It’s been 13 years since the world has had a new Henry Selick film to feast its eyes on, but today the filmmaker’s latest, Wendell & Wild, is available worldwide on Netflix, and critics and audiences are chiming in on the latest from the stop-motion master.
When the film first premiered at Toronto in September, the few critics who published their reviews at the time were unanimously bullish on the feature, and it boasted a 100% Rotten Tomato score for several weeks. As more screenings were hosted, the critical score came back down to earth, where it now sits at 81%.
The primary complaint about Wendell & Wild is that the film tried to do too much with its 105-minute runtime. Many of the reviews, even the positive ones, have knocked the film as “overstuffed” or “unfocused,” but most were happy to forgive those faults thanks to Wendell & Wild’s virtues, among them its gorgeous character and set designs, a sharp sense of humor, and a diverse cast of characters unlike anything seen in big studio stop-motion since Fox’s The PJs in 1999.
Although Rotten Tomatoes’ good-or-bad scorekeeping system can sometimes lead to marks that feel misleading to those who have actually read the reviews, Wendell & Wild’s 80% critic score feels like one that most critics could agree on. While Selick might not hit the highs of The Nightmare Before Christmas or Coraline with his latest film, Wendell & Wild is certainly no Monkeybone and could well land a spot the canon of annual Halloween viewing.
Let’s take a closer look at what the critics are saying, starting with Emma Stefansky at Indiewire, who would have preferred a more focused approached to the film’s numerous important themes:
There’s a lot that Key, Peele, and Selick want to fit into this movie… This compulsion makes Wendell & Wild feel a tad overstuffed by the end, with a breathless final 20 minutes that ties up every plot thread. The movie might have been better served by picking one or two themes among the dangers of necromancy, facing one’s demons, the importance of supporting local businesses, the hollow promises of the juvenile rehabilitation system, and learning to accept death, but the film never allows anything to fall by the wayside, either.
Writing for The Wrap, Lena Wilson gave one of the more scathing reviews and was unforgiving of the film’s too-busy storyline:
Where Selick’s other projects focus on fairy tale–like plots with clear goals and rules, Wendell & Wild ping-pongs between indiscriminate topics and only occasionally sticks the landing. “Whiplash-inducing” scarcely begins to describe this viewing experience, where the sullen punk Kat takes on childhood trauma and prison reform while Wendell and Wild squish bugs and build booger sculptures.
After suggesting that the film struggles sometimes to find balance in its divergent narrative arcs, Radheyan Simonpillai at The Guardian found virtue in the abundance of characters:
[T]he more characters Selick has to work with, the more room there is for his deliciously strange and comic visual craft. That’s what we’re here for, ain’t it? The director and his animation team do predictably fun work with nuns looking like decayed minions, papier-mache-style ghosts, a cuddly but possessed teddy bear, and enough clownish-looking undead to fill a circus.
In his review for Empire, Kambole Campbell (who also contributes to Cartoon Brew) acknowledged some of the film’s narrative shortcomings, but found them to be easily forgivable:
Though the film is sometimes unfocused, a heap of ideas crammed into its running time, its ambition is impressive — balancing spookiness, grizzly death, the prison-industrial complex, and some nuanced emotional turmoil with silly, often dark comedy. Selick and Peele funnel the film’s craft into a children’s fable with a strong political message about the failure, cruelty, and material greed of juvenile detention systems, the villains of the piece not at all pretentious about their purpose: revenue, not rehabilitation. Time hasn’t dulled the edge found in Selick’s sharp, delightful animated adventures.
Brian Tallerico at RogerEbert.com did a good job summing up the consensus in the reviews that have been published so far:
At first, the kinetic creativity of Selick’s Wendell & Wild is almost overwhelming. It feels like A Nightmare Before Christmas, it kind of looks like Coraline, it’s SO punk rock. Add in the fact that Jordan Peele co-wrote the project, and voices one of the title characters along with his comedy life-mate Keegan-Michael Key, and this movie simply explodes with artistic fire. Almost too much. At 105 minutes, it’s a little overladen, as Selick and Peele over-complicate their storytelling with subplots and even commentary on the prison industrial complex. However, there’s no denying that this is a world that animation fans will just want to explore, to live in, to savor. It’s been too long since we got a window into Henry Selick’s brain and it’s still an amazing view.
Wendell & Wild was co-written by Henry Selick and Jordan Peele and produced by The Gotham Group and Monkeypaw Productions for Netflix.
Producers: Henry Selick, Ellen Goldsmith-Vein, Jordan Peele, Win Rosenfeld Executive producers: Lindsay Williams, Eddie Gamarra, Kamil Oshundara, Ian Cooper