Let’s lead with the good news first: Key and Peele are back! Kind of. The sketch comedy duo who once gave us the greatest college-football roll calls of all time, and repeatedly mentioned that Liam Neesons (plural) were their jam, have briefly reunited in the name of giving future Goth kids something to worship. Neither of these gents have been M.I.A.: Jordan Peele has rebranded himself and reinvigorated horror movies to the point where he’s his own subgenre now; if you try to scroll through Keegan-Michael Key’s beaucoup IMDb page entries since the duo’s Comedy Central show ended in 2015, you risk getting a hand cramp. They’ve been everywhere except together, which is one reason why Wendell & Wild, their Netflix-streaming collaboration with director/stop-motion animator/Halloween costumer hall-of-famer Henry Selick, is worth your attention. So what if they’re merely lending their voices to a pair of bumbling misfit demons who’ve escaped the Netherworld? It’s Key and Peele. It’s the return of the ampersand!
The dynamic between the two of them hasn’t diminished one bit, although their double act is fighting for space in a movie that’s got a lot on its mind and even more on its agenda. Key’s Wendell is the more high-strung and manic of the two. Peele’s Wild is shorter, stockier and a variation on the sort of sketch characters he’d play in which their speed was stuck somewhere between stoner and dimwit. It’s business as usual, in other words, and also a bit of a comedic shorthand — think Abbott and Costello Go to Hell. These two demon siblings are in the Hades doghouse and are forced to cater to a giant blue devil named Buffalo Belzer (Ving Rhames). Luckily, they’ve hit upon a way to liberate themselves from an eternity of menial tasks, which involves getting a “hellmaiden” to summon them to the land of the living. Even more luckily: Wild thinks he’s found a candidate.
Enter the movie’s hero: Kat Elliot (Lyric Ross). The daughter of Delroy and Wilma Elliot, both pillars of the Rust Bank community who ran the local brewery, she was a kid who grew up in an environment of love and social responsibility. Then a car accident late one night left her an orphan, and she spent five years acting out her rage and grief in various different locations. Now 13 years old, Kat has been given what she calls a “do-over.” The Rust Bank Catholic School for Girls has taken her in as part of new program to help wayward teens, which means she has to return to where it all went wrong. She notices that their old brewery is now a burnt-out building; she’s told there was a mysterious fire there that happened right after her parents’ memorial, and right about the time that a conglomerate named Klax Korp started to inquire about building one of their privatized prisons there.
Forgot, for a second, that this movie bears the name of its comic-relief couple — Kat is the center of what will turn out to be a large, rotating cast of characters and a multi-tentacled narrative that touches on more aspects then Wendell & Wild can possibly or effectively deal with. She’s also one of the single more interesting characters to show up in an animated movie in a long time, an angry young woman who has developed an armor against the world and an Atlas-level shoulder strong enough to house the boulder-sized chip on it. Unsure of her new surroundings, Kat girds for battle. She throws on her Demonia platform boots, lets her green hair down and struts through the hallway blasting X-Ray Spex’s “I’m a Poseur” on her late dad’s beatbox — an embodiment of rebellion and Afro-punk empowerment. (The soundtrack itself is stacked with Afro-punk anthems, with killer tracks from Death, Living Colour, Tamar Kali, TV on the Radio and more; you will see more Fishbone t-shirts and insignias in this than you do at most Fishbone shows.) It’s as close to iconic as this film gets.
[Inhale] It also turns out that Kat may be the one that Wendell and Wild are looking for since, after a class lesson that involves a chameleonic octopus and a weird electrical charge and the cryptic warnings of Sister Helley (Angela Bassett), she develops a skull-like mark on her hand that can allow her to communicate with those who live at the corner of Fire and Brimstone, not unlike the school janitor in the wheelchair who has his own history with hellspawn (as does Sister Helly, FYI), but these powers might help her find some sort of peace if those knucklehead demons bring their magic hair cream, which BTW can raise the dead, to the surface world and help her resurrect Mom and Dad, assuming the recently deceased priest who’s also back from the grave doesn’t use all of it in a scheme to let Klax Korp take over everything and — [Exhale].
Did that sentence confuse you a bit? You won’t be the only one who suddenly finds themselves going, Wait, what just happened? Where does this fit in? How does this all connect? Co-written by Selick and Peele, Wendell & Wild has a nagging tendency to throw a lot at you and simply cross its slender, skeleton-ish fingers that even a little of it coheres and sticks. There’s a certain leap of faith that all of these various parallel plotlines and tones — a supernatural buddy comedy, a female empowerment parable, a biting indictment on the prison industrial complex, a satire in which a suit-wearing villain sporting a conspicuously obnoxious blond ‘do isn’t a coincidence, and several other peripheral bits — will eventually join together on a single track without resulting in a trainwreck. That ends up being too huge an ask. As for the animation, Selick & Co. still know how to gin up the Burtonesque, giddy-ghoulish feeling of The Nightmare Before Christmas and Coraline in a pinch, but there’s an odd lack of spark behind a lot of what’s happening onscreen. This needs a lot more chaos energy to power it past the rough spots.
None of this should detract from the movie’s good elements and better-angels best intentions. This doesn’t just feature the most diverse cast of characters of any animated movie — it’s one of the most diverse round-ups of any movie, period. Representation matters now more than ever, and Wendell & Wild gives you the impression it wants to make up for decades of misrepresentation, or a complete lack of representation at all, in a little under two hours. There’s also the thrill of watching Kat being young, enraged, messy and complicated without judgement (and seeing a young trans character who’s simply presented as a young trans character, no big whoop), not to mention the joy of hearing two comedic geniuses together again. It may be that all of this jockeying for screentime and oxygen in one fit-to-burst film isn’t the ideal conduit for everything. Personable demons to help someone battle their personal demons is one thing. Trying to pull that notion off in the middle of a carnival’s worth of other, occasionally clunky attractions is the definition of too much and not enough.