Hunt for the Wilderpeople is the latest film by New Zealand director Taika Waititi. The screenplay is based on the novel Wild Pork and Watercress by Barry Crump. I thoroughly enjoyed Waititi's last film, What We Do in the Shadows, and in fact it was my favourite movie of the year last year, so I was looking forward to seeing his latest one.
Ricky Baker is a 13-year-old with a reputation for being a juvenile delinquent. He has never known his parents and has only lived in a series of foster homes. As he is dropped off at a remote farm in the bush, he is warned that if this latest foster placement doesn't work out, he will be sent to a juvenile prison. The farm belongs to Bella, a kind-hearted Maori woman, and Hector, a gruff bushman with a shady past. After a few false starts, Ricky settles in happily at the farm.
After a tragic series of events, Ricky and Hector find themselves forced to camp out in the bush for 6 weeks. When they try to return to civilisation, they discover that Hector has been accused of kidnapping Ricky, and a reward has been offered for his capture. The two go on the run with their dogs, chased by the police, a crazed child welfare officer and a group of hunters. Ricky becomes somewhat of a folk hero, and finds just as many people willing to help him as catch him.
Moments of poignancy and sadness are interspersed with a series of increasingly over-the-top chase scenes. The eventual ending sees all of the characters (the ones we like, anyway) finding happiness in a quiet, not sickly-sweet kind of way.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople has the same offbeat comedic sense as Waititi's previous films. I found it dragged a little as the action became more farcical, but the strong characters more than made up for this. Julian Dennison's portrayal of Ricky is brilliant -- the cliched rebellious teen just looking for somewhere to belong is made individual by his quirky character traits. Sam Neill as the other half of this odd couple plays subtle comedy as well as he always does. The only criticism I have is that the comedic and tragic scenes seemed to alternate with a predictable regularity. Several scenes which have not much to do with the overall plot expose the movies' being based on a novel, though I found they helped me to empathise with the characters.
I noticed references to several other New Zealand films, and I'm sure there are plenty more that I missed. The stunning New Zealand scenery contrasting with the slightly cheesy 80s-inspired soundtrack provided another level of comic absurdity. The 'Ricky Baker' birthday song was adorable and I found myself singing it for days afterwards. I was relieved that the cinematography avoided the stereotypical mountainous scenery we saw in Lord of the Rings and focused instead on New Zealand's forest and desert landscapes. Another lovely touch was the division of scenes into chapters with the titles appearing in a quirky font on the screen.
The film is not suitable for younger children as it depicts survival situations, scenes with guns and some violence involving animals. It is not a pure comedy as the television advertisements make out, but is much deeper and I think would be enjoyed by both adults and teens.
Would I watch again? Yes!