Hunt for the Wilderpeople, 2016.
Directed by Taika Waititi.
Starring Sam Neill, Julian Dennison, Rima Te Wiata, Rachel House, Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne, Oscar Knightley and Rhys Darby.
A national manhunt is ordered for a rebellious kid and his foster uncle who go missing in the wild New Zealand bush.
Taika Waititi’s The Hunt for the Wilderpeople is the kind of film that will inevitably be described using words like “charming”, “delightful” and “heartwarming”. But while it is all of these things, the New Zealand director’s latest work is so much more. It’s also smart, brilliantly scripted and directed, wonderfully acted, and the most definitive proof anyone could need that Waititi is a director to watch. Oh, and it’s hilarious. Let’s not forget that.
Fans of Waititi’s last film, the vampire comedy What We Do in the Shadows, will find a lot of the same comedic stylings in Wilderpeople, but this is far from a re-tread. Really, the film is a testament to Waititi’s versatility and range as a director. While Shadows used a lot of “cringe comedy” and a faux-documentary style, not entirely unlike The Office but with more vampires, Wilderpeople feels very much like its own beast. And a beast that had recently feasted on Edgar Wright, with a small side order of Wes Anderson at that. Shadows put its actors and script at the forefront, while Wilderpeople is one of those increasingly rare comedies that uses all of the tools at its disposal to generate laughs, including editing, framing and sound. Which isn’t to say that the acting and script aren’t fantastic. But Wilderpeople knows that humor can come from a variety of sources, rather than just dialogue and acting.
But speaking of acting, the cast are all in top form, with the ever-reliable Sam Neill showing off a truly outstanding “straight-man” routine. But viewers will probably find themselves most impressed by relative newcomers Julian Dennison, Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne and Oscar Knightley. Dennison is a comedy powerhouse in Wilderpeople, perhaps one of the more charming and magnetic child actors in recent memory, while Ngatai-Melbourne and Knightley both put in extremely strong supporting performances. Rhys Darby shows up for a scene-stealing performance in an unfortunately limited part as a local eccentric. It’s a shame that he’s given such a small role, but then again if he’d had any more screen time he may have just stolen the entire movie.
If any criticism can honestly be leveled against Hunt for the Wilderpeople, it’s that the film doesn’t devote quite enough time to setting up Ricky’s character before he first meets his new foster parents and starts to shed his “problem child” tendencies. We’re told (and shown, in a series of rapid-fire cutaways) that Ricky is a “real bad egg”, but he turns around so immediately that his character arc feels almost non-existent. For the most part, he remains the same goofy, exuberant kid the whole way through. Sam Neil’s Hec is the one to go through a significant character change over the course of the film, and while his transformation is great, it would have been more satisfying to see Hec and Ricky grow and change together more than we wind up seeing.
But this is one small criticism against what is otherwise one of the best comedies of the year, if not the last several years. It’s one of those films that puts a smile on your face from the get-go and almost effortlessly keeps it there the entire running time. While genre fans at previous Fantasia Festival installments have delighted in New Zealand’s stellar horror output, like Jason Lei Howden’s Deathgasm last year, Hunt for the Wilderpeople demonstrates that there’s far more to the New Zealand film scene than splatter films (though it bears repeating, New Zealand splatter films rule). Hopefully Waititi’s work on What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople leads to more New Zealand comedies in the future.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★