As Pixar’s Up taught us, there is something inherently endearing about the relationship between a grumpy old man and a little kid who keeps getting on his nerves. While at first glance, this movie might seem no more riding on the same emotional coattails, and while on closer glance, the overall story seems to have many of the same beats, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is its own movie, something you’re sure to notice from the very first scene. Directed by the same mind that brought us the inventively hilarious What We Do in the Shadows, this is an extremely original film that introduces its audience to unchartered frontiers of emotion, visuals and chaptered storytelling. Rooting itself in the distinct culture and landscape of the New Zealand countryside, it takes us down a heart-warming path filled with measured dark humour and boundless imagination.
The story opens on a luscious green plain walled off by hills and forests on all sides, where a woman finds her anticipation rewarded as a lone police car pulls over by her cottage. The reason for this anticipation is sitting in the backseat of the same car, reluctant to get out and obviously weary of the whole situation. This is Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison), a juvenile delinquent who has earned himself a reputation of running away, spitting and graffiti, among other things. Aunt Bella (Rima Te Wiata) is the woman who lives in the cottage with her husband, the silent and short-tempered Hec (Sam Neil) and who has taken Ricky under her foster care, and wants, more than anything, for them to be a family. As Ricky soon learns, the New Zealand wilderness is not as boring or easy to escape as he thought it would be, and as the story progresses, becomes the target of a nationwide manhunt, along with the reluctant Uncle Hec. A story of survival in the wild, of growing up through the people who come into our lives, of haikus, and more than anything, of a boy’s unbridled imagination, Hunt for the Wilderpeople never ceases to entertain.
Set as it is in the wilderness of the New Zealand countryside – a stretch and interwoven lakes, jungles, plains and mountains – this film held the inherent promise of stunning visuals distinctly different from the generic landscapes we are used to seeing in most films. However, Waititi decides to take it one step further, and brings to the table this vibrant kinetic energy in character and shot transitions, that keep moving to the rhythm of the comedy. As I said in the beginning, from the very opening scene where Ricky’s delinquency is described, you are thrown off guard by the novelty with which each shot is framed, as fresh as the country air that you can almost reach out and feel. The transitions between shots here are swift and sometimes jumpy, suitably accompanying the tone of the film, which alternates between abrupt peaks and drawn out pauses. Sure, you need a really clever script to make a comedy work, but to make it work as a film, you would also have to pay attention to the visual medium and how well each line delivered makes itself effective on screen. The director is also artful in directing the actors within the frame, and is able to create effective visual gags through this alone. His mastery of visual comedy so evident, it would not be a stretch to say that Waititi reminds me very much of Edgar Wright in his calculated use of editing to translate the comedy on paper to screen flawlessly, and of Wes Anderson in his placement of characters and their visual relationship with each other within each frame.
It would be a crime to limit Hunt for the Wilderpeople to the genre of comedy, as its sweeping and close cut shots, and brief moments of emotional poignancy make it extremely effective as a dramatic adventure as well. The music for this film also fits the tone perfectly, resounding with excitement and the call of adventure, and adding to the distinctive flavour of the film. But all of these elements would only play good on paper without having evocative characters to carry the story forward and keep us interested. Sam Neil is once again in a jungle adventure for survival, and boy, is this role different from that of Alan Grant in Jurassic Park. Playing a very gruff, reclusive tough guy, Neil is able to let the warmth in the character’s heart shine through even while yelling at a little kid that he’s too soft for the jungle, or as they call it in the film, the Bush. The entire film is pretty much reliant on the constant back-and-forth between Ricky and Uncle Hec, and I found myself delighted to see Julian Dennison hold his ground against Neil, with his quiet wit and charming curiosity. In fact, it’s not been a bad year for child actors, with Jacob Tremblay (The Room) and Millie Bobby Brown (Stranger Things) winning over critics and audiences the world over.
Taika Waititi’s new film is a feature of wonderful imagination and human relationships that are sure to warm your heart as you follow these runaways on their quest to escape society. Divided as it is into chapters, and with characters as whimsical as the title, Hunt for the Wilderpeople looks straight out of a child’s imagination, and I mean that in the best possible way. Based on the book ‘Wild Pork and Watercress’ by Barry Crump, it is a tale of two loners, alienated by society, trying to make their own place in the world. Light-hearted in tone with rough edges, this movie sets its relatable tale in a quirky world that extends beyond the Bush that is sure to surprise and delight even the most cynical moviegoer. Waititi has nailed what could very well be a Pixar movie – endearing characters in an inspiring story of human relationships – not forgetting to leave out that which makes the whole movie: an exciting, original flavour.