With the recent critical and commercial success of Thor: Ragnarok, director Taika Waititi has become something of an overnight sensation in America. Along with helming another Marvel Cinematic Universe mega hit, Waititi has shown newer fans that he is quotable and funny.
Those just discovering the New Zealand director may be surprised to learn that he has an impressive resume, directing the vampire mockumentary What We Do in Shadows and working on the HBO comedy Flight of the Conchords. Thor: Ragnarok has been universally praised, but it is 2016’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople that is arguably Waititi’s best work.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a comedy about juvenile delinquent Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) who has been given one last chance and his sent to is foster family of “Aunt” Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and “Uncle” Hector (Sam Neill). Unforeseen circumstances lead to Ricky and Hec trying to evade the entire country. The comedy is based on Barry Crump’s 1986 book Wild Pork and Watercress. The film was an instant success and is still the highest grossing New Zealand film.
The movie is beautiful. Shot entirely in New Zealand, scenes are filled with the lush green forests, “majestical” mountaintops, and sprawling fields. As gorgeous as the film looks, it is in the more technical aspects that Waititi’s direction excels. Musical montages are employed over the course of the makeshift duo’s adventure. Transitions used during these scenes do an excellent job of showing the passage of time and the difficulties of the New Zealand bush. The music is also perfectly chosen. The soundtrack is reminiscent of a Wes Anderson film, from the solemnness of Leonard Cohen to the more electronic sounds of New Zealand’s Moniker.
A gruff adult that is forced to take on a troubled child combined with a catchy score makes Hunt for the Wilderpeople seem like it is going to be another movie that is more concerned with manipulating emotions than telling a good story. Rushing to judgement would be a horrible mistake. The movie is genuinely heartwarming thanks to the strength of its two leads. Denninson and Neill excel in what is basically a two man show. What makes the performances noteworthy is the fact that both play characters that are little more than 80s comedy tropes. Ricky is the troubled youngster who no adult has ever been able to control, while Hector is the grumpy man who never let anyone get to close to him. Predictably, there is more to the two, yet Denninson and Neill bring charm to the parts that is not normally seen. Both actors are natural in their roles, making it impossible to not empathize with them. There are no sudden revelations that force the audience to realize the Ricky is not that bad or Hector is merely misunderstood. The audience is drawn to the two outlaws by simply spending time with them. Without the strength of their performances, the film becomes a better written Cop and a Half: Operation New Zealand.
While Ricky and Uncle Hec carry the movie, the supporting cast is also very strong. Rachel House (Topaz from Thor: Ragnarok) plays Paula, a child welfare worker who is quick to remind everyone of her motto. She is the perfect foil for Ricky and his Uncle. Along with the various government agencies that are trying to capture Ricky and Uncle Hector, there are three bumbling would-be heroes that the fugitives keep meeting.
Many times, books that are adapted into movies lose something in the transition. The writing in Hunt for the Wilderpeople is excellent. Waititi perfectly weaves awkward laughs, dark comedy, chaotic action, and emotionally engaging scenes in his vision Crump’s novel. A great example of the excellent writing is during one of the film’s saddest scenes. Waititi is hilariously cast and brings laughs to a touching scene without losing any of its emotional depth. The writing keeps the audience engaged the entire time with its wit and heart.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople does not reinvent the wheel. Instead it takes a tried and true story and turns it into something special. Stunningly beautiful scenery, great acting, and an interesting story all come together in a great movie. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a must-see movie that will bring a smile to your face while it brings tears to your eyes.