The Kiwi filmmaker Taika Waititi belongs to that rare species of directors who have successfully blended their indie sensibilities to the norms of blockbuster cinema to fascinating results. He possesses a natural talent for comedy and suffuses his projects with just enough drama so as not to overwhelm the narrative with humour.
He wrote and directed 2014’s vampire comedy, What We Do in the Shadows with regular collaborator Jemaine Clement, and thanks to the duo’s unique brand of comedy, it has come to be known as a classic and also spawned a brilliant spinoff TV series. Lesser known is Waititi’s 2016 charmer, a light-hearted comedy called Hunt for the Wilderpeople.
An adaptation of Wild Pork and Watercress by the beloved author Barry Crump, the film was about a chubby boy Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison), who was abandoned as a baby by his parents, and the all the efforts by government child welfare workers to find a loving family for him have failed. Yes, his is a sad story, but then he can be a handful too, prone to stealing things, breaking things, and if that doesn’t work, setting them on fire. He is also stubborn in a way only kids can be, keeps running away, and for his age is too wary and cynical of people in general, and potential foster families in particular.
He is eventually adopted by an elderly couple, Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and Hector Faulkner (Sam Neill), although more by her than he. They reside on a secluded farm in the foothills of a mountain range. Bella is everything a prospective foster boy would want in a foster mother (or grandmother) — gentle, loving, and caring. Hector, an illiterate, reticent and sourpuss old man, barely tolerates his presence.
Mainly out of the force for habit than anything else, Ricky is dismissive of his new family and tries to run away, but the farm is surrounded by millions of hectares of New Zealand Bush (as the woods are called down under) and slowly but surely, he begins to find comfort in Bella’s affection and care, and even Hector comes to accept, if not care for, the boy.
Tragedy strikes the family as Bella dies. It turns out Ricky will be again sent off with the child welfare workers to find some other foster home, and he cannot have that. Just when he had found a home, a real home, he would be spirited away?
He runs away, and Hector follows. One thing leads to another and they end up becoming fugitives and the target of a countrywide manhunt with the popular opinion being the kid was abducted by the foster father. The unlikely duo evokes Carl and Russel from Pixar’s Up in the best way, and are the perfect foil for each other. While Hector just wants the kid to be safe and back with the authorities, Ricky has come to love the life in the woods.
Their relationship is difficult at first, and it takes a while for both of them to warm up to each other. The development is predictable but gradual and believable, and they do not become fast friends all of a sudden. Both are outsiders in different ways, and it was inevitable they would find common ground. But the path to that destination is not easy.
While the movie is clearly pretty thin in terms of plot, there is good writing underneath it all. Not a lot happens in Hunt for the Wilderpeople, but even so, thanks to a distinct tone, an undeniable charm, and the writing, it always finds ways to surprise you.
Although the movie has all the trademark idiosyncratic wit and humour that we have come to associate with Waititi, it also has, at its centre, a beating heart. All the jokes and one-liners are counterbalanced by impactful emotional moments which, true to the director’s style, never descend into the melodramatic. They have a nice, detached feel to them, something that might appeal to those of us tired of the histrionics in Hindi films.
Both Neill and Dennison are credible in their respective roles. Neill here is like he always is — effortlessly immersed into his character, and virtually indistinguishable from the goofy old man we know from media interviews and droll social media posts. Dennison is actually sort of a revelation here, even if you have seen him in other projects. His face is not very expressive in the movie, but he uses subtle mannerisms and postures to evoke emotion. It is a full-bodied portrayal.
Wiata is also pretty likable in a short and sweet role, and so is Rachel House (she can also be seen in Ragnarok as Grandmaster’s stout underling) as Paula Hall, an over-enthusiastic welfare worker who is absolutely relentless in pursuit of the two delinquents and seems to have a bone to pick with Ricky. There are many more oddball characters many of whom would not be too out of place in a Wes Anderson film.
The cinematography is spectacular, though it is hard not to craft beautiful imagery when you are shooting in the New Zealand wilderness. The camerawork by Lachlan Milne is not particularly inventive, but shots of wooded hills and the vast Bush far from civilisation never fail to amaze.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a lot of fun. It is a nicely paced, delightful adventure that never loses its focus — the relationship between Ricky and Hector. In many ways that appears to be a distillation of Waititi’s core cinematic sensibilities. There is an auteurist spirit here that is missing in other, more popular movies from the director.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople is streaming on Mubi.
Under the Radar is a weekly series that talks about one great movie or TV series that for some reason slipped most people’s attention — flew under the radar, so to speak — and is certainly worth checking out.