Taika Waititi may be one of the most intriguing filmmakers working today, making a modestly big splash with last years What We Do in the Shadows. As a follow up and right before he takes on the massive Marvel machine, he’s stuck to a relatively modest story in a big world scope in Hunt for the Wilderpeople. A family drama crossed with a outlaws on the run, farcical romp, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a wonderfully executed genre cocktail where one moment will leave you breathless from laughter, the next recovering from heartache.
Julian Dennison stars as Ricky Baker, a orphaned, wayward adolescent who never seems to find the right family to accept him. As the probation officer tells his newest family, he’s a troublemaker, and warns them to keep their eyes on him. To the films comedic credit, the beginning notion of how poorly Ricky’s city kid sensibilities would mesh with the countryside derives a lot of humor, but it doesn’t rest on that idea. Ricky, as soon discovered by Uncle Hec (Sam Neill) and Aunt Bella (Rima Te Wiata), is simply a lonely soul looking for a home that accepts him, loves him and welcomes him in no matter his eccentricities. They make for a cozy family too, out on the outskirts of the bush, until tragedy strikes and a series of events leads to Ricky and Uncle Hec on the run in the bush from law enforcement who wish to split the two. One might imagine that it would be then where the move oversteps its realm of reality and becomes simply outrageous comedy or satirical, but what makes the film such an undeniable triumph is that not once does it sacrifice it’s darkly humor tone, or equally warm heart, for a tone that would better befit a larger audience. It is, is every way, Waititi’s film.
None of this subtracts from the marvelous and charming work done across the board, starting primarily with Dennison and Neill’s performances as the films odd couple. Wiata does strong work at the start of the film, creating a world so warm and welcoming that we understand why Ricky would so quickly fall victim to her affection, but it’s his and Hec’s storyline that provide the beating heart of the film. There’s an innate sense of humor when it comes to these two characters, such opposing forces both in the characters personality and the way the actors perform. Dennison’s eccentricity and stilted yet enthusiastic delivery, coupled with his larger than life physical persona is a stark contrast to Neill’s gruffer, more lived in character who, while funny, is at his funniest when reacting to Ricky’s hi-jinks. Dennison might be one of the greatest finds in recent years with a keen sensibility for comedic delivery.
Crossing over the to the technical side, the music gives the film a greater edge in terms of pure cinematic scope, along with the cinematography by Lachlan Milne. Milne’s photography captures both the natural beauty of the duo’s surrounding as well as the omnipresent threat that lies around them, be it human beings or nature. The greens of the trees are overwhelming, as the reds and blues that Ricky and Uncle Hec don appear more vividly against the overgrown backdrop. They are out of them depth and the camera depicts this.
But, as I’ve mentioned, none of this would have worked had it not been for Waititi’s immense skill as a storyteller and his craftsmanship that went into the making of this film. It’s difficult not to draw comparisons to filmmaker contemporaries such as Edgar Wright and Wes Anderson due to how they utilize comedic visual storylines (a lot of quick cuts and heavy editing) but it never comes across as if Waititi is simply aping their styles. Instead, while his is comparable, it’s completely his own, demonstrated by his prior films. Boy in particular had a visual flair to it that gave it a great distinction when lined up against all the other existing coming of age drama/comedies while What We Do in the Shadows was delightfully off kilter, both in it’s storytelling and how it took the direction and steered it away from typical mockumentary staleness.
His films are whimsical and none more so than Hunt for the Wilderpeople that takes a typical outlaw story and sets it within the mind of a child desperately in need of some protection. Every moment of action is bigger due to this, every comedic one more outrageous, every heart warming one more aching as we see how much Ricky longs for a family despite his “tough guy” attitude. His emotions are transparent and it’s that quality that transfers over into the atmosphere of the film as well that makes it such a delight to behold. It isn’t hindered by a need to cast a cynical gaze over it’s story, instead embracing everything that is genuine and pure about the narrative and the heart of the film. There is no denying the raucous nature of the film, just as there is no denying that we spend a large portion of the film caring deeply about these characters and hoping desperately that, hijinks aside, they get their happy ending, regardless of what that might be.