A junk drawer of disparate ideas dumped onto stunning stop-motion dioramas, Wendell & Wild is among 2022’s greatest disappointments relative to the talent involved and their respective track records. Not since 2016’s Keanu have comic powerhouses Jordan Peele and Keegan Michael-Key reteamed in creative and performative capacities. Wendell & Wild also marks the return of stop-motion godfather Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas) — for whom the past 13 years since the great Coraline have been littered with unrealized projects.
Perhaps Selick’s hunger to finish something after a decade-plus dry spell prompted this haphazard outing that begins streaming tomorrow on Netflix, which plays like separate scripts from Selick and Peele that have been crudely Frankensteined together. Forced fun, which is to say ultimately not much fun at all, although the signature aesthetic care and craftsmanship displayed by Selick and his crew ensure some impishly inventive moments.
The best involve the depictions of day-job drudgery for its titular demons. Wendell (Key) and Wild (Peele) live in the land of the dead, specifically inside and atop the head of their underworld-overlord father, Buffalo Belzer (Ving Rhames). Aided by a mechanized tardigrade, their duties are maintaining Belzer’s perfect coif with hair cream. It’s boring work from which the brothers’ only escapes are the brief high they enjoy from hits of the cream and their vision to build a Dream Faire in the land of the living. Peele carries a combination of wistfulness and wishful thinking in his voice whenever he says the words “Dream Faire” that almost boasts more wonder than the entirety of this endeavor. Key and Peele’s vocal performances are otherwise serviceable, generally pitched at the tone and timbre of the fake football players from their classic Key & Peele sketch. Let’s go with Hingle McCringleberry and D’Glester Hardunkichud.
Wendell and Wild get their chance when they discover Belzer’s hair cream can resurrect the dead. Surely the notion of “magician morticians” would be attractive to financiers with a pulse. But how to summon them? Enter Kat (Lyric Ross), a girl who has had a rough life as an orphan. (Between the uncouth demons who just want to wreak havoc in our world and people dying in a watery car accident, Wendell & Wild is essentially a bloated Beetlejuice.)
Kat has developed powers of precognition and is known as a Hell Maiden, able to commune with denizens of the underworld. After years away, Kat has recently returned to her hometown of Rust Bank, which has now been corrupted by the prison-industrial complex known as Klax Korp and where Kat faces yet another uphill ordeal at an all-girls school. But if Kat will just summon Wendell and Wild, they promise to resurrect her parents, which, in Kat’s eyes, will right the course of her life.
Naturally, plans go askew as Wendell & Wild crams in stories of murder, arson, corporate greed, chosen family, multigenerational Hell Maidens and demon hunters, blood binds, gender identity, redemption chambers and craft beer. It’s 10 pounds of plot in a five-pound burlap bag perpetually on the verge of unraveling like Nightmare’s Oogie Boogie. Selick’s pet notions of family and purpose clang against Peele’s preference for parable and funny business. Outside of a segment suggesting zombification of voters choosing against their best interests, the twain never meet. Papering it over with a punchy soundtrack — which features rock bands with Black creative centers like Death, TV on the Radio and Living Colour — can only go so far.
The town of Rust Bank is full of intriguing characters who could have been more interesting and engaging were they treated like more than incidental space. (Even Wendell and Wild feel shoved to the back of a story bearing their names.) James Hong (Everything Everywhere All At Once) delivers his usual buoyant vocal performance as Father Level Bests, who runs Kat’s school, but there’s no sense of how Bests’ caring spirit was slowly corrupted. Meanwhile, Raul (Sam Zelaya), a trans boy whom Kat befriends, would have made a more interesting lead, and Raul’s paralegal mother, seemingly the last good citizen left in Rust Bank, only ever acts as a plot function by investigating a mysterious brewery fire that proves important. Beyond a physical look best described as “Harley Quinn meets Sally” and a contemporary version of Finis Everglot from Corpse Bride, the villains are underbaked. Similarly, Rhames’ vocal turn as Belzer comes off as a jumbo-sized Oogie Boogie, and a pair of adults who work at the school (voiced by Angela Bassett and Igal Naor) and prove unexpectedly helpful to Kat barely register as afterthoughts.
All of this begs either for the canvas of a limited series or far more judicious cutting as a feature to come together. As nearly a dozen characters stand together to fight Klax Korp in the finale, you’re thinking less about the bond they bring to the battle and more about how unnecessarily busy it feels. It’s especially disheartening given the specificity with which Selick and his animators have rendered the melancholy world of Rust Bank, down to soup splatters on kitchen drawers and the accumulation of sooty sludge on old van tires. With Wendell & Wild, the sights, the sounds, they’re everywhere and all around, but you’ll just wonder “What’s this? What’s this?”