent, led by Lyric Ross, best known for her breakthrough turn on This Is Us, and with Angela Bassett as Sister Helley. These characters feel individualistic and three-dimensional, even if the world around them feels larger-than-life and bizarre.
There is a strangeness to Wendell and Wild that may not prove off-putting to all audiences but which does require it to be approached with the right attitude. Kat is certainly the film’s hero, but the achievement of her goal, to revive her dead parents, will surely lead nowhere good. That does add to this film’s creativity, relying on its engaging narrative to keep viewers interested, even if the direction it ends up may not be entirely expected. Like Kat, the film is full of spunk and spirit, and there’s something invigorating about a story involving hell and bringing back the dead being underscored by that kind of anti-establishment energy.
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Wendell and Wild premieres on Netflix on Friday, October 28th.