Well, if it took a Henry Selick stop-motion animated horror comedy to put Key and Peele tother again on the screen, we’ll take it.
Netflix wrote the checks and the director of “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and “Coraline,” co-adapting a novel with horror hot property Jordan Peele conjures up an animated laugher that is at its funniest when the former team of Peele and Keegan-Michael Key are swapping funny lines in funny voices as the title characters, “Wendell & Wild,” hapless demons who aren’t really the center of the story.
That’s a bit of a letdown in this properly dark, occasionally daft and visually-arresting tween-to-young-adult comedy about death and letting go of the deceased. Oh yeah, it goes there. It’s just not as hilarious or as twisted as you might hope, given the clever folks involved.
A little girl leaves a carnival in Rust Bank, only to distract her Dad on the drive home, causing their station wagon to plunge off a bridge. Mom (Gabrielle Dennis) makes sure Kat (Lyric Ross) doesn’t panic and gets her out of the flooding car. But the child’s last image of Mom and Dad (Gary Gatewood) is of them sinking into the watery abyss.
Years later, we catch up with Kat as she’s headed towards her “do-over,” her second chance. She’s a troubled orphaned teen who can’t stay out of jail. But a new state program gets her enrolled at Rust Bank Catholic School, a once-prestigious institution in a city that’s in its own death spiral.
Father Bests (the legendary character actor James Hong) and Sister Helley (Angela Bassett) would love to keep the doors open. But Rust Bank is in the sites of the Klaxon Korp, whose entitled owners (David Harewood and Maxine Peake) see it as prime real estate for their next for-profit prison.
That’s where “Wendell & Wild” come in. They’re lower-level functionaries in the underworld run but their father, the demonic giant Buffalo Belzer (Ving Rhames). His Satanic pride and joy is his carnival of lost souls, Scream Faire. The sons would love to redesign it into a Dream Faire. And failing that, they get the notion of leaving Hell and setting up their operation in the world of the living.
It’s while they’re tending to the business of restoring their gigantic father’s hair (a follicle seed-drill and hair growing cream operation) that they stumble into their ticket out. That cream brings even the dead and squished ticks in their father’s enormous scalp back to life.
“I bet folks would pay a LOT to come back from the dead!”
Kat, trying like hell to avoid making friends at her new school, where even the rich girls are nice enough to suggest “Prison chic is the next big thing” as encouragement, gets caught up in the prison-building schemes and underworld intrigues thanks to “The Mark” she bears, the dead parents burden she carries, the counsel of her favorite nun and helpful hints from the transgender kid (Sam Zelaya) still stuck at a girls’ school even though he identifies otherwise.
“Wendell & Wild” is based on a story that Selick and horror writer Clay McLeod Chapman came up with and turned into a novel, and it makes for a cluttered, dead end-littered narrative. The title characters want to be and demand to be center stage, but the movie’s far more interested in its “Coraline with Color” teen girl and her story.
That’s how we get into a whole “chosen one” “hell maiden” story, the murderous politics of unscrupulous developers and Kat’s desire to atone for her role in her parents’ demise…by bringing them back to life.
There’s nothing here that couldn’t have worked, all stuffed into the same film. But the dark, dry and whimsical touches of Selick’s best work have their best outlet in the Wendell & Wild scenes, with Key and Peele trotting out their peerless timing to make even bland lines zing to life.
They want to finance their carnival dreams via bringing-corpses-back-to-life?
“We can’t raise the dead!”
“Well, we DO know how to lie!”
“Oooo, I LIKE that plan!”
Rhames is also funny, and Hong can be hilarious.
But the film keeps getting bogged down in teen angst and school and developer intrigues, and that sidelines its funniest voices and funniest characters. The script may score political points, having a transgender character who doesn’t make a big deal out of that transition, nor do his classmates, and commenting on the scammy, corrupt, pro-mass-incarceration for-profit-prison industry.
“You make a pile of money for every prisoner you take. So you pack them in like sardines, provide crap food, crap medical, dangerous conditions, and zero rehabilitation.”
But too little of that plays as comical, or even seems all that promising as fodder for funny.
The arresting, nightmarish visuals and sight gags pay off. It’s just the scanty supply of them that keep a clever idea or three and a novel setting from ever jelling into a movie destined to become an evergreen, a seasonal classic.
So here’s some more unsolicited advice, Netflix. Try again with these guys. They’re onto something, and given another shot, they might just deliver something special.
Rating: PG-13 for some thematic material, violence, substance use and brief strong language
Cast: The voices of Lyric Ross, Angela Bassett, Keegan-Micheal Key, Jordan Peele, David Harewood, Maxine Peake, James Hong and Ving Rhames.
Credits: Directed by Henry Selick, scripted by Jordan Peele, based on the novel by Clay McLeod Chapman and Henry Selick. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:45