'Hunt for the Wilderpeople'
‘Hunt for the Wilderpeople’ is technically a coming-of-age movie for youngsters, but you should probably remove any and all preconceptions about that genre before diving in. As writer/director Taika Waititi has proven in previous films such as ‘Eagle vs. Shark’ and ‘What We Do in the Shadows‘, he’s not someone who makes normal movies for normal people.
This action/adventure/comedy/buddy/bonding picture is kind of like a version of ‘First Blood’ (name-checked on screen to confirm) as directed by Wes Anderson. It’s a fable and a genre romp, a moving experience that gleefully scoffs off any opportunity to deteriorate into sentimentality. It’s a delightful movie and a crowd-pleaser in the best possible sense.
Julian Dennison stars as Ricky, a difficult kid who has passed between foster homes throughout his life without much luck finding a family. A particularly enthusiastic Child Protective Services worker (Rachel House) is determined to finally find the kid a home, so she takes him to an impossibly cheery farmer named Bella (Rima Te Wiata from the Kiwi cult horror-comedy ‘Housebound‘). The pair take to each other immediately, though her gruff husband Hec (Sam Neill) is a different story.
Introduced carrying a bloodied boar corpse and sporting a professional-level shaggy beard, Hec isn’t exactly an ideal father figure. He’s more suited to plan for the apocalypse than shape a young mind. Unfortunately, Bella dies unexpectedly just as soon as the family forms, and Hec initially has no interest in raising the boy himself. Depressed, Ricky tries to fake his death by burning down the farm. Only the second part works. The next thing you know, both he and Hec are living in the bush and on the run considered outlaws. It’s here in action, adventure, survival territory that a friendship blossoms between all the chases, thefts and hunting.
‘Hunt for the Wilderpeople’ is ultimately a coming-of-age tale with a beating heart of bonding between a father/son pair of misfits. Thankfully, it’s also a far more engaging and infinitely more entertaining movie than those genre trappings suggest. Waititi is far too creative and quirky a filmmaker. On-screen chapter headings, stylized compositions and regular departures into imagination keep the movie just one step outside of cozy reality and in more of a fairy tale zone. Waititi has really grown as a director over his past few efforts, so the swooping drone shots and action montages that fill up much of the running time have a real visceral impact. It’s not surprising that Marvel would court the guy to direct the next ‘Thor’ movie after this and ‘What We Do in the Shadows’.
Though filled with emotion and some genuinely impressive spectacle, the movie is above all else hilarious. The tone varies from self-conscious to awkwardly naturalistic, but Waititi never misses an opportunity for a laugh and fills his cast with performers who can deliver them. Rima Te Wiata’s relentless positivity is hysterical. Rachel House is hilarious as a careworker on the hunt who uses the catchphrase “No child left behind” with a series of increasingly insane meetings. Then Rhys Darby shows up briefly as a man appropriately named Psycho Sam, which means he steals the whole movie away for a bit. (Ditto Waititi himself as a hysterically idiotic priest.)
Of course, this movie is primarily a two-hander and belongs to the excellent leads. Julian Dennison is a remarkable find and force of nature who commands the screen and seems incapable of delivering a false note. Funny, strong and heartbreakingly open, the kid is a natural and carries the project with ease. Sam Neill, meanwhile, is the quiet MVP. Clearly delighting in playing an old crank and retreading some his old child-saving/father-grooming ground from ‘Jurassic Park’, he’s hysterical, forceful and sweet with few words, and shows off a physical presence he hasn’t used in years. It’s often easy to forget a how good an actor he truly is, but ‘Hunt for the Wilderpeople’ clears that up quickly. In what is otherwise essentially a living cartoon, Neill provides the necessary grounding force while also stealing away quite a few laughs.
More than anything else, ‘Hunt for the Wilderpeople’ is an absolute delight to behold. It’s so goofily entertaining and filled with so many strange diversions and tonal shifts that it’s impossible to sit through the thing without being whisked away and moved. Perhaps it’s little too simple and a little too broad to be much more than a romp, but thankfully it’s also a little too much fun to ever be forgettable. It’s the sort of movie that gives an overplayed genre a good name. After this, it’s hard to feel anything but excitement for what Waititi will be able to do with Marvel Studios resources, and even more exciting to imagine what sort of projects the filmmaker will get off the ground once he has a ‘Thor’-sized hit under his belt.