Monday, May 27, 2024

‘Wendell & Wild’ is a Dark Tale of Grief and Corruption

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Wendell & Wild is a movie with moxy and heart, two things that have a way of charming me onto the film’s side. Yes, it’s a little ungainly in how it’s structured, but that’s okay. The world’s design and the film’s look make for a vibe of gothic phantasmagoria.

This comes as little surprise since Wendell & Wild comes from Henry Selnick by way of Monkey Paw Studios, Jordan Peele’s studio. Written by Selnick and Peele, Wendell & Wild feels like a fascinating amalgamation of the two men’s sensibilities. The character designs have a stark gothic quality, creating an atmosphere of foreboding yet somehow also feeling lived in.

wendell & wild
Kat (Lyric Ross)walks down the halls of her new school

The thrust of Wendell & Wild is about a young girl Kat (Lyric Ross), who must overcome the loss of her parents. Disney movies have inured a generation to the death of parents, but Wendell & Wild treats the moment with the horror and solemnity it deserves. The loss of her parents profoundly impacted her, making her sullen and withdrawn as she blamed herself.

However, the fly in the ointment of Wendell & Wild is also about the school-to-private prison pipeline, political corruption, and zombie council members. While none of these stories are boring, Wendell & Wild lacks a clothesline to hang it all on. The movie never feels disjointed, but it also never feels like the pieces have come together.

For example, Kat discovers she is a Hell-Maiden. What exactly a Hell-Maiden is, I’m not exactly sure. All we know is that Sister Helley (Angela Bassett) is one and was trained by groundskeeper Manberg (Igal Naor).

The narrative throughline could be the plot of the Klaxons trying to take over the town of Rust Bank and the school so they could build their private prison. The Klaxons, Irmgard (Maxine Peake), and Lane (David Harewood), whose character is modeled after Boris Johnson, are always in the background of Wendell & Wild.

Yet, despite their ubiquitous presence, they seem divorced from the rest of the movie. However, both characters are sharply designed caricatures that tell a story as old as time. It is a tale of corrupt and vainglorious rich people who believe themselves above the law.

I haven’t even mentioned Wendell (Keegan Michael Key) or Wild (Jordan Peele), two hapless demons in service of Buffalo Belzer (Ving Rhames). Belzer is a sizable demon with a carnival of the damned on his belly. Wendell and Wild designed their amusement park and were charged with treason. Forced to install hair plugs onto the doughy demon lord, the two learn of the Hell-Maiden.

wendell & wild
Wendell (Keegan-Michael Key) and Wild (Jordan Peele)

The brothers trick the young Hell-Maiden, Kat, into being their servant. Meanwhile, they are being fooled by the recently deceased Father Best (James Hong) into raising the old council members from the dead to vote for the Klaxon’s private prison. But, of course, Best is being tricked by the Klaxons as they promise to fund his school. But, unfortunately, father Best doesn’t realize that his school will be the beginning of their pipeline.

If you’re wondering how the undead council members can vote, it’s because the charter specifies that the member has to be alive–it doesn’t say anything about the undead. A cousin loophole of the infamous Air Bud. Instead of saying, “There’s no rule saying dogs can’t play basketball,” there’s nothing that says a zombie’s vote doesn’t count.

In the midst of all this is Kat trying to come to terms with herself, her parents’ death, and Wendell and Wild. Luckily she has the help of Siobhan (Tamara Smart), daughter of Irmgard and Boris, and a trans classmate Raoul (Sam Zelaya). Raoul’s mother is the attorney/council member leading the charge against the Klaxons. Siobhan may be a spoiled brat, but even she is horrified by her parents’ greed.

Looking back at Wendell & Wild, I’m impressed by how all the characters are connected. Characters often get embroiled in their own story, only to stumble into someone else’s unwittingly. Even Wendell and Wild drag people into their family squabbles to achieve their dream of building an amusement park.

Selnick and his DP, Peter Sorg, remarkably tell emotionally complex stories with just a few images. This is usually done with the team finding ways to use flashbacks creatively. By doing this, these moments never feel like exposition dumps and are a chance for Selnick and his team to flex their visual muscle.

Wendell & Wild is filled with imagination and creativity, and I forgave its overburdened plot. Darkly playful, the textures of the character design and the world help make the stop-motion feel distinct. It may not be perfect, but it has a rollicking sense of self and a soundtrack bursting with Black punk music; the film has a verve that I found endearing.

Images courtesy of Netflix

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