Raul Cocolotl was first helping a teenage trans boy Wendell & WildeProtagonist Catherine “Cat” Konikwa Elliott rescues her town from monsters, economic collapse and the prison industrial complex in a stop-motion feature director Henry Selick calls the classic “Goth Loser Kid.”
Released late last month on Netflix, the narratively complex, visually striking and representationally stunning animated film is based on a short story Selick wrote with Clay McLeod Chapman nearly 20 years ago. For the 2022 take on the stop-motion legend, he co-wrote with Oscar-winner Jordan Peele, who modernized the story, setting it at an all-girls school in a town facing a rusty economy and the threat of private prison developers.
Despite those changes, Celik was committed to keeping Raoul in the story, even though they existed differently. “I still need Raul to be a part of it, and why have a boy in an all-girls school? He’s a trans kid,” Celik says. The Hollywood Reporter. “It took us a while to realize, and the whole movie wasn’t about that, but the answer was right there.”
The director says the decision for Raul to be trans was made “at least four years ago” as he and Peele were developing the film. It’s a choice heavily inspired by his co-writer’s own “touchy-feely” admission that, as a young black kid, he wanted to see himself in animated movies like Selick. Hearing that gave the director the freedom to go further with characters like Raul, not just with individual characters, but to create an entire narrative.
“Once we agreed that we were going to do it, it filled our story with his friends and his interest in Kat, the new outsider — he was intrigued by her and had this faith in her.” Selick talks about the impact of how Raoul was influenced more than his arc.
Once the pair settled on that aspect of Raoul’s identity, Selick says they began their typical deep-dive process, building the character’s background to flesh out the character of a young teenage boy. When it came to Raul’s look, Celik turned to Pablo Lovato, who referenced Mayan, Aztec, Toltec and “maybe even more southern, Inca” artwork and stone sculptures, the director says, to reflect the teenager’s ethnic background.
It’s just one shade in a larger, more inclusive community of characters rarely seen in stop-motion. “He’s part of a community that can take a little turn and go one way or another with the political situation in town,” says Sam Zelaya, Raul’s voice actor.
“Rust Bank was inspired by the town of Red Bank, and the history of this town, Rust Bank, which was a thriving factory community of working class people,” Selick adds. “Yes, there’s a rich school on the hill, but it’s a place of a lot of black and brown people.”
Then, there were aspects of his personality and his interests – his closeness to his mother, his “sweetness” and his love of the visual arts (the latter of which featured a huge mural with a big political statement painted on the town’s houses) – which are key to understanding the whole picture of Raoul.
“His main theme is his journey as an artist and celebrating his mother as this defender of him and the town against these monsters that want to devour this place, ultimately the klaxons,” Selick says. “At some point, he realized he wanted to be someone else and made that choice with the help of his mother.”
The Wendell & Wilde When it came to Raul’s transition, the director said that viewers weren’t going to see him get kicked out of school, but that the character would face different reactions from those around him. “I couldn’t tell you that Father Best completely understood, but he needed the money. That’s probably Father Best’s truth,” Selick says. “And before the other kids — his best friends — came to a place of understanding, they questioned, ‘Why weren’t we happy being one of them?’ ”
“I know a lot of people who change and change their name – going by their dead name – they handle it differently. Raoul is showing a lot of patience,” adds Selick, referring to how the teenager reacts to his ex-friend Siobhan Claxon naming him in a moment of anger (with a quick apology).
While other projects have chosen to skip including trans character dead names and other aspects of a trans person’s life pre-transition, Raoul facing this was part of the larger conversation Selik wanted about respecting other people.
“Those three girls, I call them the rich girls, they’re not bad, but they nickname Kat. They call her KK, the initials of her first two names. Well, who are they to give her a new name? ” Celik asks. “I think that’s kind of the big issue. We should respect people for who they are instead of coming up with stupid nicknames or pulling our legs or not calling someone who they are.
For help figuring out the elements of Raoul’s story — and how it represents and weaves into a larger narrative — Selick says he turned to the film’s crew and others in his life. “Part of it is, quite simply, that I’m working with a great staff of very talented people, and among them there are a lot of people who have transitioned, and people who have transitioned,” Celik explains. “I care deeply about representation, and I know firsthand the parents whose child is transitioning. It’s a fact of life for people I respect and care about so much.
“I looked at the script and there was a lot that spoke to me, you always expect a story, but didn’t actually expect,” Zelaya says of how much the narrative of Raul’s identity already spoke to her. “It felt like he could see my head when he wrote it.”
Selick gives big credit to voice star Zelaya, who he says “took a long time to find” but “contributed so much to bringing that character to life.” The search for a breakout is driven in part by a desire for confirmation. “Wherever we can cast people who mirror their characters in real life, why don’t we do that?” Director says.
For Zelaya, it was her first time working in a UK theater Wendell & Wilde In his debut feature, the complexity and fullness of Raoul’s character means his representation can reach beyond just young trans viewers.
“It’s really cool for young trans people to see themselves, but I think — or I hope — that any kid can take something from this character who’s trying to find his feet and courage and learn to stand. Through his friendships, he and his friends and his community,” says the actor.
It’s the kind of comment that makes Selik clear when he says Zelaya is his Raul because of the qualities the actor and his character share.
“One of the most talented people we found, and it was down to a couple, Sam had a really fascinating quality. I wanted to know more about him and make it interesting to our moviegoers,” Selick recalls. He’s confident in who he is in the skin and that’s what Raul needed most.”
Although Celik recognized Zelaya’s confidence, the voice actor shared that, especially since this was his first major voice role – and recorded in 20 Days when he was still pre-testosterone – he “had to get out of my own head a little”.
“I had to convince myself that I deserved to be here and that as a voice actor and as a person, my voice was worth hearing,” Zelaya reflected. “A lot of trans people are told the opposite, and it’s hard not to internalize that.”
The combination of having offscreen voices to help convey the character’s experiences, appearances by Peele, and the film’s existing broader themes of family relationships, coming of age and finding who you are, helped Raoul craft a narrative that felt authentic yet authentic. The story is shoehorned into the story, featuring many characters out of stop-motion.
“With this movie, I wanted to be a little more serious about the things that are important to me,” Selick says. “I am not young. I don’t get many opportunities to put things out into the world that I really care about and love. So it was a film to bring a lot. “