Taika Waititi Hits Again With "Hunt For The Wilderpeople"

With “Hunt For The Wilderpeople,” writer-director Taika Waititi (“What We Do In The Shadows”) has shrewdly taken a cue from “Jurassic Park” and added another entry to the underserved “Sam Neill hates kids” subgenre. But instead of a precocious, pint-sized dino expert, Neill’s foil here is a chubby 13-year-old foster kid named Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison). The film that results is mostly terrific, slowed only ever so slightly by an amiably aimless plot and a predictable finale. But the two leads are so likable and the dialogue so sharp that even the sappiest of epilogues can’t help but leave smiles all around.

Set in the New Zealand bush, the screenplay (based on Barry Crump’s novel) begins on country folk Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and Hec (Neill) taking custody of sweetly rambunctious city kid Ricky from child welfare services; the sixty-somethings are Ricky’s last hope to avoid life in New Zealand’s juvenile detention system. Bella welcomes the boy with open arms, finding his quirks endearing (he’s inseparable from a hoodie that he frequently zips up over his face) and even giving him a dog. (After coming up with three excellent options for names – Psycho, Megatron, and Tupac – Ricky’s love for rap wins out. The dog’s name is Tupac.)

All the while, Hec remains in the background, quiet and curmudgeonly, hiding a past that might just be strikingly similar to Ricky’s.

Just as the boy and his new “Aunt” are building a steady rapport, she passes away, leaving the men of the house to founder in her absence. Hec is resigned to belligerent social worker Paula (Rachel House) returning to snatch the boy. And that will be that. Except the profoundly crafty Ricky decides to fake his own death (poorly) and head for the bush, Tupac in tow. Hec reluctantly takes off after him, leading the duo on a months-long journey involving haikus, helicopters, horses, and more haikus. So many haikus.

Waititi could’ve made a straight-ahead family film here – which “Wilderpeople” sort of is – but it’s more than that, painting in shades of gray that go a long way in bringing out the color in his characters.

With Ricky missing, the national media gloms onto the story, turning it into a sensational country wide manhunt. There are plenty of intimations that Hec is a kidnapper or worse, an angle that Waititi gets some surprisingly hearty laughs out of. No, Ricky and Hec are just two equally lost souls looking for something, anything resembling a purpose, and their months in the wilderness end up exactly that. After all, they’re the eponymous Wilderpeople.

It’s too bad the bulk of the picture is never as humorous as it is for the three minutes Waititi shows up onscreen as a pastor eulogizing Bella. But Dennison and Neill have an exceptional chemistry that eventually colors over their director’s screamingly funny cameo.

At the top of all this charm is some brilliant photography and editing, seemingly done mostly in-camera. The visual muscles Waititi flexed in “What We Do In The Shadows” are back in full force here, except not only for jokes; they make the whole adventure seem grand and pristine, giving it a kick that its budget might not have afforded it in less creative hands.

A simple tale of two unlikely folk heroes ends being one of, if not the most likable film of the first half of 2016, indubitably launching its writer-director onto bigger (if not better) things. (Waititi is currently in production on Marvel’s “Thor: Ragnarok.”)

Appropriate for pre-teens and up – maybe even essential – “Hunt For The Wilderpeople” will certainly enjoy a long life on home video and streaming services, if not carving out the theatrical niche it deserves. Dennison is a talent to watch, and Neill is one to keep watching, each a half share of one of 21st century indie film’s great oddball duos. Few films have ever been less likely to get but more deserving of a sequel.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: June 24, 2016 (Limited)
Studio: The Orchard
Director: Taika Waititi
Screenwriter: Taika Waititi
Starring: Julian Dennison, Sam Neill, Rima Te Wiata, Rachel House, Oscar Kightley, Rhys Darby
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements including violent content, and for some language)