Director: Taika Waititi
Writers: Taika Waititi (screenplay), Barry Crump (Novel)
Stars: Julian Dennison, Sam Neill, Rima Te Wiata, Rhys Darby
Release date: May 27th, 2016
Distributors: Madman Entertainment, The Orchard
Country: New Zealand
Running time: 101 minutes
Best part: Dennison and Neill’s chemistry.
Worst part: Some forgettable minor sub-plots.
Australia and New Zealand’s film industries have danced around one another since their inception. Playing around with the medium, 1980s and 90s Aussie comedies including Muriel’s Wedding and Kiwi dramas like The Piano broke the mold simultaneously. Nowadays, with heavy Australian dramas in full effect, NZ filmmaker Taika Waititi is delivering some of modern cinema’s most captivating comedies.
Coming off critically acclaimed Boy and What We Do in the Shadows, Waititi’s latest, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, has already set NZ box-office records for highest-grossing opening weekend and highest-grossing first week for a NZ film. Based on Barry Crump’s novel Wild Pork and Watercress, the movie centres around troublemaking city kid Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) being sent by child welfare services to live on a farm with new foster carers Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and Hector (Sam Neill). Hector, forced to track down Ricky after an escape attempt, fractures his ankle in the green, lush wilderness. As a country-wide manhunt begins, the duo spark-up an odd-couple dynamic.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople, similarly to road-trip comedies like Thelma & Louise, effectively sticks by its familiar premise. Throughout their journey, the rebellious youngster and cranky uncle’s budding friendship provides heavy doses of drama and comedy. Waititi’s abstract sense of humour and unique style separates his vision from that of even Hollywood’s most talented comedic elite (Adam McKay, Judd Apatow etc.). Waititi expertly develops every detail, giving our heroes and those chasing them significant depth and personality. Even the movie’s wacky side characters – including tough-but-misguided social worker Paula (Rachel House), bumbling officer Andy (Oscar Knightley), and Psycho Sam (Rhys Darby) – add to its thematic and emotional heft.
This coming-of-age dramedy is not perfect, with minor sub-plots hinted at but not fully developed. However, amongst the witty lines and slapstick gags, it includes several heart-breaking moments and plot-twists you won’t see coming. Unlike most big-budget comedies, it combines laugh-out-loud humour with messages about paedophilia and mental instability. The movie explores Ricky and Hec’s motivations – running away from the past, present, and future for different reasons into an abyss. Dennison holds his own against Neill, helping us side with an otherwise petulant and unlikable character. Similarly, Neill’s comic timing boosts the character-actor’s most fleshed-out, charismatic role in decades.
Despite the wacky premise and neat cast, Waititi is Hunt for the Wilderpeople‘s shining light. The writer/director’s next project is a small, independent jaunt called Thor: Ragnarok. Let’s hope Kevin Feige and the Marvel Cinematic Universe lets him off the leash.