Given how long it takes to make a stop-motion movie — and how long it takes to persuade a studio to produce one — it’s no surprise that stop-motion specialist Henry Selick disappears for years at a time between projects. The director of The Nightmare Before Christmas, Monkeybone, and James and the Giant Peach has spent the years since his 2009 Neil Gaiman adaptation Coraline on a variety of stop-motion projects that have been shelved or sidelined. But Netflix announced Tuesday that his latest long-gestating project, the stop-motion animated movie Wendell & Wild, will debut on the streaming service on Oct. 28.
Wendell & Wild stars the voices of longtime comedy partners Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele as Wendell and Wild, a pair of low-level demon brothers who live and work in a theme park-styled hell that exists entirely on the belly of a much larger demon (voiced by Ving Rhames). Wendell and Wild dream of starting their own, better theme park in the mortal world. So they team up with 13-year-old Kat (Lyric Ross), a troubled orphan with the ability to summon demons.
During a visit to the Wendell & Wild set in April, Polygon learned that the idea for the movie came to Selick through his children. “Wendell & Wild started out as a short story I did many, many years ago, inspired by my sons, who are now grown,” he says. “When they were little, I did a picture of them as demons. They were somewhat demonic at times. And I wrote a story about it and shared it with some people, but then I put it away.”
Years later, Selick shares, he became a fan of the sketch-comedy series Key & Peele. “I was so impressed by their work,” he says. “I just said, What the hell, I’ll reach out. They probably don’t know who I am. But I wanted to work with them. I’m not known for comedy in my films, [though] I think there’s always comedic elements. But I really had this desire [to work] with them and bring what they do into a project that I’m on.”
He says both Key and Peele were interested in a shared project, and Jordan Peele in particular wanted to meet and collaborate. Among the ideas Selick brought up was the short story about the two demon brothers. “It seemed like a Key & Peele skit, almost, that they could be these siblings who are demons, but have very human weaknesses and desires. So I shared my pages and talked it through, and he got really excited and basically said, ‘I want to be involved creatively. I’d like to be a producer.’ He was just starting up his new company, Monkeypaw. And that’s really the genesis of the project.”
Selick says he originated the basic characters of the story, but that Peele “added all sorts of great things to characters in the story,” particularly in shaping Kat, a Black girl who ends up in the juvenile justice system for acting out after her parents die. Once the early plans and character designs for the film were in place, he and Peele were ready to pitch it to production studios. But Selick says he had to talk Peele down from his anxiety over the premiere of Peele’s directorial debut, the 2017 horror-thriller Get Out.
“Two weeks before his first feature film, Get Out, was gonna be releasing, he said [highly agitated Jordan Peele impression] ‘We gotta go out and pitch it now! We gotta go out now, because what if Get Out’s a failure?’ I said, ‘Look, look, you’re too nervous to do this. You just have to trust it’s gonna work out.’”
Selick says he knew Wendell & Wild was going to be an offbeat, unique project. “We weren’t going to pitch it everywhere. Just a handful of places. Netflix being the number one place we felt would give us creative support for something unusual, and that would also support a stop-motion film, because stop-motion has always been the stepchild of the animation industry.”
As Selick notes, his medium is a tougher sell based on profitability. Studios like Portland’s Laika — which produced Selick’s Coraline and specializes in stop-motion movies like Kubo and the Two Strings — are extremely rare. They also don’t have the kind of marketing budget and reach that help CG movies from majors like Disney, Pixar, and Illumination reach billion-dollar paydays worldwide. (By contrast, Coraline made about $125 million back in 2009 — respectable for a small animated film, just not Disney-level money.)
But Selick says having an ally in Peele helped, particularly given how Peele’s anxiety over his own debut film eventually paid off: “And then Get Out is this amazing hit, because it’s such a good film. And then suddenly, all doors are open.”
Wendell & Wild will premiere on Netflix on Oct. 28.