It’s hard to believe that it’s been 13 years since Henry Selick’s last film, “Coraline.” In the time since that Neil Gaiman adaptation launched the indelible Laika brand, the “Nightmare Before Christmas” director has worked on several features that failed to come to fruition, including the passion project, “The Shadow King,” for Disney/Pixar. But something positive still came out of that project’s cancellation: The partnership with Jordan Peele (“Nope”) that led to Selick’s stop-motion comeback, “Wendell & Wild,” the first trailer for which premiered today.
The first 30-minute sneak peek footage of “Wendell & Wild” — in which Black teenage orphan Kat (Lyric Ross) becomes an afro-punk hell maiden who makes a bargain with demon siblings Wendell (Keegan-Michael Key) and Wild (Jordan Peele) — proves that the wait for a new Selick film was worth it. The director has made a summary statement about rebellion and creativity, pushing his craft into new areas of expression and experimentation.
After the disappointment of abandoning the very personal “The Shadow King,” Selick pivoted to an older passion project, whose concept arose from the devilish antics of the director’s children. While “The Shadow King” initially drew inspiration from Selick’s relationship with his brother, he recently told IndieWire that its story of a long-fingered orphan boy who makes hand shadows come to life was “turning into something else.” “But [‘Wendell & Wild’] was more about my two sons, George and Harry, and observing their relationship and demonic possessions,” Selick said.
Selick carried over some of his 2D experiments with shadow play into his new film. “There’s a big section where Kat has to face her personal demons — not Wendell and Wild, the bad shit in her life — and deal with it,” he said. “And that’s all her shadow projected on this place that I call ‘The Redemption Chamber.’ I didn’t get to finish ‘The Shadow King,’ but here it is.”
More consequential to “Wendell & Wild” was Selick’s discovery of Key and Peele’s eponymous sketch-comedy series. That led to the comedians’ vocal performances and Peele’s participation as producer and co-writer. Following the breakout success of Peele’s feature-length directorial debut, “Get Out,” they landed the deal with Netflix to make “Wendell & Wild.”
Peele wanted stronger Black representation among the cast — led by Angela Bassett’s mysterious nun and Ving Rhames’ Underworld leader — and also recommended promoting Kat from the supporting cast to the lead role. Selick was fine with that, and doubled down on reflecting a modern approach to afro-punk in Kat’s hair, wardrobe, and musical taste. This was a movement near and dear to the director — he even helmed the 1985 video for “Party at Ground Zero” by afro-punk icons Fishbone — who wanted to show how a new generation had reconnected with it through modern fashion and music. With the assistance of recently hired Netflix animation vice president Karen Toliver, Selick was able to secure such needle drops as Fishbone’s “Ma & Pa” and “Ghost Town” by The Specials for “Wendell & Wild.”
“It became an idea for a look for Kat but then became a strong connection with her father. She’s not so much a rebel but a lover of this same music,” said Selick, who wanted to anchor his “comedy-horror-fantasy-drama” in a couple of important issues: “Kids that get kicked out of school and put on the school-to-prison pipeline, and exaggerated elitist villains, who want to build a prison [to separate undesirables].”
In terms of the stop-motion animation, which was done by a talented group of Portland-based freelancers, Selick wanted to find that sweet spot between the high-tech sophistication of Laika and the retro, old-school look of his past collaborator Wes Anderson. “I wanted the stop-motion to be more obviously stop-motion,” he said. “There’s more flaws in it. We shot more on 2s, even 3s. Laika does the prettiest stop-motion in the world, but sometimes I feel like it’s CG and I wanted to make our film look a little rougher. And I love what Wes has done — his last [animated] film, ‘Isle of Dogs’, is a masterpiece — but that’s his particular style. I was building on what I’d done in the past but maybe going back a little, not fussing so much. There were less rehearsals, I wanted to capture a little more of the spirit and efforts of people and not go through so many steps.”
For the puppets, Selick wanted to embrace what Charlie Kaufman did on “Anomalisa” by keeping the seam line in the split between the upper and lower faces. “I really thought it worked beautifully,” he said. “On ‘Coraline,’ it wasn’t my call, but they chose to paint out that seam line in post, so I had no problem doing what I originally wanted to do.” He also dialed back the 3D printing. “We start with hand-sculpted stuff, and I work with 2D animators to figure out the expressions. I don’t like that being done in the computer.”
Among the highlights of “Wendell & Wild”: Rhames’ giant demon Buffalo Belzer — designed by Pablo Lobato to resemble Barry White — and the Underworld Scream Fair set built on his belly by the art department led by production designer Paul Harrod (“Isle of Dogs”). The set was inspired by one of Selick’s childhood haunts, Asbury Park’s defunct Palace Amusements, as well as parts of Disneyland (by way of Hieronymus Bosch). The roller coaster runs off the rails, the Ferris wheel drops souls into a tank with electric eels, and a tea cup ride pours burning liquid on them. “It’s always great to bring in the things that have influenced you and turn them on their heads,” Selick said.
“Wendell & Wild” also found Selick continuing to experiment with 2D cutouts. It’s a fascination he shares with his “Nightmare Before Christmas” partner Tim Burton, and goes all the way back to some of that film’s background work. “I love origami, paper scultpture — this interplay between flat stuff and dimensional stuff,” he said. “It’s a lot easier ’cause it’s flat and gravity is not the enemy as it is with puppets.”
Courtesy of Netflix
In selecting the Picasso-esque character designer Lobato, Selick had to wrestle with the complexity of how to mix 2D and stop-motion puppetry for Wendell and Wild. “We ended up making the heads pretty flat on dimensional bodies, and we had to find a way to play to faces on camera,” he said. “But then that changes when they wind up back in the Land of the Living and they’re a little more traditional looking.
It definitely keeps Selick’s interest up by dabbling in all types of animation. He also reached outside of himself more in “Wendell & Wild,” dealing with the zeitgeist as part of his continuing exploration of social misfits in search of family and community.
“Wendell & Wild” premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival, before debuting in theaters on October 21 and on Netflix October 28.