Director: Taika Waititi
Cast: Sam Neill, Julian Dennison, Rima Te Wiata
Spoilers Within: No
Almost a decade since his first film, Taika Waititi has carved his path with an assured, personalised voice, consistently balancing a brand of absurdist New Zealand humour with legitimately deserved warmth. This trademark continues through to his fourth feature, the sweetly amusing wilderness adventure, Hunt for the Wilderpeople.
After a subdued, joke-laden opening, we’re introduced to troubled youth Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) as he is placed in the care of Rima Te Wiata’s brusque-but-caring Bella and Sam Neill’s curt, gloomy Hector. Through a course of unfortunate events, Hector and Ricky flee into the the remote and rugged Ureweras and find themselves the focus of a national manhunt, led by Paula (Rachel House): a hard-nosed child welfare worker with a farcical ineptitude for tracking down even the simplest of targets, and a seemingly character-defining lack of compassion. This simple set-up is handled with a certified pathos, and it’s in these tonal transitions between acts (or literary-style chapter signifiers) that elevate it from generic buddy road movie to kindly sweet familial adventure. For Waititi’s adaptation (of Barry Crump’s novel Wild Pork and Watercress) to imbue the film with a light-hearted tone while never risking the moments of sincerity, the casting was absolutely critical, and both Neill and Dennison (and Te Wiata) are impeccably suited to their roles.
I’ve seen that comparisons to Wes Anderson have been made a lot, and I’d have to disagree that this is a wholly positive thing to say, even if it is said with the best of intentions. Of course, Anderson is a visionary auteur, but as anyone who has seen a Waititi film should be able to reinforce, he too has a cinematic style that is wholly represented by his own voice (and I don’t mean a literal, New Zealand accent, though that is partly fair). Waititi does use spatial symmetry and quirky cuts here and there, but to put this down to a homage (whether direct or indirect) is diminishing the obvious talents on show: Waititi’s eye is no less meticulously framed and organised than Anderson’s.
If that all seems more positive than my final grade would suggest, it’s that surprisingly, despite all this expert blending of ideas and glorious character arcs, the humour is somewhat lacking. Where Waititi’s mockumentary What We Do In The Shadows was willingly and acceptably bizarre (though no less understated), the over-the-top editing style and punchline humour of Hunt For The Wilderpeople felt far too fantastical for these relaxed, earthy characters. The ineptness of the police and welfare workers was a running gag that, due to their heightened stupidity, became frustrating misfires; their plain idiocy an excuse to keep Hector and Ricky’s journey going. The fact that they were missing for months on end seemed like a narrative disadvantage: considering their admission that they weren’t trying to hide, it just seemed like a convenient way of keeping the duo in the woods that rang false to me. There’s a hesitance here to stick with one sensibility: a real world setting with truthful details is sometimes foregone in favour of cartoonish fantasy: e.g. the aforementioned bumbling antagonists, or the excessive climax. Had Waititi stuck with one or the other, the focus on the characters growth would have been more concentrated.
Neill and Dennison are such a joy to watch together that it’s a shame when the focus moves elsewhere: watching them grow together as a pair was much more interesting than when they’re split up. The screenplay is brilliant in utilising the deviations from the main story, and though they’re narratively pertinent to the resolution it comes at the cost of having more time between the main duo, but not even these negatives can belittle the blistering wit on show when it’s at its best.
Hunt For The Wilderpeople has a palpable fondness for its characters and their journey, and though there are a few detours and a handful of recurring jokes that don’t land, it’s still the perfect afternoon family adventure with bite, though disappointingly little else.