Taika Waititi is a major talent. New Zealand already knows this after several of the director’s offbeat films, which include Eagle vs Shark, Boy and What We Do in the Shadows, have become hits in that country. The latter comedy was one of my favorites of the year when it was finally released in the U.S. in 2015. On November 3, 2017, the rest of the world will come to know Taika Waititi’s name when Thor: Ragnarok (Thor 3) is released.
His latest, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, is a quirky joy. A movie fashioned with such care and so much warmth that it practically leaps from the screen and gives the audience a hug. It’s based on the book Wild Pork and Watercress by New Zealand author Barry Crump. Crump’s semi-autobiographical tales are often comic adventures set in the rugged outdoors. Wilderpeople is no different. The saga stars a famous name in actor Sam Neill as Uncle Hec, a grizzled man. He chases after Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison), a defiant city boy after Ricky runs away from home into the forest.
But let’s start at the beginning. Sweet Aunt Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and cantankerous Uncle Hec (Neill) are Ricky’s latest foster parents. Living in the country has been an adjustment for the city kid. Aunt Bella is chipper although her bloody killing of a boar does frighten the child a bit. However Ricky finally seems to have found a family he likes. When Bella abruptly passes away, the authorities threaten to extract the youngster and place him in yet another foster home. Fearing more bad experiences, Ricky runs away into the wild. Uncle Hec follows after the boy. When strict child-services worker Paula (Rachel House) discovers the missing pair, a manhunt ensues.
Ricky is an orphan that has been shuttled around in the foster care system. Raised on hip-hop and affecting a gansta lean (that is if he was actually old enough to drive) he’s been labeled as a bad egg. Nothing could be further from the truth. With dog Tupac by his side, he is disarmingly charismatic. The elderly geezer and the young whippersnapper, thrown together by fate, united by friendship. The idea sounds clichéd but in the hands of Sam Neil and especially novice actor Julian Dennison, the idea is fresh and delightful. Dennison is the secret weapon of the chronicle, bringing a fresh interpretation to a character that charms us almost immediately. A heavy set kid of about 12, there’s a physicality to his performance that makes his precociousness all the more amusing.
Hunt of the Wilderpeople is a beautiful blending of a road movie and a coming of age tale. Like the novel, the production is divided into chapters, each with its own title. The whimsical adventure fashions amusing vignettes that, like delectable morsels, are easily digestible in bite size pieces. With gorgeous scenery as a backdrop, a musical score charms with a retro 80s feel courtesy of the band Moniker . “Trifecta (Ricky Baker Song)” is a highlight. Musical interludes are inserted amongst sharp, witty moments between Uncle Hec and the tender lad. If there is a quibble, it’s that the plot drags on a bit too long when a tighter narrative might have made the ending pop a bit more . By the time the story finally wraps up, we’re more than ready for things to end. Still, there’s a preciousness that touches the heart without ever being overtly twee. It recalls the work of Wes Anderson. Believe me, that’s a compliment of the highest order in my book. Actor Sam Neill and newcomer Julian Dennison have an odd couple chemistry that makes this “hang-out” yarn thoroughly enjoyable. The veteran actor is good but the rookie is even better. Julian Dennison steals the film and probably your heart as well.