Wendell & Wild has evident ambition, but it’s ultimately far too small.
Seemingly focus-tested for maximum appeal to parents who really, really miss Key & Peele, Wendell & Wild is a solid example of the looseness of the term “kids movie.” By way of establishing its generic qualifications, Henry Selick’s film has a young protagonist (Kat, voiced by Lyric Ross) who, in the film’s opening minutes, loses not one but two parents in a tragic accident. This Disney tradition, confusingly, opens a film that was supposed to be the open canvas for an artist newly freed of a fruitless contract under the thumb of Disney and Pixar. But, having spent years sojourning in Silicon Valley, Selick’s work on Wendell & Wild bears the imprint of Pixar’s corporate literalization of childhood imagination: Hell here, introduced via a Coco-level of analytical jargon, is just a single circle of managerial fealty for the title’s demonic duo (Keegan-Michael Key voices the stream-of-consciousness Wendell; Jordan Peele is the straightforward Wild).
We know this film is for kids because it also features didactic lessons. Kat, having been orphaned, entered the foster care system, and is now the latest enrolled student to a Catholic school perched on the edge of an abandoned company town. The school acts as a microcosm for the privatization of education, the shell game of do-good nonprofits, the corporate influence over policy at all levels of government, and the school-to-prison pipeline (this last one explained by an amusement park model). This would hardly be the first young-adult tale of real-world structures upended by the power of fantasy, except that when the generic thrills do arrive — the dead can be revived by an underworld formula — the solution is confused and, if anything, disempowering. Kat learns, in plodding fashion, that the way forward can be achieved by a temporary protest, which in turn will enable a fair municipal council vote, which will enable the police to arrive and hand down justice.
One should never expect an American studio film to have coherent or notable ideas on the surface of its text, but Peele and Selick’s script is so heavily weighted toward an engagement with current events that it’s hard to see this film as belonging to anything but a content mill. Selick, for his part, from A Nightmare Before Christmas on down, has always been an eager adapter and collaborator, rather than a particularly distinct voice. One can’t fault the stop-motion animation that has become synonymous with his name, but there’s also an unmissable artistic aspiration arc in the film. Wendell and Wild, who we first see employed as serfs, dream of designing a personal island of elaborate, anachronistic rides, a heavenly getaway for all ages. It’d be hard to call this vision all that enticing — it’s a bit like a car in a car ad dreaming it could shoot a car ad — but it’s there, tucked into the narrative, the proverbial signature in the corner. The animator’s ambition is readily identifiable, but it’s far too small.
You can currently stream Henry Selick’s Wendell & Wild on Netflix.