Almost 30 years after “The Nightmare Before Christmas” (1993), Henry Selick returns with “Wendell & Wild,” another stop-motion animated sensation that’s sure to generate acclaim throughout the industry. Co-written by Oscar-winning screenwriter Jordan Peele, the Netflix feature film debuted at the Toronto Film Festival and may have asserted itself as the new frontrunner for best animated feature.
Based on Selick and Clay McLeod Chapman’s unpublished book of the same name, the film tells the story of two scheming demon brothers, Wendell (Keegan-Michael Key) and Wild (Peele), who enlist the aid of a 13-year-old Kat (Lyric Ross) to summon them to the Land of the Living. It also features the voice talents of Angela Bassett, James Hong and Ving Rhames.
Marking Selick’s first film since “Coraline” (2009), his sole Oscar-nominated feature, Selick brings the razzle-dazzle stop-motion effects to the screen, exquisitely assembling luscious set designs and breathtaking effects. Finally, five years after Laika’s “Kubo and the Two Strings” successfully secured an additional nom for best visual effects, “Wendell & Wild” might be able to break into that race. Coincidentally, “The Nightmare Before Christmas” was the first animated film ever nominated in that category.
It’s also worthy of recognition for its writing, with its whimsical and inclusive takes on magic and the strength of the family bond that transcends life and death. Where it ultimately will be designated will be something to watch. According to the rules, being based on an unpublished work would keep it in the original race; however, films like “Moonlight” (2016) and “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” (2018) received last-minute switches from original to adapted. So we’ll see where it ultimately lands.
Peele’s involvement also elevates its profile after he won the Oscar for original screenplay for “Get Out” (2017) and garnered three other noms (best picture and director for “Get Out” and picture for “BlacKkKlansman”). If he manages to land noms for animated feature and adapted screenplay, he would join Spike Lee as the only Black creatives to be nominated in five separate categories. Lee has been nominated for best picture, director, original screenplay, adapted screenplay and documentary feature.
The animated feature race is waiting for a few more contenders to drop onto the circuit, including Netflix’s “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio,” DreamWorks Animation’s “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish,” Walt Disney Pictures’ “Strange World” and GKIDS’ “Inu-Oh,” so we’ll see how long it can hold onto its big kickoff. Of course, there are also critically acclaimed films such as Pixar’s “Turning Red” and A24’s “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On” (if it’s deemed eligible) that could make a considerable impact. I wish it could factor into best picture but that remains a pipe dream for the medium that’s only had three nominees in its 94-year history.
Along with Selick and Peele, the film is produced by Ellen Goldsmith-Vein and Win Rosenfeld.
“Wendell & Wild” opens in theaters on October 21 before being released on the streaming platform on October 28.