Motion Stopocalypse

One of the bigger trends of the 2022 movie calendar was the prominence of stop-motion animation as a medium.  Netflix’s cheeky horror anthology The House was the first Great film of the year, and that early stop-motion triumph rolled into the wide, acclaimed release of so much direct competition that it now feels distant & puny in retrospect.  Rolling into awards season, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On and Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio are formidable contenders for best animated film of the year against the more typical Disney-funded CG mediocrities that have earned that prize by default since Toy Story put Pixar on the map.  And then there was Phil Tippet’s magnum opus horror show Mad God, which pushed the stop-motion medium to the outer limits of what animated cinema can achieve.  Usually, I’m on top of all stop-motion feature films as soon as they’re released, but this year offered so many varied, prominent titles in that category that I let a couple slip through my fingers until now.  Neither The Old Man Movie nor Wendell & Wild completely blew my mind as I caught up with them for Best of the Year listmaking season, but that was mostly a result of them joining such an already crowded field.  In a more typical year, these would have been the only two stop-motion releases of note, and I likely would have been much more ravenous for what they have to offer.

The more disappointing title of this late-entry pair is Wendell & Wild, since it’s the one with the highest pedigree behind its production.  Not only does it reunite the iconic comedy duo Key & Peele as a pair of wisecracking demons, but it’s also the comeback film of legendary stop-motion animator Henry Selick, who has not directed a film since 2009’s Coraline.  As a recently converted Monkeybone apologist, it brings me no pleasure to report that Wendell & Wild is, by far, Henry Selick’s worst film to date.  The good news is that it’s still pretty great, as long as you only pay attention to its mall goth art design & vintage Black punk soundtrack.  Story wise, the film is a sprawling, unresolved mess in a way a lot of blank-check Netflix productions have been for directors like Scorsese, Baumbach, Fincher, and The Coens, who have been putting in some of their career-weakest work on the platform with no one to push back on or hone their ideas.  Out of the pair, Netflix was smart to give del Toro’s Pinocchio the bigger Oscars Campaign—it is the better film—but it’s also far from del Toro’s best work either.  If anything, the two films could have borrowed and swapped a lot of their shakier qualities: Wendell & Wild should have been a punk rock musical, since its charms rely entirely on its soundtrack & visual spectacle, and Pinocchio should not have been a musical at all, since its entire songbook is limp & forgettable.  They’re both decently entertaining movies about rebellious youth, though, with Wendell & Wild falling somewhere at the Hot Topic end of that spectrum.

If the story of a high school punk rocker teaming with a pair of wisecracking demons to resurrect her dead parents with magical hair cream (and to avenge the wrongful deaths of the family’s condemned root beer factory while they’re at it) is a little overly complicated, maybe The Old Man Movie has a leg up on Wendell & Wild.  In The Old Man Movie, three siblings have to recapture & milk their grandfather’s escaped cow before its udder explodes, nuking their entire village in a milky “lactocalypse”.  Those are pretty clear, cut-and-dry stakes even if they are ridiculous ones, and the movie even provides a helpful 24-hour deadline before that udder catastrophe strikes.  The Old Man Movie also enjoys the benefit of nonexistent expectations. Henry Selick’s previous films Coraline, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and James and the Giant Peach rank highly among the most beloved stop-motion films of all time.  By contrast, The Old Man Movie is the most profitable animated film ever exported from Estonia, but it’s likely most audiences outside that country have never heard of it.  That might hint at its comparatively limited appeal, since Selick makes mildly spooky movies that are still friendly enough for children, while The Old Man Movie looks like it was made for children but would likely psychologically scar any who wander into the room.  It performs the shrill gross-out humor of Ren & Stimpy in the once-wholesome visual language of Wallace & Grommet.  It’s teeming with grotesque milk monsters, mile-high piles of pig shit, and unstoppable killer kratts – pushing it more into Phil Tippet nightmare territory than Henry Selick’s goth kid starter packs.

Some of The Old Man Movie‘s one-off gags offend, especially when it singles out hippies & women as targets for mockery.  Other gags deliver enormous laughs that make the eyerolls worthwhile, especially in its visible disgust for the gnarlier details of daily farm work.  While Wendell & Wild pushes the boundaries of stop-motion as an artform into the technological marvel territory of a Laika film, The Old Man Movie scales it back down to a handmade claymation style that feels a little like serial killer bedroom art.  It was refreshing to see a film so volatile in its moods & humor after the more cumbersome, plot-fixated machinations of Wendell & Wild felt so weighed down by its own enormity.  That’s not to say Wendell & Wild isn’t shocking or over-the-top in its own ways; it’s especially bold to see a children’s film about a rebellious youth’s team-up with demons get a major-platform release in a year when online Evangelicals are obsessed with the ways Satan is “grooming” children into cannibalism & debauchery through “hidden” messages in popular media.  What’s most incredible, though, is that neither The Old Man Movie nor Wendell & Wild qualify as the wildest, most outrageous stop-motion release of the year – a title that has a shocking amount of competition (and still belongs to Mad God).  There has been enough of a wealth of anarchic, ambitious stop-motion feature films that I can be a little bratty and brush both of these movies off into the “Pretty Good” pile instead of the “Saviors of Modem Animation Pile.”  I want to live in a world where I’m this spoiled every year.

-Brandon Ledet

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