Reviewed by Lesley Coffin
By far, the funniest movie of last year for my money was the mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows. Fast, smart, and deliriously silly, it was the perfect comedy to recharge your batteries with. And after his cross-over success with that film, New Zealand writer-director Taika Waititi’s follow-up is once again in the lead as the funniest film of year. Hunt for the Wilderpeople turns out to be one of the most charming, funniest, and sweetest “family comedies” in a decade.
Once against set in Waititi’s New Zealand, this time he tells the story of those from the rural, wild part of the country, telling the story of a make-shift family of misfits living on the edge of the forest or bush. There is the joyful, salt of the earth mother figure Bella (Rima Te Wiata) whose smile radiates on screen. And like the audience, her new foster son Ricky Baker (newcomer Julian Dennison) instantly falls in love with her material warmth and humor. And there’s her gruff husband (Sam Neill) who Ricky names Uncle Hec, despite his protest that they’re not family. When the villainous foster caseworker Paula hall (Rachel House) introduce Ricky to his new family as “a bad kid” for moderate example of juvenile delinquency (such as stealing bread, kicking a paper bag, and spitting off an overpass), Waititi’s makes in it clear within the first minute the kind of movie he’s making. Despite anything Ricky has heard said about him or believes, this self-proclaimed “gangster,” his shy smile and appreciation of hot water bottles in bed and singing along to birthday songs tell another story. He’s a good kid that needs some breaks.
It seems the foster care services is just as tough in New Zealand and when threatened by Paula that he’ll be taken away, Ricky runs into the bush to avoid being taking away put back in the system. Being a dangerous place for anyone, but especially children, hardhearted Hec follows him into the wild, only he gets hurt and they have to camp in the woods for a few weeks. As days turn into weeks, and a fire at the house is discovered, their disappearance raises questions. And no one is more frustrated by their disappearance than House’s Paula, enraged at being made a fool of by a child. Like Rohl Dahl’s iconic Trunchbull in Matilda, Paula is presented as an exaggerated child’s monster with a relentless drive to track down and punish her underage foil. At one point in the film she even calls herself The Terminator, which is one of the funniest exchanges she has with Ricky. But as the search for Ricky and Hec intensifies, and it is discovered that Hec’s past had criminal history, the two climb deeper and deeper into the woods to evade capture for months.
One of the best things in Wilderpeople (as in wilder-beasts) is the childlike point of view and tone Waititi approaches the material. The story comes from from a popular comic young adult book, Wild Port and Watercress, by beloved New Zealand writer Barry Crump. And Waititi, while infusing the film with his signature style and wit, never forgets that he film was written from the perspective and with the sensibilities of a 13 year old boy. Ricky constantly talks of this “adventure” being one of the “an action movie” he might have seen when no adults were looking; like Rambo, Indiana Jones, or Road Warrior. But all those influences are filtered through the eyes of a child’s interpretation of what all that action and violence does and doesn’t means. Some recent films have made similar attempts to show a new perspective on the most popular of pop culture influences, such as Millions, Young Rambo, and even The Goonies. And Wilderpeople is one of the best of these attempts, because Waititi uses that cultural knowledge to establish the character’s perspective, build narrative structure, and create hilarious moments of cinematic visual humor. If the new documentary Raiders literally reinterprets Indiana Jones through a child’s eyes, Wilderpeople figuratively does the same.
This is the type of movie audiences says is lacking for modern day audiences when it comes to family entertainment. This movie is certainly too adult for very small children, and unexpectedly raunchy at certain points. But it’s arguably as intense a watch as ET (with as many guns) and as foul as The Goonies. For parents, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is the perfect movie to take older kids to, not only because it so perfectly capture childhood wonder and imagination, but because the emotional impact is worth sharing. But even without kids to accompany you, adult audiences will certainly find themselves won over by a movie this deliriously sweet and silly.
The performances by both Sam Neill and Julian Dennison are uniformly excellent; Dennison is a true comic discovery and Neill has never been funnier or better on screen. While his gruff but good-hearted Hec will call back to his Jurassic Park character, age has only made him better. The musical choices are wonderfully esoteric and the visual style is something of a cinematic marvel. Like Edgar Wright and Wes Anderson, the attention Waititi pays to every frame and editing precision shows an understanding of not only how to tell stories visually, but the visual language of humor that can create fully immersive comedy. Waititi has written and directed an epic movie to rival the big blockbusters it parodies…but epic in the eyes of a child, and wrapped with an even bigger heart.
Lesley Coffin: Is editor and founder of Movies, Film, Cinema. A writer with a masters degree from NYU’s Gallatin School in biographical studies and star theory. She wrote the biography on Lew Ayres (Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector) and Hitchcock’s Casting (Hitchcock’s Stars). Lesley currently freelances as a critic and interviewer for a number of sites, including regular contributions to The Interrobang, Pink Pen, and Young Folks, and previously wrote for The Mary Sue and Filmoria. (Twitter handle @filmbiographer, website lesleycoffin.com)