Taika Waititi has been a talent constantly on the rise. First making his name as an actor, he then broke through as a director with the Oscar-nominated short film Two Cars, One Night before a sequence of feature films drew him further into the spotlight. As such, this may be his last New Zealand film for a while, as he has at time of writing been deep in directing Thor 3: Ragnarok. If this really is the send-off for his laid-back style of local filmmaking, it’s a hell of a way to finish.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople is an adaptation of the Barry Crump book, Wild Pork and Watercress, but that is just the plotting. This is a Waititi film, through and through. It also shows his growing maturity as a filmmaker and his ability to get pitch-perfect performances from his cast.
Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) is a 12-year-old delinquent who finds himself at the end of the tether of Child Services’ officer Paula (Rachel House). A string of foster homes has led him to his last chance, staying with a rural couple in their tiny farmhouse. But a sequence of events leads him and his new ‘uncle’ Hec (Sam Neill) to go on the run, heading into the New Zealand bush to escape Child Services and the police as they battle the elements, hunters and each other.
On paper, this is a fairly obvious heartwarming story of bonding between the lonely kid and the crotchety old bushman, but Waititi’s careful touch means it is never schmaltzy and he keeps the comedy front-and-centre, making for a wonderfully entertaining film with a strong emotional core.
It is anchored by strong acting from the immediately likeable Dennison and Neill, who is extremely generous in his performance, happy to play low-key and let his co-stars take the limelight. An array of cameos, including Rhys Darby (Flight of the Conchords, The X-Files) and Waititi himself, plus faces familiar to New Zealanders, all hit without outstaying their welcome.
The film is unapologetically New Zealand, from the scenery to the slang (“a Mangaweka mile”?) to the (often very thick) accents, to the references (an old NZ Toyota ad gets a near shot-for-shot remake), there is barely a nod to anyone outside of the country to keep up. The only mention that jumps out is a line from conspiracy theorist Sam (Darby), when he states, “And don’t get me started on the national rugby team – they’re not human.” One only has to know that the team in question is called “The All Blacks” to see why the line was adjusted for foreign audiences.
The pacing is adept, with frequent use of montages to handle the large jumps in time that occur. Some of these are handled with a single in-camera rotating shot trick that involved cast members sneaking around behind camera to pop up again into shot. It is deceptively simple, but effective and striking.
An effortlessly entertaining, pitch-perfect comedy, Hunt for the Wilderpeople shows that you can appeal to a broad audience whilst still retaining a distinct voice. A wonderful gem of a film.
The extras include some lightweight interviews (snippets of which are then collected in a separate ‘featurette’) and a blooper reel. The main extra is a fun commentary track with Taika Waititi – in typical deadpan style – with first Sam Neill and then Julian Dennison joining in via Skype. It is an easy listen, with even Dennison’s obvious instruction to say how great everyone involved was coming across as endearing.