Wendell & Wild star Sam Zelaya proves that children’s movies are the perfect setting for trans characters

The new scary Netflix animation features a brave 13-year-old. The actor who voiced him says, “People don’t give kids enough credit.”

Animation, like social progress, takes a long time. It’s been thirteen years since Henry Selick’s last film, Coraline, was first shown to critical acclaim and a huge box office success. Although it had a few Oscar nominations and it became the third highest-grossing non-action movie of all time, it took Selick more than a decade to get another one.

Thanks to co-writer Jordan Peele and co-producer Monkeypaw Productions, Selick was able to give birth to another animated fantasy with “Wendell & Wild,” a quirky comedy about the perils of life and death play. Seems like the perfect subject for a kids movie, right?

Drawing on the darker themes that made his first movie, “The Nightmare Before Christmas” such a refreshing success, “Wendell & Wild” doesn’t treat its young audience with baby gloves. The brave heroine is an orphan named “Kat” (voiced by Lyric Ross), and the film opens with the harrowing scene she witnesses when her parents die in a car accident. Much less dark but perhaps seen by some as equally mature, the first friend she makes at school is a mutant boy named Raul (voiced by Sam Zelaya).

“[With] “Lots of setbacks against transgender representation and rights,” said Zelaya, who voiced Raul in his first film role. “But a lot of times I think people don’t give kids enough credit. I’m really glad this movie doesn’t talk to kids. There. So many issues that have been addressed that a lot of people who make a children’s movie would be ashamed of, but they are all handled so well.”

“Wendell & Wild”

Courtesy of Netflix

London-trained theater actor Zelaya responded to the cast’s mysterious “Wendell & Wild” call on Twitter.

“I saw they were looking for a trans Latina and I went, ‘I’m both. “It’s very rare that you see a call where that cross between two minorities won’t play against you, because they usually want one type or the other,” he said. “Even when people want to be inclusive and enjoy that representation, there is always a concern about the optics and what they say about this group of people. I think sometimes people think about that and find it easier not to say anything.”

Raoul is an integral part of the large-scale story, which somehow includes a fictional journey through the underworld and a sharp critique of the prison industrial complex. With so much going on, there’s hardly any room for Raul’s passing identity to be more than a simple fact about his personality. The movie mentions it enough that it’s obvious, but it doesn’t even make it a fleeting plot point. His mother, friends, and classmates (even the wretched ones) support and prove his identity. The one time Raul’s gender is abused, the character quickly corrects herself and moves on. It’s a brief but illustrative and teachable moment. He does not need to draw attention to himself.

“It’s always a major plot point in our lives, it affects how we move through the world and how we see things, but we’re also just people at the end of the day, and it’s great to see the acting lean more toward that,” Zelaya said. “I like that this is a relatively recent thing for Raul. He tried to be like the girls at school and obviously something wasn’t right. … I think that’s just a narrative that you don’t see often. … It’s great not being represented. only our experiences, but there are now a variety of experiences as well.”

“Wendell & Wild” actor Sam Zelaya

Netflix / Yifu Chien

Zelaya grew up watching Selick movies as a child, and considers himself a fan of cartoons. He mentions Pixar and Aardman as his favorite animation houses, and he has a real appreciation for Selick’s unique use of stop-motion.

“It’s amazing, I’m obsessed with visual and artistic style,” he said. “I love the stop motion feature, especially when it’s not very polished, it’s intentionally handcrafted. I think that’s really cool, especially when a lot of animations are increasingly being made on computers, which is pretty cool in itself and is something of its own.” and its own liveliness, but I really appreciate that there are still movies being made like that.”

Wendell & Wild premieres in select theaters on Friday, October 21, and airs on Netflix on Friday, October 28.

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