There’s been a buzz about Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople for a while. I heard the Empire podcast waxing lyrical about it a few months back, but it’s been receiving acclaim since its appearance at the Sundance Film Festival in January.
I’m pleased to report then, that’s it’s worthy of all the praise.
The film – a buddy adventure starring Sam Neill as irascible curmudgeon, Hec, and Julian Dennison as young tearaway, Ricky – is warm, funny and really entertaining.
The story revolves around Ricky, an orphan who’s been sent to live with new foster parents, Hec and Bella (a brilliant Rima Te Wiata), in the spectacular New Zealand bush. After a series of events which I’ll not spoil here, Ricky and Hec find themselves both lost in the bush and at the centre of a national manhunt.
Like all good buddy movies, the central relationship is frosty at first; Hec irritated by the teenager and Ricky suspicious of the grumpy older man. While the path to the pair’s eventual mutual affection follows well-trodden beats, the jaunty script and the performances from Neill and Dennison mean you don’t care.
The highest praise I can give Neill is that he so fully inhabits Herc and his foibles that you forgot it’s him. Dennison, meanwhile, manages to straddle the line between irritating teenager and loveable scamp perfectly. It’s not just in his line delivery either; like plenty of good comic actors before him he rings laughs and emotion solely out of facial expressions.
Wiatiti’s next film sees a massive step-up in scale as takes on the third in Marvel’s Thor franchise. On paper, the decision to give a huge tent-pole movie to a director used to relatively low budget, very New Zealand films, seems an unusual one, but Waititi looks increasingly assured behind the camera. While his previous film, vampire comedy What We Do In the Shadows, was a break-out hit, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a more confident outing. The opening 30 minutes are handled perfectly and he manages to balance comedy and pathos expertly throughout.
There are some flaws with the film. Once Hec and Ricky’s relationship has shifted from hostility to something approaching love, the film doesn’t seem entirely sure where to go and, for a while, becomes a bit repetitious.
Unlike the main characters, the Child Protection Officer (Rachel House) was also rather one-note and played entirely for laughs*.
In fairness, she has a number of funny moments (especially a line about The Terminator) but she jarred slightly against Hec and Ricky’s more rounded characterisation.
Having re-watched What We Do In the Shadows recently, I felt it sagged slightly in the middle – the laughs were harder to come by than in the rest of the film. In Hunt for the Wilderpeople though, the jokes fall often and naturally and, even when the plot seemed stuck in a rut, its humour – and it’s heart – remained a constant.
*it was my pal, JG, that rightly pointed this out.