Hunt for the Wilderpeople

In Films by Alex Moss Editor

Where did Taika Waititi come from? That’s the question many will be asking come the release of next year’s Thor: Ragnarok. But if you’ve seen What We Do In Shadows, his brilliant pastiche of all things vampire, or even his lesser known Eagle Vs Shark then you’ll know where he came from. And you’ll almost certainly already be a fan. Hunt for the Wilderpeople continues his steep upward trajectory to become easily one of the year’s most fun, endearing and laugh-out-loud films.

Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) is a 13 year-old boy arriving at his new foster home. His social worker Paula (Rachel House) paints him as a tearaway, a violent criminal in the making, what with all his spitting on things, pushing things, setting fire to things and that’s just the stuff we know about. He moves in with the bubbly Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and her curmudgeonly husband Hec (Sam Neill). Though Ricky and Bella soon bond, Hec prefers to keep to himself. But a series of events sees Ricky and Hec in the New Zealand bush running from the law, hunters and social services in their attempt to just live their lives the way they want to.

From the opening sprawling vistas of the film Hunt for the Wilderpeople dazzles in every sense. It looks gorgeous, Waititi utilising his home country to full effect but also keenly playing on certain Kiwi stereotypes. That laid back attitude, that ability to exaggerate even the smallest of things, that British sense of home comforts, you know, like toilet paper and hot water bottles. There’s even a perfect Lord Of The Rings moment.  

Boiled down, Wilderpeople is essentially a buddy comedy-come-chase movie. Think Midnight Run but instead of a neurotic lawyer you have a chubby kid and instead of a growling Robert De Niro you have a growling Sam Neill. And then it dawns on you about half way through, Wilderpeople if animated and made by Pixar is, for all intents and purposes, Up. Throw in a bit of bad language, a dog called TuPac and all you need to make this a live-action Up is a load of balloons. But it works, brilliantly. It’s constantly funny with lines that you’ll be quoting long after you’ve left the cinema.

Based on the 1986 book Wild Pork And Watercress by Barry Crump Waititi injects his own unique style into everything. Even moments of sadness are quickly dealt with levity by a throwaway line. It is an odyssey that the moment it begins you’re hooked. Waititi manages to make genuinely entertaining film references with Ricky constantly confusing Hec with his Scarface moments, even though they don’t have any cocaine. One such gag sees Ricky and Paula arguing over which of them is more Terminator and Sarah Connor, you know, from the first one, “before she could do chin ups”.

The relationship between Ricky and Hec is perfect. Neill brings a grumpy, sourpuss quality to Hec that you know hides someone achingly bad at expressing his true feelings. Beneath that grizzled beard and angry delivery you never doubt he cares for Ricky. When the pair are at odds the film is wonderful, when they’re desperately having each others backs it’s pure magic. Dennison meanwhile is a stroke of casting genius. His comedy timing is never anything less than pinpoint accurate, his frowning, confusing and overweight clumsiness is infectious and his innocent naivety is perfectly juxtaposed to Neill’s endless eye-rolling. It’s a delight to see, for once in a film, a child actually playing a child, rather than an adult in a child’s body. It’s to Waititi’s credit that he has captured that in Ricky’s dialogue and then allowed Dennison to run with it.

If Waititi can get even a small percentage of his inventive, enchanting spirit into Thor: Ragnarok then Marvel is in good hands, but for now bask in the utter glory that is Hunt for the Wilderpeople because it’s going to have you laughing and beaming from start to finish.