Film review: Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Director Taika Waititi is probably best known for the New Zealand classic ‘Boy’. Bigger on laughs and smaller on gritty realism, his latest film, ‘Hunt for the Wilderpeople’, is a fun-stuffed romp that crashes its merry way through dense bush.

May 26, 2016, updated May 26, 2016

Based on a novel by well-loved Kiwi author Barry Crump, the film has a familiar storyline: city kid gone bad is packed off to the country where outdoor living and a bit of TLC make it all come good.

In the hands of Waititi, the story becomes an hilarious comic adventure, complete with gun-toting bounty hunters, a pie-eyed bushman, a fight with a wild pig and a final full-on car-tank-helicopter chase.

Cinematographer Lachlan Milne backdrops the action with lush landscape panoramas neatly segued into tight-frame close-up detail.  The opening scene, beautifully complemented with skin-tingling a cappella music (by Lukasz Buda, Samuel Scott and Conrad Wedde), is an aerial pan over endless expanses of dense green bush. The focus then shifts to a car’s interior, where small snapshot details speak volumes: a police badge, a clipboard, a child’s foot in hi-tops.

The car pulls up outside an isolated, ramshackle cabin and its occupants get out: Paula from child services (Rachel House), her police colleague (Oscar Kightley) and 14-year-old Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison), described by Paula as “a very bad egg”.

Bella (Rima Te Wiata) comes to meet them, welcoming Ricky into her heart and her home, assuring him they’ll “make things work”. Sadly, just as Ricky is starting to blossom, Bella departs the scene and Ricky, afraid of being jettisoned back into the child-welfare system, escapes into the bush with Bella’s partner, the curmudgeonly “Uncle Hec” (Sam Neill). What follows is a full-scale manhunt that sees the unlikely pair form a tight emotional bond.

Perhaps Waititi’s greatest skill is his ability to meld pathos with humour. That fusion was a constant presence in Boy and it’s here in Wilderpeople, too.

Take the scene where runaway Ricky tries to heat up a hottie (a symbol of Bella’s warmth and affection) by holding it on a stick over an open fire. The hottie, of course, bursts, dousing the fire with water and plunging Ricky into darkness. It’s an hilarious moment but, symbolic as it is of Ricky’s loss, it’s also very poignant.

These heart-warming incidents, along with stunning performances from Dennison, Neill and an excellent supporting cast, ensure audience attachment to the characters and an edge-of-the-seat investment in their fortunes.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople is perhaps not as great a film as Boy but its widespread family appeal means it will almost certainly be a bigger box-office hit.

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