It’s a shame Marvel scooped up Taika Waititi. The New Zealand film director, writer, actor, painter, and comedian has been on point ever since he dropped 2010’s charming coming-of-age dramedy, Boy. Last year’s hilarious mockumentary What We Do In the Shadows was a total delight, flipping the coin on the tired vampire/werewolf genre with aplomb, and now he’s coddling our hearts again with the paternalistic action-adventure, Hunt for the Wilderpeople.
Based on Barry Crump’s 1986 novel, Wild Pork and Watercress, the film follows a portly troublemaker orphan named Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison, brilliant), who’s been in and out of foster care over the years. At wit’s end, an irate social worker (Rachel House, vitriolic) send him way, way out in the New Zealand boondocks to live with the loving Aunt Bella (Rima Te Wiata, soulful) and her sourpuss husb, Uncle Hec (Sam Neill, mordant as ever).
Life on the farm isn’t bad for Ricky. He can escape into the night whenever he wants, he can fire guns whenever he wants, and he even has a new dog named Tupac that follows him around. Things turn south, unfortunately, when Bella passes away, leaving child services no choice but to reclaim Ricky. As an act of rebellion, he runs into the forest, his uncle in pursuit, and the two eventually reunite, spawning a national manhunt in the process.
Ricky is a total force of nature. Try to imagine a precocious, real life twin of South Park‘s Eric Cartman, only less maniacal and a little more confused. To his credit, though, Ricky walks around with the confident swagger of Eastbound and Down‘s Kenny Powers, never batting an eye when those around him poke fun at his opulent size. “You hungry? That’s a silly question, look at you,” Bella jokes, and he just stares her down without breaking.
Dennison shines as Ricky, pouring gallons of humor and pathos into a role that is way too much fun. His reactions and comic timing are on par with Waititi’s curious brand of comedy. Yet he’s similarly matched by Neill, who adds some scruff to his iconic Dr. Alan Grant role, once again preferring to be alone than surrounded by goddamn kids. This time around, Neill’s a little less professorial and more tattered and weathered. He can’t even read!
What he lacks, Ricky makes up for, and vice versa, which essentially becomes the crux of Waititi’s heart-warming story. Watching the two survive in the brush and learn from each other — more or less, capitalizing on poet William Wordsworth’s idea that the child is the father of the man — offers both laughs and tears. They’re both reclamation projects, lost causes strewn together, and while that’s admittedly well-worn territory, it’s also timeless stuff.
Much like the novel, Waititi tells the story over 11 chapters, from “A Real Bad Egg” to “Close to the Sky” to “War” to “Epilogue”, and there’s a playful nature that goes with that old school format. It’s a very nostalgic film, laid out like a dusty children’s tome you once treasured, and Waititi’s direction emphasizes as much. Stylistically, the action feels akin to Edgar Wright territory, but the patient portraits, panoramic shots, and swift violence recall early Wes Anderson.
Fueled by Lukasz Buda, Samuel Scott, and Conrad Wedde’s majestical score, Hunt for the Wilderpeople works like a fuzzy, warm blanket — you just want to curl up, snuggle in, and stay there forever. Waititi has a rare eye for carving out eccentric, believable characters and pairing them with even stranger, bizarre faces, all of whom earn the laughs and the love. Which is why it’s so unfortunate the filmmaker’s next project is … the second sequel for Thor.
In an age of branded films, where pre-packaged, emotionless garbage like The Angry Birds Movie are horrifically clogged down parent’s and children’s throats, it’s such a relief to stumble upon a film like Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Filmmaking this fresh, this vibrant, and this affecting for all ages is rare these days. If we’re lucky, Waititi won’t flip through the comics too long. If we’re really lucky, there’s still an audience for movies like this.