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‘Hunt for the Wilderpeople’ Finds Laughs and Heart in New Zealand

Hunt For The Wilderpeople
By  · Published on January 25th, 2016

New Zealand has an unfair advantage over many other countries when it comes to films and scenes set outside in nature because so much of it is stunning in its natural beauty. Taika Waititi’s (What We Do in the Shadows) latest film, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, takes full advantage of that intensely gorgeous landscape to tell a very funny and heartwarming story about finding family along the way.

Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) is a real bad egg, and we know this both because it’s the name of the first chapter heading and because the child welfare officer who delivers him to his new foster parents tells them so. The inner-city boy has spent his youth breaking things, stealing things, vandalizing things, burning things… you get the picture, but it’s one she paints for the older couple in great detail as a way of warning them. As is often the case though, Ricky really isn’t all that bad. He intends to hate rural life out on the edge of the bush, and he even makes a go at running away, but he soon realizes the love he’s getting from Bella (Rima Te Wiata, Housebound) is the real deal.

The cold shoulder he’s getting from her husband, Hec (Sam Neill, In the Mouth of Madness), is also real, but when a tragedy results in Ricky and Hec on the run in the forest the pair discover their need for each other goes far beyond mere overnight survival. A handful of misunderstandings and lies turns their disappearance into a national manhunt complete with helicopters, assault teams, and wall-to-wall news coverage, and it’s not long before this family in the making seems destined to be torn apart.

Waititi’s latest is something of a kid-friendly action/comedy that feels at times like a cross between Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom and 1980’s The Earthling. That’s quite the varied mix, but Waititi juggles the style, laughs, and adventure terrifically throughout. The tone threatens to get away from him in a couple instances, but it’s never less than amusing.

Ricky is the main character here, and Dennison does charismatic and affecting work with his feature debut. He’s a convincing troublemaker, but it’s very clear that his outbursts come from the anger born out of his unmet need for affection. Dennison nails the emotional beats, but it’s his comedic timing and delivery that make him a fantastic sparring partner for Neill’s brilliant straight man. The pair banter, feud, and eat eels together, and the boy even schools the man on his use of totally real words like “majestical.” Both actors display charisma and chemistry together, and it’s always joy seeing Neill in cantankerous prick mode.

Tonal issues do show up in a couple areas where Waititi lets things reach some silly extremes. Most egregious is the welfare officer who’s comical and stern from the beginning, but there’s no turning back when she warns Ricky that she’s the Terminator and he’s Sarah Connor – “in the first movie, before she could do chin-ups.” Her insane zeal for his capture offers some laughs, but her role in a Blues Brothers’-like chase crosses well past the line into pure goofiness. These types of bits don’t really hurt the film, but they do serve to champion laughs over character which in turn lessens the ultimate weight of it all.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople features laugh-out-loud moments and beats guaranteed to moisten your eyes, all used in service of a sweetly-told tale that reminds us you’re never too young or too old to find someone to love who’ll also love you back. It’s a rare family film that will appeal to children and adults, so do yourself and them a favor and take a kid to see it. Preferably your own, but if you can get away with borrowing one and aren’t against the idea of going on the run then that works too.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.