In 2014, Taika Waititi, a New Zealand comedian and filmmaker, made a film that I consider one of the very best of the twenty-first century, the soon-to-be iconic cult classic horror comedy What We Do in the Shadows. The success of that film led to him being selected as the director of the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok, which I am ecstatic about, as he deserve the acclaim and popularity (and money) that a big-budget Marvel blockbuster brings. In between these two projects, he managed to direct another film, completely different to the others (but vaguely similar to one of his previous films, Boy) – Hunt for the Wilderpeople. While it may not live up to the brilliant What We Do in the Shadows, it is certainly one of the most delightful films of the year.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople tells the story of Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison), a young Maori orphan that has been shifted between homes for years now, and his rapscallion attitude and rebellious nature mean he can’t stay in one place for long. His final opportunity to have a family comes in the form of Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and Hector (Sam Neill), a married couple living in relative seclusion from the modern world. Bella is a kind and loving woman who really just wanted a child to love and care for – Hector, on the other hand, is a misanthropic, cynical and bitter man that can’t wait to be free of Ricky. A tragedy forces Hector and Ricky to leave their home, and they are soon being chased by the authorities in an elaborate man-hunt. Over the course of a few months, Hector and Ricky manage to become close friends and more importantly, a family.
There isn’t much about Hunt for the Wilderpeople that stands out as being original. In terms of story, it is pretty conventional – rebellious individual meets grumpy individual, and they are off to a rocky start. Eventually, they discover they are quite fond of each other and have a deep connection. It is a common trope in cinema, and Hunt for the Wilderpeople isn’t original for telling this kind of basic story, because it certainly isn’t the first, and obviously will not be the last. However, a lack of originality can be compensated by making a film that is utterly sweet and delightful to watch, and if there is a film that fits the standard of a lovely little adventure comedy, then it is most certainly Hunt for the Wilderpeople.
First of all, Hunt for the Wilderpeople rides on the chemistry between the two leads – and I have a soft spot for any film that successfully manages to take two characters that are polar opposites and force them to carry the film. In a film industry where our major films are mostly composed of leads that are very similar, a film like Hunt for the Wilderpeople has a young Maori newcomer acting across from a cinematic veteran, and they have remarkable chemistry that is rarely seen. Dennison is simply extraordinary as Ricky Baker, and he manages to play a rebellious, energetic character without ever being annoying. He brings a certain kind of sweet charm to the character that makes him endearing. Sam Neill is excellent as the grizzled and grumpy Hector, who also finds the delicate balance between being cynical without being outright nasty. Dennison and Neill are excellent together, and they are a joy to watch. Rima Te Wiata (who was absolutely incredible in the little-seen 2014 New Zealand horror Housebound) is simply extraordinary as Bella, bringing irresistible sweetness to humour to her limited screen time. The core cast is very strong, and smaller performances from Rhys Darby (who was also excellent in What We Do in the Shadows) and Rachel House are also heavily appreciated and contribute to this wonderful film. Waititi himself makes a cameo as a priest in the film, and while he only has one scene, that scene is one of the funniest out of any film this year, and had me howling with laughter.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a strange little film, because it doesn’t seem like something normal – there is something offbeat and strange about it. It may not be groundbreaking in story, but it certainly serves to be a reminder of how great storytelling can do anything. It feels incredibly quirky – Waititi brings influences from the likes of Wes Anderson and the lighter works of Tim Burton into this film that often borders on being outright magical in terms of how it tells the story – watching this film, you constantly expect some otherworldly entities to appear and guide our protagonists. It feels simultaneously like reality and fantasy, which is bizarre – but this slight confusion between where this film fits in gives Hunt for the Wilderpeople a wonderfully idiosyncratic tone, and the peculiarity of Hunt for the Wilderpeople is not lost in the fact that it may not be the most interesting film in terms of story, but it is certainly captivating based only on the fact that it is executed so brilliantly.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a wonderful little film. Taika Waititi is such a talented director, and I really am so glad that I encountered him as a director so early, because all of his fans are now able to watch him ascend to a new level of fame and acclaim, and I look forward to anything he is attached to. Not only is he a talented director, he serves as a great ambassador to his country, and all of his films have shown New Zealand in a new light, showing the country as being far more than just the hackneyed portrayal many people associate with it, and also shows that films other than The Lord of the Rings can come out of the idyllic and beautiful nation. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a great film, and I suggest anyone who wants something sweet and funny, and also moving, to seek it out. It is definitely worth your time.