Review: 'Hunt for the Wilderpeople' finds small pleasures in vast New Zealand bush
In what will be his last indie before tackling Thor: Ragnarok, New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi starts thinking bigger — if only slightly bigger — in Hunt for the Wilderpeople.
Waititi is known for his work on Flight of the Conchords and films that share both its cast and dry sense of humor, such as vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows. This new movie is much in the same vein, but does see him working with a bigger canvas and lead actor before his big Marvel blockbuster.
Troubled child Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) is sent to live in the countryside with foster parents Bella (Rima Te Wiata), who loves him deeply, and Hec (Sam Neill), who just wants to be left alone. Ricky immediately attempts to run away into the nearby New Zealand bush, and though he eventually grows happy with his new home, leaves once again following a tragic incident.
Yet it isn't long until he bumps back into Hec, who's intimately familiar with the forest and planning his own departure. Police arriving at the house assume Hec has kidnapped Ricky and as a manhunt ensues, the two must evade both the authorities and their irritation with one another.
Waititi shows a larger scope than his previous films, with overhead shots surveying the gorgeous New Zealand landscape. A snowy montage scene set to Leonard Cohen recalls Robert Altman's 1971 opus McCabe and Mrs. Miller.
Speaking of montage, the movie subsists on the ‘80s films you might imagine pop-culture sponge Ricky could've grown up watching on worn-out videotapes in foster homes. The Terminator, Scarface and First Blood are name-dropped, the score is laden with synths and there's even a climactic car chase.
It's also the second film released in the same week along with Swiss Army Man to harbor Robinson Crusoe fantasies. Here a desert island is switched out for the New Zealand bush, but its characters develop the same attachment to their isolation in nature.
Sam Neill fares better here than his Jurassic Park co-star Jeff Goldblum and Independence Day: Resurgence in choice of recent projects. He does a fairly convincing job as the gruff, world-weary Hec, though he gradually, slightly opens up as the film goes on.
Equally impressive is relative newcomer Dennison. He imbues what could've been a stereotypical role with both some real toughness and vulnerability.
Indeed, what makes the movie work is how it thwarts a potentially stale premise — grumpy old man has to team up with precocious kid — by underplaying it. That includes the emotional elements of the film, which could've come off as mawkish if they weren't
Like much of Waititi's other work, Hunt for the Wilderpeople may remain a modest film offering modest pleasures. Yet there's nothing wrong with setting out for a small-scale goal and achieving it.
And with Thor: Ragnarok being released next year, it won't take long to find out how his sensibility works with a much larger film.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Director: Taika Waititi
Cast: Sam Neill, Julian Dennison, Rima Te Wiata, Rachel House
Screenplay: Taika Waititi
Rating: PG-13; thematic elements including violent content, some language
Running time: 111 min.