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Wendell & Wild’s Director & Star On The Film’s Wondrous Inclusivity

Wendell & Wild’s Director & Star On The Film’s Wondrous Inclusivity

Wendell & Wild
Courtesy of Netflix

PRIDE spoke with Henry Selick and James Hong about trans and Asian American representation in their new film.

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To call Henry Selick a master of his art is to undersell his gifts and his influence in the world of stop-motion animation. The Nightmare Before Christmas, Coraline, and James and the Giant Peach were all products of his passion and talents, and each has become iconic. Now Selick can add a new instant classic to his list, Netflix’s Wendell & Wild — which he co-wrote with Jordan Peele — and which once again showcases his gift for both the charming and macabre in equal measure.

Wendell & Wild follows the story of Kat Elliot (Lyric Ross), a teen with a tragic history and a massive chip on her shoulder. She also possesses psychic gifts and the ability to commune with demons, including two of her personal ones, Wendell and Wild (voiced by Keegan-Michael Key and Peele, respectively). When she summons them into the land of the living, the lines between the living and dead become very wobbly, and adventure and mayhem unfold.

While Wendell & Wild is certainly a madcap adventure full of fun and plenty of laughs, it’s more than that. There’s a beating heart to the film that doesn’t shy away from exploring deep and resonating themes of grief, guilt, and identity. And it’s those themes that modernize the film so that it speaks to its diverse audience in a new and exciting way.

While the finished product is very of the moment, the story’s origins date back two decades ago. “The original story is very old, 20 years old, when my grown sons were little demons,” Selick tells PRIDE. As a result, the characters went through many changes including making Raul (Sam Zelaya) trans. “Years later meeting with Jordan Peele, who became a key collaborator and a producer... I just had this idea that, well, there needs to be one boy there [in the girl’s Catholic school],” he recalls. “We didn’t have him be trans at first, but it just logically fit in the story. Well, of course, he’s trans.”

Raul and Kat in Wendell & Wild

Courtesy of Netflix

For Selick, it was important to center two outsiders in the piece, and have them connect because of that shared feeling of being apart from the mainstream — a sentiment that may resonate with many queer viewers in the audience. “[Raul] is someone who sees Kat come in. She’s a total outsider. She’s coming from the juvenile justice system. And he’s drawn to her. Because he’s going through this change,” Selick explains. It was also important that these character choices were not tokenistic. “There was never ‘here’s our checklist and we want all these types of characters,’ it was always going to be about the story. And what made the film more interesting, fun, and entertaining,” the director adds.

Watch our full interview with Wendell & Wild director Henry Selick below.

It certainly didn’t hurt that the film boasts an incredibly talented and diverse cast including Angela Bassett as Sister Helley, Ving Rhames as the demon king Buffalo Belzer, and, of course, acting icon James Hong as the sometimes villainous Father Bests.

Hong is a legend in Hollywood who has been starring in films for 70 years, an incredible feat for any actor, but it also meant making space in a time and in an industry that had no interest in portraying him as a fully realized human being on the screen. “When I started in those days — my first movie was with Clark Gable — we were all just cliche characters without any real human feelings,” Hong tells PRIDE. “We were put into a movie because it was a gimmick not because of the real life of the Asian American people or characters and it’s through the years it slowly progressed.”

Father Bests (James Hong) in Wendell & Wild

Courtesy of Netflix

This year has been an incredible one for the actor. Not only is he starring in Wendell & Wild, but he also appeared in the breakout hit Everything Everywhere All At Once and got his well-deserved star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. “It took me 70 years to get that star on the Walk of Fame after about 700 credits. In fact, I had given up because there have been other people trying to get me that star and finally, Daniel Dae Kim was able to do it,” he shares. “So I celebrated. I had the lion dance. I had Jamie Lee Curtis and other people come and celebrate with me, it was a joyous occasion. And I hope there are going to be a lot more Asian American stars on that walk. But to me, it’s a lifetime’s work being recognized in Hollywood.”

In his role as Father Bests, Hong gets to voice the kind of character he dreamed of when starting out. One that’s layered, complex, funny, villainous, and even a little heroic. It’s been his literal life’s work to create those kinds of opportunities not only for himself, but for other Asian actors as well. “At age 93, I can say I’ve done my work. And I’m very proud of it, not only as an actor but as an advocate for better images for Asian Americans,” he says.

Watch our full interview with Wendell & Wild star James Hong below.

Hong is proud of his portrayal of Father Bests and glad to be recognized for his talent. “I’m able to put my voice and acting into films and TV that really counts... they gave me a chance to do Father Bests, they didn’t have to, but they saw my talent,” he says. “I hope it’s what my fans will see as another good piece of work by James Hong, especially for Asian American actors. This role’s just a human being in desperate need. And that’s the way I hope it will be for the next few years in my life. It’s just an American character in the principal walk of life.”

Hong’s not the only one celebrating now: Selick himself is enjoying a bit of a victory lap after completing the Herculean task of bringing his film to the screen and having it well received by critics — and even more importantly, he says, the cast and crew themselves. “I wanted the crew who worked so hard on it [to love it]. A lot of the crew is represented in the film, the types of people, ethnicities, gender, and so forth. They love their movie,” he says with a smile. It’s the kind of reaction that keeps Selick going and planning his next foray into the world of animation. What that may be he’s currently keeping quiet about, but he has some ideas. “I’ve got some of the collaborators I worked with on [Wendell & Wild] I’d love to work with again, I’ve got a couple of projects kind of cooking. So it’s more of a wait-and-see,” he teases.

Thankfully, the wait to see Wendell & Wild is over — it’s streaming now on Netflix. 

How long did it take to make Wendell & Wild?

It took seven years from the beginning of development to release. However, the book it was based on was written 20 years ago.

What is Wendell & Wild based on?

Wendell & Wild is based on a book written by Henry Selick and Clay McLeod Chapman that was never published.

Is Wendell and wild kid friendly?

Wendell & Wild is rated PG-13 due to violence, substance use, brief strong language, and some mature thematic material, according to Netflix.

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Rachel Shatto

EIC of PRIDE.com

Rachel Shatto, Editor in Chief of PRIDE.com, is an SF Bay Area-based writer, podcaster, and former editor of Curve magazine, where she honed her passion for writing about social justice and sex (and their frequent intersection). Her work has appeared on Elite Daily, Tecca, and Joystiq, and she podcasts regularly about horror on the Zombie Grrlz Horror Podcast Network. She can’t live without cats, vintage style, video games, drag queens, or the Oxford comma.

Rachel Shatto, Editor in Chief of PRIDE.com, is an SF Bay Area-based writer, podcaster, and former editor of Curve magazine, where she honed her passion for writing about social justice and sex (and their frequent intersection). Her work has appeared on Elite Daily, Tecca, and Joystiq, and she podcasts regularly about horror on the Zombie Grrlz Horror Podcast Network. She can’t live without cats, vintage style, video games, drag queens, or the Oxford comma.