Peele and Key on reuniting, as demons, in ‘Wendell & Wild’

TORONTO — It’s seven years almost to day since the last episode of “Key & Peele” aired, but Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key are once again riffing together.

They’re sitting in a Toronto hotel the day before the premiere of Henry Selick’s stop-motion-animation marvel “Wendell & Wild” at the Toronto International Film Festival. Peele co-wrote and produced the film with the “Coraline” filmmaker, and in it, he and Key voice the titular demon brothers who manipulate a goth teenager (voiced by Lyric Ross) into summoning her dead parents to the land of the living.

In the film’s opening scene, Wendell and Wild operate a strange machine in a spooky netherworld, and yet, even in this dark, fantastical realm, the tempo of Peele and Key’s unique comic rhythm is unmistakable. In the recording booth voicing the scene, they drew from an old Second City improv game they used to do called Make-a-Machine where a string of people mime a different part of an assembly line.

“Let’s play it right now,” says Peele.

And in a moment, the cogs of one of the century’s greatest comic duos again whirls into motion. Key and Peele work in syncopated harmony, with a symphony of bleeps and blurps, while Selick and Ross look on uncertain of their role in this still finely-tuned comedy machine. Eventually the gears slow.

“It’s not the funniest improv game,” deadpans Peele.

“Wendell & Wild,” which Netflix will release in theaters Oct. 21 and begin streaming Oct. 28, is an event for a couple reasons. It’s first film by Selick, the celebrated animator of “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” since 2009’s “Coraline,” a 13-year spell during which he spent years on a Pixar film that was abruptly canceled. In the stop-motion animation world, “Wendell and Wild” also stands out for its bold, punkish Black protagonist.

But for many, the appeal of seeing, even in demon-form, Key and Peele reunited is something special. Since “Key & Peele” concluded in 2015, Peele has, of course, embarked on an ambitious and acclaimed filmmaking career with a trilogy of mind-bending thrillers in “Get Out,” “Us” and this year’s “Nope.” Key has greatly extended his acting career in film, television and on Broadway.

“I think people sort of get that when Key and Peele does something, it’s going to be very special. It’s going to be very intentional,” Peele says. “Certainly this is the first but I do not think it will be the last by any means.”

With that Peele and Key launch again into an impromptu bit, muttering a secret plan over frenetic phone calls into their hands and making mock Facetimes.

“It was like a blur,” Key says of the five seasons of “Key & Peele.” “There’s a general feeling that there was passion, that there was focus, that there was love. There was an alchemy to it. In some ways, it’s completely unexplainable. It’s ineffable. It just worked.”

Says Peele: “It’s like a brother thing. There is a familial connection that’s very strong. Nothing can replicate going through a period like that. Looking back on ‘Key and Peele,’ one of my favorite things is the idea that you get sent sketches and people say ‘There’s a Key and Peele’ for that.”

For “Wendell & Wild,” the two insisted on being together while recording much of the voice tracks, eager to return to the energy they had together on “Key & Peele.” (They also lent their voices to a pair of plush toys in “Toy Story 4.”)

“There’s at least three whole comedy albums worth of outtakes of these guys just riffing,” says Selick. “We weren’t going to stop because it was a miracle just to see them reconnect. It was like a masterclass. The best lines are things they just thought of spontaneously.”

Peele actually began working with Selick before the end of “Key & Peele.” (Stop-motion animation takes a long time.) But, if anything, “Wendell and Wild,” with dazzlingly dark designs and a PG-13 story centered around family trauma, marries the duo’s earlier comedy with Peele’s more nightmarish films since.

“There’s almost a sense of evolution to me, in a way,” says Key. “There were only hints to Jordan’s sensibilities in ‘Key and Peele’ that leaked through some cracks here and there in regard to something that might be strange or macabre.”


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