In 'Wendell & Wild,' stop motion moves to an Afro-punk beat

The spooky, sublime stop-motion animation worlds of Henry Selick are feasts for the eye that can burrow into the imaginations of young minds

Jake Coyle
Thursday 20 October 2022 21:32 BST

The spooky, sublime stop-motion animation worlds of Henry Selick are feasts for the eye that can burrow into the imaginations of young minds. In films like “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” “James and the Giant Peach” and “Coraline,” the dark, handmade curiosities of Selick have tended to leave a mark.

“That’s what I hope for all my films,” says Selick, 69, smiling. “To shake up those kids but not mess them up for good.”

Jordan Peele, the writer-director of “Get Out," “Us” and “Nope,” was one of those shaken kids.

“I remember seeing ‘Nightmare Before Christmas’ when I was a kid,” Peele says of the 1994 film. “My mother had the wherewithal to buy all the figurines at Macy’s before the film came out. She was like: ‘This is going to be a classic.’ It was transformative for me as an artist.”

But, partly due to an abruptly canceled passion project for Pixar called “The Shadow King,” it's been 13 years since Selick's last film, “Coraline.” Back in 2015, Selick met with Peele about making what would become “Wendell & Wild." At the time, Peele and Keegan-Michael Key were still making “Key & Peele.” “Get Out," which would launch Peele as Hollywood's foremost horror practitioner and an in-demand filmmaker, hadn't come out yet.

“He let me read the screenplay. I knew it was good," says Selick. “He was like, ‘We've got to set up ‘Wendell & Wild’ before the film comes out. It might not work out.’ I said, ‘Don’t worry about it.’”

Seven years after that first meeting, “Wendell & Wild,” produced and co-written by Peele, is finally arriving in select theaters Friday and on Netflix on Oct. 28. It heralds not just the return of Selick but the anticipated reunion of Key and Peele, who voice the film's titular demons.

But “Wendell & Wild” is also a stop-motion animation unlike any before it. Its lead character — something Peele pushed — isn't Wendell or Wild but Kat (Lyric Ross), a young orphan with green Afro puffs of hair who attends Catholic school. There are elements of death, grief and whimsy that will remind moviegoers of Selick's earlier films. But there is also a vivid Afro-punk spirit to match the movie's Black protagonist, who carries a boombox with an eyeball woofer. The multicultural cast includes Ving Rhames, James Hong and Angela Bassett. The giddy needle drops feature Living Colour, TV on the Radio and Ibeyi.

“It was a character and a world that if I had seen this when I was that age, it would have been a whole different level of transformation,” Peele, 43, said in an interview alongside Selick, Key and Ross at the Toronto International Film Festival last month.

In the opening scenes of the PG-13-rated "Wendell & Wild,” Kat's parents are killed in a car accident. She's later coaxed into summoning them from the underworld by the devious Wendell and Wild. She's no pushover, though. Years of foster care and juvenile detention have hardened the combat boot-wearing Kat into brash goth heroine.

“I’ve never seen anything like that before,” Ross says recalling the first time she saw a model for her character. “What I loved is the whole Afro Punk style and the green, natural hair. I feel like if anyone can rock that, it’s Black girls. I was in awe. She’s gorgeous.”

Wendell and Wild were rendered more like caricatures of Peele and Key with a demonic twist. The belly on Wild, Peele thinks, is a touch too large. But the film meant the comic duo's most substantial collaboration in years. They were determined to spend as much time together recording to get the natural rhythm of their still stunningly funny interplay. Selick estimates that he has several comedy albums worth of outtakes from their sessions.

“That you would let somebody improvise in this art form,” marvels Key. “The fact that he would allow us that freedom knowing it would take two months just to make someone’s mouth open.”

Later this fall, “Wendell & Wild” will be joined on Netflix by another stop-motion animated film, Guillermo del Toro's “Pinocchio." But such releases remain a rarity for the form, a painstaking process requiring great patience.

“It comes in fashion for very brief amounts of time, and then the executives at the studios go: 'Oh my god! No stop motion. It takes too long,'” says Selick. “It’s a rare occurrence.”

During the early pandemic, while computer animation revved into high gear, production at the Portland, Oregon, set of “Wendell & Wild” had to shut down. Selick would sometimes have 30 sets going simultaneously, each requiring constant, minute manipulation. Nearby fires also intruded on the production.

“How many weeks did you shoot that first one?” Selick asks Peele. “Three weeks,” responds Peele, causing Selick to let out a prolonged cackle. Yet Peele knows something a bit about the artform, Selick notes, referencing the logo for Peele's production company, Monkey Paw Productions.

“You’re going for perfect, but you’ll never get there,” Selick says. “But that’s what makes it wonderful, the flaws.”

To a remarkable degree, “Wendell & Wild” represents the melding of Selick and Peele's equally unique sensibilities. Intricate, otherworldly stop-motion landscapes fuse with antic comedy and sly social commentary: Two visionary filmmakers in one eye-popping sandbox.

“Part of that first meeting, Henry was explaining his journey. From my perspective, we have one of the modern masters of animation,” says Peele. “As many Henry Selick movies as we get is the amount we deserve. I hope we get a lot more.”


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