It must be tough to work with Jordan Peele – not because he seems a particularly difficult collaborator (quite the opposite, frankly), but because lazy and/or SEO-hunting websites tend to ascribe his ownership to just about anything he touches. We saw it with last year’s “Candyman” (which he co-wrote and produced but did not direct), with Spike Lee’s “BlackKklansman” (producer), with the recent “Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul” (executive producer), and with the television productions “Hunters” and “Lovecraft County” (executive producer). It’s not terribly fair to the other creators of those projects, but also understandable – he’s staked out a very specific kind of entertainment, a cross-pollination of genre exploration and social commentary, and people just associate it with him, even when his involvement isn’t terribly direct.
Henry Selick knows a little something about this. Though he directed the 1993 seasonal classic “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” he watched producer Tim Burton slap his name into the title (and push him out of the film’s lucrative merch sales). And now his latest feature, the long-awaited Netflix production “Wendell & Wild,” is already being sold as a Jordan Peele movie, since Peele not only co-wrote the screenplay and produced, but lends his voice – alongside his old sketch comedy partner Keegan-Michael Key, their first collaboration since the end of their sketch series. That’s a lot of high-profile cooks in one kitchen, and while “Wendell & Wild” is inventive and entertaining, it can also feel like it’s trying to do too many things at once.
The story, adapted from Selick’s book (written with Clay McLeod Chapman), concerns Kat (voiced by Lyric Ross), a cheerful eight-year-old whose parents are mainstays in the community of Rust Bank, where they run the local brewery. But when her parents die in a car accident, she feels responsible; “I figured I’d just hate myself for the rest of my life,” she explains, and spends the next several years getting in and out of trouble.
“They say everyone has demons – well, mine have names,” she says, and that’s where Wendell & Wild come in. They’re brothers and demons with big Laurel & Hardy/Abbott & Costello energy; like the men who provide their voices, Wendell (Key) is long and lanky, while Wild (Peele) is short and squat. They’re in thrall to their demon dad, Buffalo Belzer (a perfectly cast Ving Rhames), but they dream of striking out on their own – an opportunity unexpectedly brought to them by Kat.
Now 13, she’s getting a chance at “a do-over” at a fancy girls’ school. She’s a tough nut, and not easily cracked; she gives her school uniform a punk makeover and puts out an aura of inaccessibility, to better cover the emotional unsteadiness and uncertainty at her core. “I don’t do friends,” she tells a classmate. “Bad things happen to people I’m close to.” Rust Bank isn’t doing much better; the brewery burned down not long after her parents’ death, and took the town down with it. Now the only thing that could save the town’s fortunes is literally raising the dead – dead council voters, with enough votes to finance a private prison from a corrupt villainous corporation, a plan that unfortunately dovetails with the deal Kat makes with Wendell & Wild to bring back her parents.
Selick and Peele’s script is filled with colorful supporting characters – I haven’t even mentioned Sister Helly (Angela Bassett), the toughest nun this side of “The Blues Brothers,” or the cheerfully sleazy Father Bests (James Hong), the first of the undead, and one of the more grotesque – and Selick’s stop-motion technique renders them with memorable style and panache, all expressive eyes and seemingly incongruent body shapes. He takes opportunities to expand the look and feel of the stop motion (there’s a memorable early scene of paper cutout nightmare visions), and his transitions are endlessly clever.
But the picture clangs clumsily for stretches, particularly in its second half; Selick is trying to merge the doomy darkness of “Coraline” with the high spirit and good humor of “Nightmare Before Christmas,” and they don’t always mix. And while we always have to make children’s entertainment – which Netflix is marketing this as – a bit more thematically clear, lines like “You made me a survivor” and “I’m in control of my life now” make the subtext a bit too explicitly text, and fall into the kind of message-lifting more typical of Peele’s lesser imitators.
“Wendell & Wild” boasts some good scares and sight gags (my favorite: a zombie colonel salutes, and his arm falls off; when he’s later instructed to vote by raising his right hand, he picks it up off the floor and holds it up), and the effects are truly gobsmacking. If it were a might tighter (it runs a rather flabby 105 minutes), or more rapidly paced, they might’ve really had something here; the highs are high, but Selick struggles to keep its narrative momentum going. [B-]