Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a 2016 comedy adventure film written and directed by Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok and What We Do in the Shadows), starring Sam Neill and Julian Dennison (Deadpool 2). A light-hearted tale with an edge, the film showcases Waititi’s ability to balance dark humor and the fantastical with broader themes, such as coming of age, grieving, family, and abandonment issues. Surprisingly heartfelt, the film also offers plenty of action.
Brought to a remote farm by Paula, a child-services worker, Ricky is a troubled foster kid with a history of bad behavior. This new family, an eccentric outdoorsy couple, is his last shot before being sent to juvenile lockup. Despite his initial misgivings and a botched attempt at escaping, Ricky quickly warms up to Auntie Bella (Rima Te Wiata). Her husband Hector (Neil) however, does his best to keep the boy at arm’s length. Things seem to be going well, but then Bella dies suddenly, leaving both Ricky and Hector feeling adrift. Desperate not to go to juvenile prison, Ricky strikes out alone into the bush to avoid child-services. Begrudgingly, Uncle Hector goes after him and, thanks to a series of misunderstands, a national manhunt for them begins.
The movie is a canopy of heartfelt connections and off-putting jokes, not leaning too much on either element, but just enough that the journey is an interesting one. The relationship between Hector and Ricky never feels overdone, and while neither character grows or changes over the course the story, they certainly soften enough to each other in a way that feels entirely natural. When placed next to a maelstrom of crazy and wacky characters, they become the much-needed straight-man. This doesn’t mean they are too serious themselves as even Hector occasionally joins in on the fun.
Waititi’s referential humor is on full display, with nods to The Lord of the Rings, Pixar’s Up, Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, classic 80’s New Zealand manhunt movies, Shane Black, gangster and rap culture. This pastiche of influences is mirrored on his directional choices of camera and soundtrack, as he commits entirely to music montages and lightning-fast cuts that highlight his comedy. These techniques are a departure from his other work but signal his desire to explore different styles and not to limit himself as a director.
Similar to his previous work on What We Do in the Shadows, Waititi blends the outrageous with a grounding reality, but unlike the supernatural society in his vampire comedy, the bush and the country of New Zealand don’t offer the same leeway for wackiness, which results in a slightly more schizophrenic tone that could put off part of the audience. In one moment, Paula and the police offer chasing Ricky and Hector arrive on a tank. In another, a literal Bushman appears out of nowhere to facilitate the movie’s third act. While still very much amusing and exciting, some of it pushes the limit of credulity a bit too far. When reality comes knocking in, the stark contrast might feel sudden to the average viewer. But those more familiar with Waititi’s influences might appreciate his use of the tropes to the betterment of his characters and humor.
Overall, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a fun, engaging narrative that contains Waititi’s usual off-putting humor and brings out an excellent performance from both Neil and Dennison. A must-see for any fan of Waititi’s work as well anyone interested in a different kind of journey into the beautiful wilderness of New Zealand. But a fair warning for those who care about animals: this movie is surprising cruel to wild boars, and it does contain a dog’s death.