FILM REVIEW – HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE. With Sam Neill, Julian Dennison, Rima Te Wiata, Rachel House, and Oscar Kightley. Written and directed by Taika Waititi. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements including violent content, and for some language. 101 minutes.
“Majestical” isn’t a real word, at least not according to thirteen-year-old Ricky Baker, the portly protagonist of writer-director Taika Waititi’s HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE, which is currently blowing into theatres like a cool, refreshing breeze in our overheated summer of bad vibes. Abandoned as a baby, Ricky’s been bouncing around juvenile facilities and foster homes, prone to stealing, swearing, spitting, and a litany of other offenses frequently, breathlessly indexed by his tyrannical Child Services officer, played with great gusto by Rachel House.
The fantastic young discovery Julian Dennison brings pathos to Ricky’s surly gracelessness, especially as he gets his first taste of unconditional love and acceptance at a farmhouse on the edge of the New Zealand bush, with the kindhearted, slightly kooky Bella (Rima Te Waita) and her monosyllabic husband, Hector. Hector’s called “Hec” for short, and Sam Neill’s gruff, minimalistic performance leaves no doubt he’d prefer everything short. The film is broken up into storybook chapters with onscreen titles, the first few quite movingly observing these three misfits as they gradually grow into a family.
But life is often never more cruel than when things finally seem to be working out, and an unexpected tragedy soon finds Ricky and “Uncle Hec” a whole heck of a ways out in the woods together. Hec suffers a busted ankle, leaving them to camp out for a couple of months while all sorts of wrong conclusions are leapt to by the authorities, particularly Ricky’s aforementioned dictatorial Child Services officer. Our mismatched duo rather accidentally wind up becoming famous fugitives, and “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” blossoms into a boisterous outdoor adventure, nodding to influences as disparate as “Up” and “The Blues Brothers” while maintaining a distinctly handcrafted, funky vibe all its own.
Based on Barry Crump’s book, “Wild Pork and Watercress,” Waititi’s film has the stylized exaggerations and emotional directness of the best children’s literature. Everything is just a tiny bit louder and more colorful than real life, but the feelings are straightforward and unadorned. Ricky and Uncle Hec stumble into plenty of wacky escapades that are at times gut-bustingly funny, with large-scaled supporting performances by actors made up to almost look like illustrations, and yet the film remains grounded in our main characters’ loneliness and their shared sense of loss. (The way we see Hec sketching a gaudy cat sweater provides a gag prop with unexpected resonance. There are a lot of moments like that.)
Cinematographer Lachlan Milne lavishes attention on the awe-inspiring New Zealand landscapes, but maybe could’ve cooled it a little because every once in a while it feels the story is being interrupted so we can look at postcards. He and Waititi do come up with some pretty nifty tricks, though, particularly a wintery montage sequence pulled off in a single 360-degree pan that immediately follows a great “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” reference I was the only person in the theatre laughing at.
Of course Sam Neill’s most famous role was also that of a child-hating crank bonding with plucky kids on a jungle adventure. But there are more differences here than just a lack of dinosaurs, as the tight-lipped, not-entirely-bright Uncle Hec warms up to Ricky Baker a bit more convincingly. (Ricky might be an obnoxious juvenile delinquent but he’s still nowhere near as annoying as those kids in “Jurassic Park.”)
Dennison has a hilarious way of swanning through scenes as though not quite entirely in control of his oversized body, his urban street-wear providing a secondary sight gag in the forest. As a man accustomed to living on his own in the wilderness, Neill doesn’t waste any movements and isn’t one to talk about his feelings, not matter how much Ricky prods him about “processing.” Their eventual rapport is all the more affecting for being so hard-won.
Over the course of their journey these two also discover a beautiful, rare bird that was presumed to be extinct. The same description could apply to “Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” as I can’t recall the last time I saw a live-action adventure film for the whole family that wasn’t talking down to kids or trying to sell them plastic crap. It’s majestical.•••
Over the past seventeen years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Boston Herald, Nashville Scene, The House Next Door, Time Out New York, EntertainmentTell, Philadelphia City Paper and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.