New Zealand writer-director-actor Taika Waititi has always had a quirky comedic streak. With his latest, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, he’s closest to a defining style that can easily translate across a variety of audiences. That might be why he’s been selected to helm the next instalment of Marvel’s Thor franchise.
His first feature film Eagle vs Shark (co-written with Loren Horsley) was an unconventional romantic comedy that achieved recognition off the back of awkward niche comedies like Napoleon Dynamite and alongside television series Flight of the Conchords, created by Eagle vs Shark star Jermaine Clement. However, the film’s tone was too abrasive to please larger audiences.
In Boy, Waititi’s sophomore feature – and in this writer’s opinion, his best – he brought similar offbeat mannerisms to an exploration of paternal neglect and coming-of-age. It was discernibly personal and culturally significant, taking place in a small Māori village.
Waititi then teamed up with Jermaine Clement for What We Do in the Shadows, sharing writing and directing responsibilities and side-stepping into a new genre, employing a ‘mockumentary’ format. The result was wildly funny, imaginative and highly popular with audiences around the world, sure to endure as a ‘cult classic’.
With Hunt for the Wilderpeople, his comic sensibilities are reliable as ever. There’s a certain Wes Anderson-influence to his filmmaking style this time – visually (rapid zoom ins), structurally (use of chapters), and thematically (see Moonrise Kingdom) – a style that has become somewhat mainstream lately, with Anderson’s own filmmaking popularity rise in recent years.
It’s a delightful film, a tad rough around the edges but mostly agile and charming, hooking you in from the opening minutes and not letting go. It certainly helps that there’s plenty of eye candy, many frames bursting with wondrously photographed landscapes, showcasing NZ’s natural beauty. There’s also an engaging narrative at the beating heart of Hunt for the Wilderpeople, based on the book Wild Pork and Watercress by Barry Crump. It’s the kind of story that could translate across any context or culture, but Waititi’s approach and its ‘Kiwi-ness’ provide a welcomed x-factor.
Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) is “a real bad egg” – as his overly-obstinate child services officer Paula (Rachel House) will tell you – he’s rebellious and gangster-obsessed. The truth is, he’s been bouncing between foster families his whole life without guidance. Ricky is taken in by farmers, the affectionate Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and bristly Hec (Sam Neill), away from civilisation where he can’t cause too much nuisance. When he becomes stranded in the New Zealand wilderness with Hec a national manhunt is launched to find them. Despite Hec’s apathy, Ricky seeks to connect with his newfound paternal figure and learn his knack for surviving in the wild.
Covering similar thematic territory as Boy, Hunt for the Wilderpeople works best in intimate moments between its characters. Waititi finds profundity in the simple things where even the sight of a hot water bottle is enough to give you a lump in your throat. There’s a delicate balance here between emotional flourishes and the film’s inherent light-heartedness, avoiding mawkish tones and highlighting Waititi’s strong sensibilities.
Sam Neill is a comforting presence here, no stranger to the role of a youth-disliking grump – memorably played in Jurassic Park. Julian Dennison’s terrific performance is vital to the film’s disposition and captivation of its audience – so naturally funny and winsome. The supporting cast are effective in their brief roles, especially Rima Te Wiata who leaves an important and lasting impact on the film in her limited screen time.
The film is not without some faults, becoming tangled in its own increasing implausibility as it charges towards an adrenaline-charged climax. Fortunately it returns to its strong character foundations for a satisfying conclusion. Also, there’s some friction in the viewing experience with scenes that are detectibly staged for laughs or overblown in silliness, particularly in contrast to the effortlessness of Waititi’s previous films. Though, it’s only a fleeting agitation and there are enough endearing comedic qualities to prevent weariness.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople is perhaps Waititi’s most accessible film yet for large audiences, and it would seem intentionally so, even if originality is somewhat compromised. He’s concentrated the best aspects of his craft together with a relatable story to produce an immediately likeable film. Hunt for the Wilderpeople may not be as fresh as Boy or What We Do in the Shadows, but it’s another perfectly ripe Kiwi classic from Waititi.
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