Starring: Sam Neill, Julian Dennison, Rachel House, New Zealand
Director: Taika Waititi
Running Time: 104mins
Synopsis: A young boy (Dennison) moved from foster home to foster home ends up in the care of Hec (Neill) and Bella (Rima Te Wiata), but after a series of unfortunate events end up in the New Zealand bush and hunted by the authorities.
When Marvel announced that the director of the third instalment of the Thor series would be a New Zealander known more for offbeat TV shows (Flight of the Conchords) and one very funny but extremely low budget mockumentary (What we do in the Shadows) many raised an eyebrow. It appears, however, that the MCU producers have once again made a shrewd decision as based on the evidence of this, his fourth film, he is the ideal man for the job. Championing character nuance and oddball humour (after all Thor has the most laugh potential out of all the Avengers thanks to his notable silliness) as well as being surprisingly adept at constructing effective action sequences. If Marvel allow him to keep his voice then we could be in for something special with Thor: Ragnarok.
That is all in the future, what we need to be talking about now is this wonderful picture. We open on some breathtaking shots of New Zealand, even after countless glimpses of this beautiful country in LoTR and The Hobbit this is still a place that offers up many hidden delights. Throughout it can be almost distracting at times to see such phenomenal scenery as our heroes wander the bush. Zoning in on one little house we are immediately thrown in to this films unique sense of humour as we meet young Ricky Baker. Somewhat overweight with aspirations of being a gangster, he carries the weight of a boy constantly shifted from care home to care home. He is dropped off by his child services supervisor Paula (a hilariously deadpan Rachel House) and it is apparent from the way she discusses Ricky’s situation with his new carer Bella that this film is standing on the line between serious and farce.
Bella is a warm and nurturing presence and slowly breaks down Ricky’s barriers. Unfortunately Bella is married to the grouchy Hec, played with a glint in the eye by Sam Neill. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that this gruff heartless old man may very well start to care for his young charge. Wilderpeople manages to elevate this cliche with sheer joy and whimsy, not to mention the charmingly detailed peripheral characters (more on them later). After an incident with Bella, a scene of unexpected rawness especially from Neill, the two of them find themselves lost in the New Zealand wilderness. Even worse, child services are hot on their trail.
To say much more would ruin the fun to be had watching this adventure unfold yourself. No major plot turns occur but it is in the lovingly scripted encounters the twosome have with each other and the strange folks populating this country that the films pleasures lie. New Zealanders have alot in common with us Brits, self deprecating and thanks to being an island just a little bit introverted. This is evident in the sheer amount of oddballs we meet. However these aren’t just odd for the sake of odd people but believably endearing folks. We have a hilariously awful priest played by the director himself. 3 dumb gun toting hunters. A paranoid lunatic, the always welcome Rhys Darby. And the best of them all, the wickedly over the top Paula. She hunts our heroes down with the intensity of The Terminator, a reference she actually makes herself in one of the films funniest exchanges, with each encounter reaching ever more extreme heights. In a lot of ways her character represents an almost satirical look at her home country. Being such a small island New Zealand is never really treated the same as its big boy cousins like Australia, so when something slightly major happens, like the suspected kidnapping of a foster child, it becomes a monumental news event. In Paula’s case it means a chance to pull her weight around and instigate a genuinely ridiculous manhunt.
Whilst we have all these wonderful supporting players it is in the central duo that the film rests. Dennison is a real find, with verbal diarrhoea and a propensity to let his fantasies get away from him (a big part of the finale) he mines some genuine sadness under it all. Passed over by numerous foster parents and all but forgotten by the system, he finds in Hec a real father figure. His attempts to prove himself to ‘Uncle’ Hec are warmly adorable. Neill mines similar territory to his character in Jurassic Park but is still immensely watchable and you sense a real connection between them in their witty interplay.
Speaking of which the script is filled with endless delights. Every line manages to be clever, funny and, most importantly, natural. Waititi scripts also and matches himself in his assured direction. The grasp he has with tone here is truly breathtaking. Flitting between big laughs and serious emotion, sometimes in a single scene multiple times, keeps you thoroughly engaged. He must take the bulk of the credit for making this as joyful as it is. Employing numerous little tics, such as chapter headings and effective montages with characters seemingly walking in the same place over and over to convey time passing, helps the film to feel truly distinctive
Culminating in an unexpectedly large scale action scene, and a moving epilogue, you leave feeling utterly euphoric. It doesn’t seek to weigh you down with heavy messages or drama but there is complexity under all the fun if you’re willing to look for it. If not just give yourself over to one of 2016s most purely rapturous movie experiences, you won’t regret it.
Verdict: Whimsical, funny, charming, and moving. A cast full of wonderful performers giving life to some delightful creations. This marks Waititi out as one to watch and Marvel obviously agree. If you like to leave the cinema beaming then you cannot do any better than Hunt for the Wilderpeople.