Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) / Comedy-Adventure

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for thematic elements including violent content, and for some language
Running Time: 101 min.

Cast: Sam Neill, Julian Dennison, Rima Te Wiata, Rachel House, Oscar Kightley, Stan Walker, Rhys Darby, Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne
Small role: Taika Waititi
Director: Taika Waititi
Screenplay: Taika Waititi (based on the book, "Wild Pork and Watercress", by Barry Crump)

Review published July 17, 2016

Julian Dennison (Paper Planes, Shopping) plays Ricky Baker, a rebellious, chubby, twelve-year-old foster thug-life wanna-be who ends up dumped by an exasperated social worker (House, Whale Rider) to a childless couple, kind-hearted Bella (Te Wiata, Housebound) and her cynical husband Hec (Neill, Escape Plan) a last-chance effort from the foster placement, out on a remote farm in rural New Zealand.  "Bad Egg" Ricky hates his new environment about as much as he's hated everyplace else he's been, choosing to run away at his first opportunity, only to find that he hasn't a clue where he can go or how to survive out in the wilderness that surrounds the farm.  However, circumstances result in injured Hec and Ricky, who is adamant about never returning to foster child services, stuck out in that wilderness, becoming misunderstood fugitives caught up in a high-publicity manhunt (hence the title), and Ricky's going to have to learn "the knack" of survival out in "the Bush" of New Zealand.

Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows) writes, directs, and even has a cameo appearance as a kooky preacher in Hunt for the Wilderpeople, a loose adaptation of the 1986 book by the late New Zealand author Barry Crump, though injected to a large extent with Waititi's comic sensibilities. The literary origins can still be seen whenever there is a story transition, starting with "Chapter 1 - A Real Bad Egg" all the way to the "Epilogue". The movie is a flawed but very likeable comedic coming-of-age story, cute and with an undercurrent of sentimentality, only coming undone a bit when Waititi attempts to get too cute or sentimental with these characters from time to time.  The film stays light in tone, even through some fairly bitter tragedy, and the resultant feeling is a bittersweet experience that elevates the material from being merely a fish-out-of-water tale.  Most of the characters have their own defined quirks.

The film is at its charming best when in the coming-of-age mode, with fun and heartwarming interactions between young Ricky and his older surrogate "Aunty Bella" and "Uncle Hec", all trying to find ways to cohabitate as a real family.  It's not a wholly fresh plot, as we've seen cantankerous old man's heart is thawed by spirited young person many times before, in such films as True Grit, and especially Pixar's Up. Yet, these characters feel unique, as are the situations borne out of their locales, allowing Waititi's film a sheen of newness, even though it is adhering to a familiar formula. There are also some fun roles for some idiosyncratic people they meet along the way, from a trip of game hunters who get involved in the chase, to a young girl and her father who get involved in trying to help Ricky, and a zany turn from Rhys Davies as a hermitic and completely off-his-rocker conspiracy theorist convinced the world is out to get him.

The character touches are wonderful, from Ricky's love of coming up with haikus on the spot, an adoration of Tupac (as evidences by his "All Eyez on Me" jacket and the name he gives his dog) to the improvisational (and very sweet) birthday ditty that Aunty Bella sings to Ricky on his thirteenth birthday, to which he joins in the refrain, while Hec looks lost at sea toward the open display of cheesy, gooey affection that he's likely never experienced in his own life out in the bush.  (Trivia: the song was made up on the spot after several takes utiliing the more traditional "Happy Birthday" song, but changed due to copyright issues). There are also nods to well-known New Zealand works of the 1970s from the likes of Kiwi filmmakers Peter Weir (especially his zoom shots), Geoff Murphy (whose Goodbye Pork Pie inspired the car chase sequences) and Roger Donaldson (elements of his Sleeping Dogs are woven in here), as well as to classic Hollywood action films, from The Terminator to First Blood to The Fugitive to a catchphrase made popular by Michael Bay's Bad Boys 2.  And, since we're out in the lush mountains of New Zealand, of course there's a reference to the most famous film series made there, Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings films.

The film falters when it's not in the bonding mode, with an overbearing subplot involving the manhunt for Ricky and his supposed abductor, with a tenacious and increasingly militaristic social worker doing everything she can to get the boy back to her custody.  The humor can also be overly silly at times, more befitting a cartoon than a subtle independent comedy with melancholy beats, and the action elements toward the end, including car chases and destruction, feel like they belong in a spoof of 1980s blockbusters more so than in a poignant story about two misunderstood and withdrawn characters finding ways to come together.

With a very likeable cast, characters we can root for, funny and quotable lines in the screenplay, and some very good work out in the Bush lands of northern New Zealand, Hunt for the Wilderpeople overcomes some if its more obvious overreaching for laughs through the understated and more playful beats.  Waititi is certainly a critical darling at the moment, lending his involvement as cowriter for Disney's Moana and director for the upcoming Marvel release, Thor: Ragnarok, a reason to be cautiously optimistic that it won't be an joyless, assembly-line effort.  If successful, it will be as bittersweet an experience, as we wish him the accolades he deserves as a new Hollywood player, but we'll miss the more incisive, small-scale Kiwi delights of What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople.

Qwipster's rating:

2016 Vince Leo