Like a live-action Up with much more bloodshed, Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a charming, skillfully constructed comedy-adventure with a fantastic cast. Waititi, who directed the hilarious vampire-comedy What We Do In the Shadows and will soon make his way to Marvel with Thor: Ragnarok, pulls out all the stops, staging quick-timed comedy bits and intense moments of action with equal aplomb. The result is invigorating — a film that blends the fresh and the old-school, feeling both modern and like a throwback to the Amblin-style adventure films that don’t get much play anymore.
Julian Dennison is Ricky Baker, a juvenile delinquent with a bad reputation for a wide array of petty felonies, from burning things to kicking things. Having blown through every foster home imaginable, Ricky is sent to the second-to-last stop (the last stop being the dreaded Juvie) — a farm owned by the jovial Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and her gruff husband Hec (Sam Neill). At first glance it looks as if Ricky will be nothing but trouble for these unsuspecting people, but Waititi — adapting a book by Barry Crump — subverts expectations from the start to show that despite his less-than -stellar reputation, Ricky isn’t that bad of a kid. He’s just a little mixed-up. And after a brief flirtation with running away (and giving up before he even gets out-of-sight of the farm), Ricky begins to enjoy his life with his new foster parents, and he and Bella get along quite well (while Hec remains distant and monosyllabic).
But things change rapidly, and Ricky risks being sent right back from where he came from. Rather than surrender to Child Services, he takes matters into his own hands and runs away into the New Zealand bush, leading expert woodsman Hec to go after him. What follows is an adventure that bonds Ricky and Hec closer together while putting them both in legal and possibly mortal danger. Waititi masters the tone of his film from the get-go — he keeps things light and airy until they’re not, and it always works. The shifts in tone never seem abrupt or cheated, but natural, and there’s a sweetness intermixed with a touch of melancholy to Hunt for the Wilderpeople.
Helping matters is the talented cast Waititi has assembled: Dennison’s Ricky Baker is both likable and slightly irritating without ever being annoying. His frequent use of haiku and referencing himself as “gangsta” could’ve easily grown tiresome or cloying, but Dennison’s delivery makes it all work. Dennison has a great rapport with Neill, an actor who is always a welcome presence and here gives one of his finest performances. Neill’s Hec is gruff and grumpy in a believable, understanding and understated way, and the character is endearing despite his own efforts to push people away. Rachel House steals almost every scene she’s in as a clueless, hilarious officer from child services on the hunt for Ricky and Hec. And Rhys Darby and director Waititi both pop-up in brief but memorable appearances.
There’s a warmth at work in Hunt for the Wilderpeople that very few movies can match. The growing friendship between Ricky and Hec is endearing and genuine, as is the way the characters themselves grow as people. The only major hindrance to the film as a whole is its length — at an hour and forty minutes it feels about ten minutes too long, and some trimming here and there would’ve resulted in much leaner, more efficient film. Still, it’s hard to hold such a problem against a film that co-stars a dog named 2Pac. Length issues aside, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is one of the year’s most delightful films.