In ‘Wendell & Wild’, stop motion takes on an Afro-punk beat

NEW YORK (AP) — The spooky and sublime worlds of stop-motion animation by Henry Selick are eye candy that can dig into the imaginations of young minds. In movies like “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” “James and the Giant Peach,” and “Coraline,” Selick’s dark, hand-crafted curiosities tend to leave their mark.

“That’s what I hope for all my films,” Selick, 69, smiles. “To shake these kids up but not ruin them for good.”

Jordan Peele, the writer-director of “Get Out,” “Us” and “Nope,” was one of those shaken kids.

“I remember seeing ‘Nightmare Before Christmas’ as a kid,” Peele says of the 1994 film. She was like, ‘This will be a classic.’ It was transformative for me as an artist.

But, in part because of an abruptly canceled passion project for Pixar called “The Shadow King,” it’s been 13 years since Selick’s last film, “Coraline.” In 2015, Selick reunited with Peele to create what would become “Wendell & Wild.” At the time, Peele and Keegan-Michael Key were still working on “Key & Peele”. “Get Out,” which would make Peele Hollywood’s foremost horror practitioner and an in-demand filmmaker, had yet to be released.

“He let me read the script. I knew it was good,” Selick says. “He was like, ‘We have to put ‘Wendell & Wild’ together before the movie comes out. It might not work.’ I said, ‘Don’t worry about that.’

Seven years after that first encounter, “Wendell & Wild,” produced and co-written by Peele, finally hits select theaters on Friday and on Netflix on October 28. This not only heralds the return of Selick, but the anticipated reunion of Key and Peele, who voice the film’s titular demons.

But “Wendell & Wild” is also an unprecedented stop-motion animation. Its main character – something Peele pushed – isn’t Wendell or Wild but Kat (Lyric Ross), a young orphan with afro-green hair who attends a Catholic school. There are elements of death, grief, and fantasy that will remind moviegoers of Selick’s previous films. But there’s also a lively Afro-punk vibe to match the film’s black protagonist, who sports a boombox with an eyeball woofer. The multicultural cast includes Ving Rhames, James Hong and Angela Bassett. Dizzying Needle Drops features Living Colour, TV on the Radio and Ibeyi.

“It was a character and a world that if I had seen that when I was that age, it would have been a whole new level of transformation,” Peele, 43, said in an interview alongside Selick, Key and Ross at the Toronto International. Film Festival last month.

In the opening scenes of PG-13 rated “Wendell & Wild”, Kat’s parents are killed in a car crash. She is then tricked into summoning them from the underworld by the devious Wendell and Wild. foster care and juvenile detention have toughened up Kat wearing battle boots as a brash gothic heroine.

“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” Ross says recalling the first time she saw a model for her character. “What I loved was the whole Afro Punk style and the green, natural hair. I feel like if anyone can rock that, it’s the black girls. I was in awe . She is magnificent.”

Wendell and Wild were rendered more like caricatures of Peele and Key with a demonic twist. Wild’s belly, Peele thinks, is a bit too big. But the film signified the comic duo’s most significant collaboration in years. They were determined to spend as much time together recording to get the natural rhythm of their always incredibly funny interaction. Selick reckons he has several comedy albums worth outtakes from their sessions.

“That you would let someone improvise in this art form,” Key marvels. “The fact that he would give us that freedom knowing it would take two months just to open someone’s mouth.”

Later this fall, “Wendell & Wild” will be joined on Netflix by another stop-motion animated film, “Pinocchio” by Guillermo del Toro. But such exits remain a rarity for the form, a meticulous process requiring great patience.

“It comes into vogue for a very short time, and then studio executives say, ‘Oh my god! No stop motion. It’s taking too long,'” Selick says. “It’s a rare occurrence.”

At the start of the pandemic, as computer animation kicked into high gear, production in Portland, Oregon, of “Wendell & Wild” had to shut down. Selick sometimes had 30 sets simultaneously, each requiring constant and careful handling. Nearby fires also encroached on production.

“How many weeks did you shoot that first one?” Selick asks Peele. “Three weeks,” Peele replies, causing Selick to let out a prolonged cackle. Still, Peele knows a little about the art form, Selick notes, referring to the logo of Peele’s production company, Monkey Paw Productions.

“You aim for perfection, but you’ll never get there,” says Selick. “But that’s what makes it wonderful, the flaws.”

To a remarkable degree, “Wendell & Wild” represents the fusion of the equally unique sensibilities of Selick and Peele. Intricate, otherworldly stop-motion landscapes merge with ancient comedy and snarky social commentary: two visionary filmmakers in a mind-blowing sandbox.

“As part of that first meeting, Henry was explaining his background. From my perspective, we have one of the modern masters of animation,” Peele says. is the amount we deserve. I hope we will have many more.

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Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP