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Review: Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)

Directed by: Taika Waititi

Premise: A wayward teenager (Julian Dennison) is taken in by a foster family (Rima Te Wiata and Sam Neill) who live in rural New Zealand. After the mother dies, child protective services attempts to take the boy back and he and his surrogate father flee into the bush.

What Works: Filmmaker Taika Waititi is a truly unique voice in cinema. He had previously directed such offbeat films as Eagle vs Shark and What We Do in the Shadows. Waititi’s work has an offbeat sensibility that is funny but also earnest. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is in many respects a much more conventional movie than Waititi’s other work. The premise is familiar and it is less loony and more accessible than Waititi’s previous films. But his personal stamp remains on the picture. Something he does quite well is to create vivid and unique characters and that is the case in Hunt for the Wilderpeople. The film is led by Julian Dennison as Ricky, a juvenile delinquent who has been shuffled from foster home to foster home, and Sam Neill as Hector, a grumpy older man. Ricky is introduced as a lazy urban teenager but he’s revealed to be a good kid who has been dealt a lousy hand in life and actor Julian Dennison is perfectly cast in the part. Dennison gets the joke of Taika Waititi’s filmmaking and the young actor does the comedy without flattening the character or making him obnoxious. He’s paired with Sam Neill as Hector, the outdoorsman who takes Ricky under his wing. Hector initially wants nothing to do with Ricky and his wife Bella, played by Rima Te Wiata, takes the lead in raising their foster child. Neill is the straight man to Dennison’s comedy but he’s able to gradually reveal Hector’s inner turmoil over the loss of his wife and the character faces the possibility of a lonely future when Bella suddenly dies. Following her death, child protective services wants to remove Ricky from the home. After a series of misunderstandings, Ricky and Hector go on the run into the New Zealand wilderness with the authorities in pursuit. The search party is led by a child welfare worker played by Rachel House. Although the foster-aunt and the welfare worker are supporting roles, they too are unique characters whose presence ripples beyond their scenes. As the story transitions to the woods, Hunt for the Wilderpeople turns from a domestic story to a chase movie by way of a survival story. In their time in the woods, Ricky and Hector are flung into circumstances that make them codependent so that they are forced to get along. This is smart writing; the plot mechanics are there but disguised by the empathetic characters and the color of the story. In their adventures, Ricky and Hector learn about themselves and each other in ways that are not overtly stated but clear nonetheless and the film has moments of gravitas that are gratifying and give the movie depth.

What Doesn’t: At its root, the basic story premise of Hunt for the Wilderpeople is very familiar. This is another movie in which a boy is mismatched with a much older adult and they start out resenting each other but inevitably learn to like and respect one another. This is a well-worn story formula. Hunt for the Wilderpeople gets away with it because that formula is done so well. However, the ending is a bit anticlimactic. The conflict of the story is predicated on Ricky and Hector avoiding the authorities because if they are caught bad things will happen to them. But, as the viewer can probably guess from the start, Ricky and Hector can’t go on the run forever and when they finally reenter civilization it isn’t so bad. That undermines the premise of the film although the interpersonal relationship and the epiphanies of the lead characters are enough to carry the story.

DVD extras: Featurettes, bloopers, and a commentary track.

Bottom Line: Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a fun movie that delivers a satisfying mix of comedy and drama. Even though it’s working within a familiar story formula, the picture benefits from great performances by Julian Dennison and Sam Neill and the singular creative voice of Taika Waititi. 

Episode: #633 (February 5, 2017)