Is ‘Wendell and Wild’ a spooky Halloween treat or a messy trick?

By Janie Walenda 

In many ways, “Wendell and Wild” is my ideal movie. That’s what I thought when I first watched the trailer. Stop-motion animation, strong visual flair and Key and Peele are about everything I could ask for. The one aspect that made me hesitate about the film was its iffy mythology. Having now seen the film, all my original reactions were correct.

It’s plain to see how much stop-motion animation has evolved since director and writer Henry Selick’s other prominent projects, “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and “Coraline.” It’s also apparent how much love Selick has for the medium, intentionally leaving in the seams on the character designs and shooting fewer frames per second in some scenes. For the visual flair alone, “Wendell and Wild” is well worth at least one watch.

While I have several problems with the writing, there are also parts that I love. There are some genuine laugh-out-loud moments in the film and some heartfelt emotional ones. The film is very blunt in its political messaging but manages to not feel overly preachy. I’m impressed by the restraint with which Jordan Peele, a co-writer and producer on the film, writes his and Keegan-Michael Key’s titular characters. The script easily could’ve turned into an extended comedy sketch featuring Wendell and Wild, but instead the characters are used appropriately and don’t overstay their welcome.

Wendell (Key) and Wild’s (Peele) character designs look eerily close to Key and Peele

Despite these positives, the plot of the script falls flat. It’s not horrible; the dialogue and pacing are both good. The film just has too many plotlines and fails to give any one of them enough depth or meaning.

The best plot line is fortunately the main one. Kat’s journey of struggling with her survivor’s guilt and inner demons is the heart of the film. Some of the most heartbreaking imagery of the film occurs as Kat walks down the basement stairs in her old house, passing chalk growth markers of herself until she reaches the bottom to a chalk outline of her parents holding her as a baby. While this is one of the most complete storylines of “Wendell and Wild,” it still gets lost in the messiness of the rest of the film.

The political storylines are where the film starts to lose its footing. The storylines about the private prison and foster care systems are worked well into the film but have very little room to blossom into complex or truly meaningful storylines.

Where the film really falls apart for me is the supernatural element. From a purely technical standpoint, Wendell and Wild’s character growth, and eventual resolution, is extremely rushed, leaving what should be a meaningful story about the relationship between parents and their children emotionally dull.

“Wendell and Wild” is also in an uncomfortable spot for believers. While the film takes place at a Catholic school, and many references are made to demons and hell, that’s all window dressing, as the film makes up its own fictional mythology.

The film’s supernatural lore is its most underdeveloped point

Another sticking point for this film is finding its audience.  It’s clearly not a children’s movie. The film has a PG-13 rating for its dark imagery and occasional violence and language.  It also poses additional hesitations for Christian families thanks to its iffy spirituality.  But “Wendell and Wild” isn’t a perfect match with adult audiences either, mostly due to its plot. While it is fine the first viewing, I have no desire to watch it again, and I am debating if I will watch it again next year.

The best audience for “Wendell and Wild” is likely pre-teens and teenagers.  They’ll eat up the spooky punk aesthetic, find some of the grosser moments amusing and perhaps not be bothered as much by the flimsier plot.

“Wendell and Wild” might not be the sweetest Halloween treat, but its stunning visuals and heartfelt characters help to balance out the tricky, messy plot.

‘Wendell and Wild’ is now streaming on Netflix

Janie Walenda is a sophomore Global Business major and the A&E editor for Cedars. She is passionate about musicals, animation and cold brew.

Images courtesy of Netflix

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