As uniquely grim as all of director Henry Selick’s animated films are, there’s a timeless, comforting quality to their stories that makes watching them feel like sitting down to catch up with a macabre childhood friend. Netflix’s Wendell & Wild, starring Lyric Ross, Jordan Peele, and Keegan-Michael Key, marks Selick’s return to the directing game for the first time in over a decade with an all-new, original tale about a surly teen learning what it means to live with literal and metaphorical demons.
Though Wendell & Wild taps into a number of critical ideas about the prison industrial complex and American foster care system that feel very specific to our present moment, the way it explores them is part of what makes the movie as a whole feel like an instant classic.
Despite being named for a pair of demonic brothers from another world, Wendell & Wild’s story truly belongs to Kat Elliott (Lyric Ross), a 13-year-old girl from the small city of Rust Belt who remembers what the place was like before a great, destructive fire led to its economic downturn. Like all of Rust Bank’s other natives who once thrived in the cozy, communal hamlet, Kat knows from personal experience just how the fire devastated the town as it burned its way through people’s businesses and homes. But like all of the protagonists in Selick’s films, Kat’s personal pain goes a bit deeper than the sadness that comes with losing things or possessions, and Wendell & Wild’s opening scenes reveal how she first came to know grief as a young girl long before Rust Belt was set aflame.
Wendell & Wild’s filled with all kinds of imaginative, otherworldly creatures that lurk in the Underworld, where demon brothers Wendell (Keegan-Michael Key) and Wild (Jordan Peele) work as bumbling landscapers at a theme park that is itself part of a much larger demon voiced by Ving Rhames. Much like Kat, Wendell and Wild both feel misunderstood by their peers and are anything but fans of authority figures. But unlike Kat, who has no problem being direct about most of what she’s feeling, the demons only feel safe talking secretly about their dream of building an even better park of the damned for fear of what might happen if they were found out.
The desire to fulfill one’s deepest wishes becomes one of Wendell & Wild’s more central themes as it pulls Kat and the demons together more directly later in the film, which feels very much like classic Selick. But what really makes Wendell & Wild pop at the outset is the way it frames Kat — a moody punk who’s never without her gruesome-looking boombox and platform boots — as a brilliant girl who’s also a survivor of the juvenile justice system. Wendell & Wild’s definitely a movie meant to be watched by younger viewers. But as it’s matter-of-factly addressing things like the privatization of prisons and how a lack of proper funding for schools is its own kind of structural violence, Wendell & Wild also makes clear that it wants anyone watching the movie to feel comfortable thinking critically about those aspects of our society because of how they impact us all.
Wendell & Wild has its fair share of heavy moments as it follows Kat to her new home at Rust Bank Catholic school for girls, where she immediately gets the strangest vibe from Sister Helley (Angela Bassett) and all of her new classmates. The movie’s also incredibly fun and whimsical, though, and when Kat starts to have random premonitions, its story starts to become a kind of Buffy-adjacent mystery about her discovering what kinds of secrets RBC Girls’ teachers are hiding from its students.
Visually, Wendell & Wild’s as muscular as it is agile in large part due to character designer Pablo Lobato’s gorgeous and slightly off-putting creations, whose features come to life with a beautiful flair and verve in some of the film’s more intimate scenes. While Key and Peele both bring more or less exactly what you’d expect from them as scheming, well-meaning ghouls from Hell, Ross’ Kat and Bassett’s Sister Helley stand out, especially for the way that their subtle, understated performances are able to pierce through the joke-filled fracas of the film.
Some of Wendell & Wild’s late-story twists and the introduction of new lore ends up muddling the story a bit as the movie tries to bring it all home. Rather than making its closing scenes feel like they don’t work, though, it sort of encourages you to go back to focus in on some of the film’s details more closely because so much of what makes Wendell & Wild a delight to watch is how rich with visual information its entire world is.
Though it’s only coming out just now, Wendell & Wild still manages to feel like a classic piece of the spooky canon of Selick films that many of us grew up loving, one that will become part of the Halloween rotation for years to come.
Wendell & Wild also stars James Hong, Tamara Smart, Seema Virdi, Ramona Young, Michele Mariana, and David Harewood. The movie hits Netflix on October 28th.