Wendell & Wild: Henry Selick’s Welcome Return to Stop-Motion

1993’s The Nightmare Before Christmas may be the most significant case of Stolen Valor in the film industry. The widespread misconception is that Tim Burton directs the movie. He only produces the movie. Probably more people think that Tim Burton directed The Nightmare Before Christmas than people think Henry Selick did. There are other classic examples; George Lucas stole a prequel trilogy’s worth of valor from Irvin Kershner’s The Empire Strikes Back (1980), The Wachowski Sisters did not direct V for Vendetta although it feels like they damn well could have (James McTeigue did); and George Miller didn’t direct the first Babe, even though he made the stunning sequel that is the more enduring movie (you may still say George Miller did if you’re hard-pressed to remember who Chris Noonan is). However, nobody has been shorted quite the career opportunities that should have been available to Henry Selick. The brand is everywhere and he made the movie but the association is firmly in Tim Burton’s camp. The sound reason, of course, is that it is a Tim Burton story produced by Tim Burton, often written as “Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas.” Fair play. However, the continuing benefits and assets of that original work are far more prominent in Henry Selick’s ongoing oeuvre than in Burton’s eventually slumping corporate catalog. You can see why that was an essential perception: Burton, indeed, began his career with Disney and the trajectory of his ascribed aesthetic would lead to what The Nightmare Before Christmas looked and sounded like. In their late eras, Burton got the ongoing money-banking Disney projects and the opportunity to call himself “the real Dumbo… working in this horrible big circus,” and Henry Selick is getting the prestige stop-motion project for Netflix, as a kind of karmically restored valor.

The major note behind this fanbase-driven wish for Henry Selick’s expanded agency is that he could really use a good writing partner. Henry Selick requires material good enough to make the animation sing. With Wendell & Wild, he is paired off with Jordan Peele as a writing partner, whose critics would also say is a great filmmaker who needs another steady hand with his scripts. They do not so much solve each other’s issues with Wendell & Wild, so much as they anchor each other’s creative ideas, tying them to something with more principle weight and heft. It doesn’t solve many problems or create any new ones. It does find two creators who benefit from creative partners working strongly in this capacity at something that feels authentically fresh, while also reaching back to Selick’s prior animated films and Jordan Peele’s unique sense for shaping elements of horror.

Henry Selick also made the well-loved Coraline (2009), which I think of exclusively as a LAIKA Studios movie. Tough break. Taking cues from LAIKA, Netflix’s new animation branch has invested heavily in the Portland animation scene, with Wendell & Wild and Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinnochio being the first major results. (Note: the new Del Toro film is co-directed by Mark Gustafson, who will most often not be thought of as its director, as a relevant note). This new film, Wendell & Wild, meanwhile feels like a Henry Selick film through and through, not outweighed by the strengths of his collaborator, but evenly matched down the middle, producing an even-handed new animated film. What works wonders in Wendell & Wild are two key things in stop-motion animation: there is great specificity and expressivity behind every action. Characters move in curious ways, each uniquely plotted and shaped. The setting, a fog-banked industrial town, and a circus-like demonic hell, which are not entirely different, and both work wonders as aesthetic backdrops.

What happens in the film is that a young girl watches as her parents drown. Flash-forward to her teenage years and having gone through the wringer of social services wherein many systems have failed her, the girl now arrives at a juvenile detention center in her hometown. There, she suffers an accident and is struck by an unusual power, growing some teeth on her hands, which summon the titular demons, who outline a harebrained plan for the girl to bring her parents back to life. There are half a dozen other plots and some of them add and some of them do not. The film is not totally overburdened by them so much as it is alive with ideas and the possibilities of branching stories. You can feel, at any moment, that it could comfortably fit into an elongated Netflix series, but in watching the film, it’s awfully good that it became a movie instead. It strikes a fine balance between Henry Selick’s gothic delights and the endearingly weird orphan story of his James and the Giant Peach adaptation (1993; deserving of re-evaluations). Detailing each extraneous strand of the plot feels fundamentally unnecessary and overwhelming, just know that the film is often up to several things at once, and if you (or more importantly, your hypothetical children) cannot follow every bit of plotting right away, that it all evens out in rewatches (my daughter and I enjoyed three of them, over just three days, which is what it also took to really line everything up).

What makes it so distinctly rewatchable — beyond the gorgeous attention to gothic-perfect detail — are the otherworldly voice performances and characterizations of the film. Lyric Ross plays Kat, the 13-year-old at the center of the story, who I thought (the first time through) was severely underplaying it, but now believe is providing the film exactly the right tone and sympathetic center of the story. The news story most outlets should lead with (so maybe we don’t have to), is that the film marks a casual reunion for one of modern comedy’s greatest teams: Keegan Michael-Key plays Wendell and Jordan Peele plays Wild. It’s a gift for their regular audience, as they have loads of fun vocalizing their animated characters with novel deliveries and once again, play off each other beautifully, always producing the intended effect. They’re just slamming it out of the park, although you’re left wishing maybe the film centered around them far more often. Also notable is Ving Rhames, having a lot of fun as arch-demon Buffalo Belzer. The cast is notably diverse and the animation honors this aspect and shows a Black character at the heart of its story. It also plays into obvious social messaging with Trumpian villains, which somehow do not grate as much as you think they will do, and as is the nature for a Peele-related project, is sure to carry some progressively forward messaging for an audience who wants to read for that.

Wendell & Wild offers so much for an audience. It is truly beautiful animation packaged in a pretty good movie. It’s worth being patient with it. The film does often slip into exposition-heavy sequences because it has a large payload of plot threads to deliver. It is twisting and pushing in many directions but the center of the film always holds up under the stress. Henry Selick may never recover the Stolen Valor from the internet’s perception of who directed The Nightmare Before Christmas but ideally has gotten his dues with Coraline and this new project. With great sincerity, we do hope it is not so long until the next one. Selick remains a distinct director, even if you’ve previously thought he was Tim Burton, with an animation-friendly back catalog that now expands into a distinguished catalog of consistent depth and proven ability. It’s no coincidence whatsoever that all of his films work for the same reasons. It’s also no coincidence that Jordan Peele’s involvement, and reteaming with Keegan Michael-Key, lends the film political proximity enough for it to feel socially relevant and of our moment, not stuck only in nostalgia for past projects, but forward-moving and animated with momentum and a wealth of feeling. Wendell & Wild stands proud among a fantastic year of animation (which now features several prominent examples of stop-motion — see: Mad God & Marcel the Shell). Perhaps the best news for the legacy of Henry Selick is that nobody will ever think this one is a Tim Burton project. It is much better than those are anymore.


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