Nobody makes films like Henry Selick. For me, his creations have been steeped into my subconscious and pop-culture vocabulary since I was nine years old, and he returns to glorious form with his stupendously dark and darkly funny, Wendell & Wild, a tale of one young girl’s quest to forgive herself and keep literal demons at bay. Wendell & Wild deserves to be celebrated.
Any time a new stop-motion animated film comes out, it grabs my attention. A lot of animated films nowadays are too sleek and too bright. It feels like they are obsessed with smoothness and gloss. Stop-motion has a hand-made component highlighting the relationship between art and artist that I personally respond to, and it’s a reason why Selick loves the form so much.
“It’s not that I think it’s better than other animation, but it’s the one that I am drawn to the most,” he said. “It has something to do with the direct connection between the animator and the life given to the character. There is no intermediary. The animator is wrestling, coaxing and seducing something out of a, sometimes, unwilling puppet. They literally bring something to life with their fingers and their great talent. I feel that. It’s an actual performance to me–even if it takes days to capture. The performance is connected to the animator, and it’s often inspired by a great voice and great character designer. The second reason–which is also another number one–is that I love the comradery of the team, and I love the types of people. It’s a carnival of specialists of people who work with metals and molds and costumers.”
Wendell & Wild is rated PG-13–something that the film seems to wear as a badge of honor. It’s not that Selick threw images into his film just for scares or to disturb a young audience, but story is paramount to him. We shouldn’t shy away from darkness but learn how to confront it. Think about the movies you loved as a kid and I’m sure you will recall how you were terrified of The Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz or when Anjelica Huston peeled off her face in The Witches.
“I think that all kids need to be scared,” Selick said with a smile. “It’s thrilling, and it’s the purpose of something like Grimm’s Fairy Tales. They’re cautionary tales. There’s scary shit out in the world, but if you show a kid overcoming it, that should be inspiring to them. In Coraline, she has no powers of special abilities, but she’s smart. It’s an important thing to feed our kids–protecting them is impossible. If your kid doesn’t have access to the internet, their friends do. To pretend that the world isn’t scary is a disservice to them. I want to make films that I believe in, and I think mine are good for kids.”
Sometimes we pull parts of our young identity from our parents, because they are all we know. Kat has to find her own path since she loses her parents when she is young, and Wendell & Wild has a theme of identity throughout. Raul, one of Kat’s first new friends, is trans and navigating his own way at home and in school.
“I always want my characters to be multi-dimensional, but with Wendell & Wild I wanted everyone to be wholly unique and believable,” Selick said. “Whoever they are and how they identify should be a natural extension of the character rather as if I was going down a checklist of the time we live in. It started simply with wanting to make great characters and going deeper. You want people to love your main characters, but I love the idea of audiences loving supporting characters. I love all the characters–even the villains. It was a conscious effort to go deeper. I wanted those chances to count.”
When I mentioned Selick’s collaboration with Jordan Peele, his face lit up. Selick reveals just how much he and Peele had in common while giving respect to his brand of horror. Peele and Keegan Michael-Key have a tremendous ease together even as animated demons, and it automatically makes you excited for when they saunter on screen to cause mischief. Wendell & Wild seems like the beginning of a beautiful life of collaborations with these artists.
“This might be my greatest collaboration of my life,” Selick admitted. “I was inspired by Key & Peele to make another film–I wasn’t sure when I was going to make another film. The most amazing thing is that Jordan is an expert on stop-motion animation–he took puppetry classes in college. He knew everything. I figured that he was genius already since he is known for playing a huge variety of characters and he is an amazing creator, but it turns out he knew about the medium. There are so many strong visual moments in his films like the deer in Get Out or the wide expanse of Nope. I knew that I was going to have a strong partner. We started getting into the visual language when we got into developing Kat. What is her look? It lit us both up when we started learning about this afro-punk moment. Jordan was keen that that was a connection between Kat and her father who was a first gen fan of Black punk music. That led a lot of the soundtrack of the film. Jordan was an expert on taking something visual and weaving it into the story. For a while, he started becoming more like Delroy–Kat’s dad. A bigger contribution was how to blend visually so everything had a deeper connection to the story.”
A few weeks back, I was visiting Boston on Halloween weekend, and I saw a young, Black girl trick-or-treating with her mother dressed as Kat from the film. Seeing young people immediately connect with his creations is something Selick revels in. He’s seen it before, and, I’m sure, it’s not the last time we will see someone inhabiting one of his characters with excitement.
“That whole thing is something I have encountered in my career, but now it’s sped up. With Nightmare Before Christmas, it came and went and there wasn’t a lot of merchandising. After a number of years, my sons were little and I was manning the front door to give out candy on Halloween. Kids started coming to my door dressed as the characters, and it was so gratifying. The same thing happened with Coraline. With Wendell & Wild, kids are already doing cosplay. It happens that they are connecting with characters before the movie is even opened, and they are doing it so well. These are not shoddy costumes!
“Before the film came out, there was this shy set of sisters at this presentation. One was dressed up as Sister Helley and the other was dressed as Kat, but the fun thing for me was how well they did it. They had a boombox playing music. What was great was the younger sister–who may have been nine years old or so–wanted to be Helley while the taller sister was young Kat. They got to be who they wanted to be.”
Wendell & Wild is streaming now on Netflix.