As much as it is hilarious and exhilarating, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a clever, deadpan delight coming straight from the mind of Taika Waititi, helmer of last year’s vampire mockumentary darling, What We Do in the Shadows. It has the heart and all the brains as it divides the wilderness of New Zealand finding a bridge between road movie, buddy movie, and generation-gap movie that works.
Wilderpeople might not be a completely original story, but it shows how a retelling of a been-there-done-that story could be astounding if done properly. The NZ odyssey starts off when a fat, free-spirited orphan, Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison), is brought by his office, Paula (Rachel House), into a farmhouse where his new foster-parents – Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and Hec (Jurassic Park’s Sam Neill) – live. While cramped with tension and rebels in the beginning, Ricky takes his time to finally settle in with his new family, especially auntie Bella, whose boldness and quirky caring win him over. And that was just Chapter One.
Sh*t just got real. This leads to Ricky ends up running into the deep forest, planning to live in the wilderness with his best-birthday-gift dog, Tupac. Cranky Hec finds him, but something hinders them from returning to society. Thing is, there has been a ridiculous misunderstanding embarks from the spot Ricky and Heck left, leading into a nationwide manhunt hence the title.
Dividing the hundred minute wilderness bonanzas into several chapters is possibly one of the most inventive storytelling remarks Wilderpeople has done. Saving a key-moment for each chapter – that works in a similar way to bookmarks, Waititi highlights major plot points in perfect play of words respectively followed by hilarious, electric scenes to follow. There’s plenty of small laugh and major outbursts (sometimes deadpan, sometimes absurd) with evidently super perfect timing, yet, they’re all sustaining the plot under each chapter title, which makes all of them digestible.
It might seem like a reminiscent of Pixar’s Up for the nature of the story, but since it borrows much from Barry Crump’s novel Wild Pork & Watercress, from which it is adapted. Waititi relies much on adorable chemistry between Ricky and Hec – contrast in the surface, but as they go along, complementing each other. Ricky is a rebel and a reflection of free spirit, but he’s not that one-dimensional; he’s creative and a survivalist. It’s easy to root on his character (nod to that ‘Lord of the Rings´ scene, too!), as easy as connecting to a more mature and cantankerous Hec. More hillbilly than a scholar, he later transforms into a father figure Ricky’s missing for the rest of his life, vice versa.
How Waititi directs veteran as Sam Neill in a much grounded character never ceases to astound. Sam Neill’s Hec evolves from a character in the background into a protagonist we’re dying to root, whose chemistry with Julian Dennison’s Ricky runs strong. However, the real star of Wilderpeople is Dennison – who blends confidently with stars as Neill and seasoned locals as Rima Te Wiata (Housebound), whom I want to see more on the screen. Even, Rhys Darby’s small role could reflect how magnificently absurd this movie is. But, truly, characters and the respective cast are another key element Wilderpeople manages to effectively explore.
This is the part where I should praise Taika Waititi as a promising talent to film industry. How he pulls all those elements together into a fascinating coherence – a blend of substantial casts, sympathetic script, captivating soundtracks, and fascinating cinematography (take a deeper look at that 720-degree rotation scene!) sweeping the landscape of New Zealand – and wraps it in an offbeat story with strong message is a proof that filmmaking still has hopes. Waititi, whose next job is penning Disney’s Moana and helming Thor: Ragnarok might be a talent we’re looking forward to.
Adorable at worst and majestic at best, Hunt for a Wilderpeople is hilarious, warm and exhilarating. It might look like a reminiscent of Up, but its quality of being upbeat, uplifting and upgoing is like nothing you have seen before. It’s difficult not to love it, especially if you experience it in big screen.