Henry Selick’s Wendell & Wild lays its foundation in the trappings of a classical fairy tale. Its basic premise runs almost parallel to the story of a Victorian orphan: Kat (Lyric Ross) is a teenage girl whose parents died suddenly and tragically when she was a small child. She believes the event was her fault and longs to see them again under any circumstances (even including the questionable and supernatural). It’s a story that feels almost of a different era, but Wendell & Wild has pushed it forcefully, charmingly, and freshly into our modern world. Kat is not some wispy, docile, deferential girl but a force to be reckoned with, with her punk rock, cool clothes, and a well-justified chip on her shoulder toward the foster care and judicial system that has failed her thus far.
In and out of foster homes and juvenile detention (for actions caused by a broken heart and a traumatic life), Kat is seemingly offered a fresh start at a decrepit Catholic school in her now-emptied childhood hometown. Here, Kat discovers a personal connection to the paranormal that seems able to provide her with (questionable) paths to her wildest dreams.
What Wendell & Wild does best is balance between some well-founded and heavily mined tropes and present itself through an extremely present, socially interesting, and visually vibrant lens. Our villainous forces here are in the form of golf club-swinging private prison owners, replete with horrific fake tans and horrifyingly shaped bodies. Our shady dealings are enacted through Wendell and Wild (a delightful reunion of comedy duo Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele), two purple demon brothers relegated to a life of helping their devil father keep his hair plugs intact while quietly dreaming of creating their own fun fair. Our sidekicks are a boy with a bleeding heart and a belief in the transformative power of art along with some seemingly ditzy, but extremely kindhearted, schoolgirls.
Much like director Selick’s well-adored Coraline (designed in the same stunning stop-motion animation as this), Wendell & Wild offers us a children’s film that is slightly spookier, rawer, and sadder than so much of our neat-and-tidy children’s fare nowadays. That said, perhaps Wendell & Wild’s weakest spot is its structuring of conflict. For a film about forgiving oneself for past traumas and conflicts, it sometimes seems unable to rest in difficulty for very long. Instead of building to one pivotal emotional crux, it only offers little issues that are handled quickly, which is sometimes at the cost of tension petering out.
Regardless, Wendell & Wild is a vibrant, compelling watch offering so much of what has recently been desperately called for regarding children’s stories and cinema. The film shines in its active effort to adequately represent diverse groups of children with vibrance and agency, just as it does in its fresh, compelling visual style and its presentation of a premise that is both exciting and grounded in important conversations.