Taika Waititi is one of my favourite filmmakers at present. The first of his films I caught was 2010’s ‘Boy’, a fantastic comic coming-of-age tale, the second was the equally brilliant vampire mockumentary ‘What We Do In The Shadows’, and I’m delighted to report that his latest, ‘Hunt For The Wilderpeople’, is just as great, if not greater than those two flicks.
‘Hunt For The Wilderpeople’ is centred around the man you see above, Julian Dennison, who excellently portrays the infamous Ricky Baker, a foster child moved between families and homes due to his long rap sheet which includes, ‘breaking stuff, stealing stuff and burning stuff’. He’s a real bad egg.
We begin as Ricky is about to be introduced to a new family, ‘Auntie’ Bella, (Rima Te Wiata), and ‘Uncle’ Hector, (the legendary Sam Neill), at a ramshackled house in the heart of the New Zealand bush. He’s reluctant to fully open up, but eventually Bella breaks his resistance, gifting him the sort of affection he might never have experienced before, but also partially down to the birthday present of a dog, which Ricky promptly names Tupac.
The reinvention of the traditional ‘Happy Birthday’ greeting is another hilarious highlight and an indication of the heart and humour at the dead centre of this tale. As tragedy hits the new found family, Hec and Ricky are left with no choice but to embark on a grand adventure into the bush.
To reveal more of the storyline would take away a lot of the glory of the film, but its wonderful oddities and quirks are what make this one of the freshest, most fun times I’ve had at a cinema this year. It’s slightly outlandish and over the top at times, but its ‘majestical’ quality is there to see, in a way reminiscent of a good Wes Anderson film – think ‘Moonrise Kingdom’ as opposed to ‘The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou’.
Neill and Dennison are brilliantly magnetic as our two leading men, with each passing chapter of the film bringing them closer and closer together. The former is a gruff, no nonsense fella, with a slightly dark past, he mentions going to prison, and with little time for the latter; a wannabe gangster with a penchant for hoodies showered in dollar bills.
As we progress, Dennison’s youthfulness comes to the fore, we feel for him, despite his perceived annoying nature, his desire to be cared about and feel the warmth of a hotwater bottle keep us with him all the way. That fragility is one that Neill’s Hec also carries, the grumpy, old man who struggles to explain himself and communicate with anyone except for his beloved wife, Bella.
But it’s not just the two leads who impress; supporting performances from the rest of the cast really add to this world that Waititi has created. Hec’s aforementioned partner, played by Rima Te Wiata, Bella is incredible in a limited role, but has many of the biggest belly laughs of the film, while the persistent presence of child welfare officer Paula, (Rachel House), is an entertaining part of a cat-and-mouse chase. New Zealand comic Rhys Darby puts in a strong performance as a conspiracy theorist who gives our heroes a helping hand late in the day, and again has a few brilliant one-liners to boot.
As I draw this review to a close, it’s important to note two aspects of the film I’ve yet to comment on; namely the visuals and sound. The leafy, tumultuous terrain of the bush is fantastically brought to life by Waititi who uses sprawling landscapes often, yet the effect is never diluted. They add great scale and scope to the project, elevating it more than ‘just another indie movie’. And the score too, is perfect. It’s a buzzing electronic sound that never goes away, yet just fits. It’s never too intrusive and compliments the fantastic imagery to a tee. Original song choices too, don’t detract from the fantasy world we are inhibiting, instead the two occasions in which music is played by a character are memorable, but produce two different, evocative emotions.
‘Hunt for the Wilderpeople’ is pretty special. It’s immensely watchable, even at over 100 minutes long, and it doesn’t outstay its welcome, I could’ve watched these characters for far, far longer, such was their appeal. To create a film as likeable and fresh as this is truly a wonder.