Ricky is a defiant young city kid who finds himself on the run with his cantankerous foster uncle in the wild New Zealand bush. A national manhunt ensues, and the two are forced to put aside their differences and work together to survive.
Surely I’m not alone in finding the New Zealand accent innately lovable and funny. Its upward inflections and contracted vowels seem superbly suited to a special kind of warm, deadpan humour that references global pop culture yet feels incredibly local. (Remember the Michael Jackson-inspired scenes in Boy?) So when the central character of Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison), an overweight 13-year-old delinquent, is introduced by his stern social worker as ‘a real bad egg’ (pronounced ‘igg’) – even this is enough to elicit a giggle. But there’s far more than a cute accent at work in this superbly written, beautifully performed and quite frankly hilarious adventure-comedy.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople is the latest film from New Zealand’s most successful writer-director-actor, Taika Waititi (Eagle vs Shark, Boy, What We Do in the Shadows). Like his previous features, this premiered to praise at the Sundance Film Festival, and has broken NZ box office records. It’s a family-friendly romp adapted from a book, Wild Pork and Watercress, by the late Kiwi bushman and entertainer Barry Crump. (He was a bit like New Zealand’s answer to Mick Dundee, if Mick had written poetry and novels and starred in Toyota Hilux ads.)
Wilderpeople follows that familiar odd-couple formula of troublesome kid forced upon grumpy old man. After testing adventures in the wild or on the road, the two outsiders come to respect and maybe love one another. A large part of the pleasure of this hugely fun film is due to the chemistry between the kid (Dennison, who almost stole the show in Paper Planes as the plump, wisecracking offsider) and Hector (a grizzled and convincingly dour Sam Neill). Together, they manage just the right mix of aggro, rude comedy and well-earned pathos that never gets stuck in syrup.
Together, they manage just the right mix of aggro, rude comedy and well-earned pathos that never gets stuck in syrup.
When wannabe gangster Ricky arrives at the dilapidated farmhouse on the outskirts of dense bushland, he’s onto his last foster home before juvenile prison. This ‘bad egg’ is into ‘graffiti-ing, littering, smashing stuff, burning stuff, breaking stuff, stealing stuff, throwing rocks…’ – cue funny-tough montage of Ricky’s rather harmless outlaw behavior. But the kindly Bella (Rima Te Wiata) is convinced she can cope with the boy. With her wild cackle and fearless approach to blood and fur, Bella is just the eccentric maternal influence Ricky needs. Bella’s gruff ex-con hubby, Hec (Neill), doesn’t want any part of it and watches from afar as the boy begins to soften, especially when he finds hot water bottles in his bed and is given a beautiful dog as a birthday present. (The charismatic pooch gets named ‘Tupac’ of course.) But when disaster strikes, the city-soft teen and illiterate old man find themselves stranded in the wilderness. They’re pursued by police, game hunters, wild pigs and the increasingly insane child protection officer Paula (Rachel House), whose mantra ‘No child left behind’ gathers comic intensity as the hunt drags out month after month.
Shot in various remote locations on the north island of New Zealand, Wilderpeople makes great use of the stunning scenery. Dense, ferny bushland, sharp-faced mountains, and isolated lakes and streams are gorgeously depicted in widescreen by DOP Lachlan Milne, with many an aerial drone shot worthy of a tourist campaign. A mock operatic musical score underlines the comedy and the bursts of well-choreographed action. This is by far Waititi’s most ambitious and accomplished film to date, and he handles the combination of jokes, heartwarming moments and ridiculously over-the-top car-helicopter-army tank chases with aplomb. It’s true that the final action scene (complete with Thelma and Louise homage) is a tad overwrought, yet it’s certainly raised hopes for Waititi’s next project, directing Hollywood blockbuster Thor, Ragnarok (due in late 2017).
If you’re after a film that’s funny and sweet and harks back to a certain kind of innocent (but not toothless) 80s action-adventure, then Hunt for the Wilderpeople is perfect. Take the kids, take grandma, take your date, but don’t be surprised if you’re all sporting broad smiles and even broader New Zealand accents when you exit the cinema.