Movie Review: “Hunt for the Wilderpeople”

Starring
Julian Dennison, Sam Neill, Rachel House, Rima Te Wiata, Rhys Darby
Director
Taika Waititi

Chances are that you’ve seen writer/director Taika Waititi’s work before – whether it was his 2010 debut “Boy,” the HBO series “Flight of the Conchords” or last year’s cult comedy “What We Do in the Shadows” – but the New Zealand-born filmmaker is about to blow up in a big way thanks to a pair of high-profile gigs for Disney. (In addition to directing “Thor: Ragnarok,” he also co-wrote the upcoming animated film “Moana.”) Before jumping behind the camera for the God of Thunder’s latest cinematic adventure, however, Waititi made this quirky buddy comedy set in his native country that’s somewhat reminiscent of another Disney release, “Up.” Granted, “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” isn’t nearly as good, but it’s a delightful little movie that ranks as one of the more pleasant surprises of the year thus far.

Rebellious city kid Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) has been in and out of foster care for most of his life, causing trouble wherever he goes. Given one last chance to find a suitable family, Ricky is placed with the kindly Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and her cantankerous frontiersman husband Hector (Sam Neill) in their remote countryside home. When Bella suddenly passes away just as Ricky is beginning to warm up to the couple, he clumsily fakes his death and runs off into the wilderness rather than risk being sent to juvenile detention. Hector quickly tracks him down but fractures his ankle in the process, which forces the mismatched duo to work together in order to survive. But tenacious child services officer Paula (Rachel House) thinks that the bereaved Hector has kidnapped Ricky, and she’ll do whatever it takes to get him back, launching a nationwide manhunt that turns the two fugitives into folk heroes.

Based on the little-known novel “Wild Pork and Watercress” by Kiwi author Barry Crump, “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” is an incredibly charming story about family and acceptance that tugs at the heart strings when it’s not busy making you laugh. Waititi does an excellent job of balancing the sweet and humorous moments with the more poignant bits (like Bella’s heartbreaking death scene), but what separates the movie from the typical coming-of-age tale is the unique brand of humor that’s become synonymous with the director. Though the film’s offbeat tone veers a little too far into absurdity at times, particularly the scenes involving House’s cartoonish social worker, it helps to freshen up an otherwise familiar story.

Waititi continues to mature as a filmmaker with each new movie, adding tricks to his arsenal that improve the overall product, but while “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” is loaded with great sight gags, gorgeous visuals of the New Zealand landscape and a few technically impressive sequences (like this cool montage), it succeeds largely due to the chemistry between its two leads. This is the best that Sam Neill has been in a long time, and newcomer Julian Dennison more than holds his own alongside the veteran actor with a very natural performance. Watching the unlikely pair interact with one another is the highlight of the film, because without such a believable and honest relationship to invest in, the other stuff wouldn’t be as effective. Though “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” doesn’t exactly break any new ground, it’s a funny and touching crowd-pleaser that proves why Marvel was so willing to hand Waititi the keys to one of its major franchises.

  

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