Film Review: Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Director: Taika Waititi

PG-13 | 1h 41min | Adventure, Comedy, Drama | 16 September 2016 (UK)

RATING: ★★★★☆

Director Taika Waititi fulfills the promise shown in his recent film What We Do in the Shadows (which the Smoke Screen praised effusively here) with this charming, quirky new comedy that again showcases his skill at affectionately skewering the denizens, customs and other eccentricities of his homeland of New Zealand.  The basic narrative setup and plot arc – the story is based on a book by Barry Crump but with a screenplay written by Waititi – is admittedly a familiar one, but the film is decorated with irresistibly goofy characters, some beautiful scenery, and a warm but never sentimental depiction of a mismatched father and son’s relationship at the heart of it all. It isn’t the most ambitious comedy, but by god you’ll find it hard to stop grinning.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople focused on the journey of one Ricky Baker, a defiant foster-home raised city kid introduced to us via a montage of destruction, which is narrated by a somewhat over-keen Child Welfare Senior Officer, Paula. In keeping with his style of humour, Waititi undercuts the grandiosity of the narration right away, with Ricky’s delinquency being shown to be pretty tame (literally it extends to kicking cans about, and writing some crap graffiti) while Paula the social worker’s hyped voiceover showcases that delightful New Zealand slang : “this kid….he’s a bad egg”. It’s all about creating a sense that New Zealand is a country too small, too faraway, and too parochial for the kinds of American style grandiosity a Hollywood diet can give you. In fact, one of the running gags Waititi laces into the film is that way too many people in this land see things through Hollywood goggles, though in the case of Ricky, having an active imagination turns out to be a boon.

Having almost run out of foster homes, young Ricky is dropped off by Paula and her team at the home of the odd, but kind Bella, who’s grizzled, bush-wandering husband Hector seems less keen. Bella and Hector reside in a clapboard farm based out in the wilder parts of New Zealand, which makes for an undeniably pretty backdrop for the film’s early sequences, where we really get to know Ricky. As Ricky, newcomer Julian Dennison gets to truly embody an original eccentric, who isn’t quite the delinquent “yoot” it was implied he was. Ricky is a hip-hop, cop film-loving kid who’s cultural references seem to have stopped around the time Tupac released his last album. He dresses like he was trying to join a Tribe Called Quest (day glo colours, everything a size too big), and Scarface is the benchmark for which he judges pretty much everything. This might make him sound unbearable, but Dennison and the screenplay never make Ricky grating. Many of his immature, daydreamy aspects turn out to be strengths as, after running way into the outback after Bella suddenly passes away, his ability to see his surroundings as an adventure (or, as Ricky would put it, a chance to go “total gangsta”) help him survive what should be at least a boring, and at most a dangerous, experience.

With Hector having injured himself trying to find the lost Ricky, the two end up stranded in the bush together, with Hector’s survival skills enabling them to last out in the wild.  This is essentially where WIlderpeople’s main arc resides, and the growing affection between Ricky and Hector is well-drawn, with Sam Neill (clearly loving the chance to play a misanthropic super-grouch) and Dennison riffing well off each other. There is plenty of back and forth between the two, and some crazy encounters with the wacky locals along the way, but Hector and Ricky’s emotional journey as characters contains some deeper and unexpected elements. For one thing, Ricky’s history of being moved from home to home, sometimes encountering tragedy along the way, has made him surprisingly capable at ‘processing’ his own feelings, a quality that the widowed, old-school Hector lacks but is affected by. Hector meanwhile starts to appreciate how Ricky is able to cope far better than expected with life in the wild: he might gripe about the lack of toilet paper, but he also is a kid who loves Rambo: First Blood and his ability to imagine himself kicking major ass with a rifle in hand and SWAT teams on their tail means he sticks with it far longer than a more cosseted kid might.

Speaking of First Blood, as we see the absurdly OTT national manhunt ensuing for the pair develop (the authorities think Hector has molested and kidnapped Ricky), Waititi spices things up with some good-natured –but not overdone- homages to the kind of action thrillers Ricky, and presumably Waititi himself, would have gorged on.  The Rambo movies are an obvious touchstone, and a very funny confrontation over a ravine between Ricky and Paula leads to an argument over who is the “Terminator” and who is “Sarah Connor” in this ridiculous pursuit. A car chase towards the end is heightened from Ricky’s perspective: with Michael Bay-esque slo-mo sequences and crazy vehicle flips that are almost certainly not happening in reality. The fact that Paula is as movie-obsessed as Ricky is a genuinely amusing conceit: these are people with imaginations simply too oversized for the genuinely quiet, tiny nation they occupy. But that is partly why it is so much fun to spend time with them.

Film Review: Hunt for the Wilderpeople
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