Thursday, December 15, 2016
A Wildereview of "The Hunt for the Wilderpeople"
After the first trailers for "The Hunt for the Wilderpeople," I thought I had the movie all figured out. Cranky senior citizen is helped out of his misanthropic funk by bonding with a chubby young kid of a different culture and generation. It would be just like "Up," except set in New Zealand. I assumed the focus would stay on Sam Neil's character, like it had on Carl Frederickson. And I was wrong. The main character here is the kid, Ricky Baker, played by Julian Dennison. And he's fantastic.
We first meet Ricky being dropped off at the remote farm of Hector (Neill) and Bella (Rima Te Wiata) by a stringent Child Services agent named Paula (Rachel House), who warns the couple that Ricky is a "bad egg." Because of recurring delinquent behavior, this is Ricky's last chance at a placement with a normal family before he's shipped off to juvie. Ricky isn't too keen on the situation at first, and gruff Hank doesn't seem to be either, but Bella turns out to be everything that anybody could want in a Mom, and Ricky warms up to her quickly. Alas, tragedy strikes, and Ricky makes a series of very poor decisions that result in him and Hector being stranded out in the wilds of the New Zealand bush. And then, due to a few misunderstandings, they end up the target of a national manhunt - led by Paula from Child Services.
I really enjoy Sam Neil in this movie, playing an old grump, but an old grump that we immediately know is soft-hearted enough to come around on the idea of a family. However, Julian Dennison is the main event. It's easy to underestimate Ricky, who barely says a word at first, and the way he looks invokes some negative stereotypes about preteen troublemakers. But when he opens up, his personality is unstoppable. He loves rap music and idolizes Tupak Shakur, but he's also an avid reader. He's adopted the badass "skux" lifestyle, but also composes therapeutic haikus to work out his feelings sometimes. He's argumentative, stubborn, and will run his mouth off without really thinking about what he's saying, but he's got such a puppydog earnestness about life, and turns out to be a real trooper. Even when he's way in over his head, he'll tough out the worst situations and is pretty handy in a crisis. Though Bella and Hector teach him survival skills, the dogged determination to thrive in the bush is all Ricky from the start.
And most importantly, because this is a Taika Waititi film, Ricky is funny. And in conjunction with Hector and Paula, he's really funny. Though "Hunt for the Wilderpeople" takes place in a slightly exaggerated, stylized world - think Wes Anderson on a much smaller budget - most of the humor is character based. It's perfectly in keeping with Waititi's run of small, offbeat, genially silly comedies. Ricky and Hector get themselves into some ridiculous situations, including hiding out with a conspiracy nut played by Rhys Darby, but their relationship remains wonderfully low key and well grounded. So when they do occasionally discuss the touchier parts of their past, the emotions feel genuine. And no matter how over-the-top the colorful side characters are, there's a likeability to everyone. Even Paula, who gets even more carried away with being a badass than Ricky does.
The visuals are a lot of fun. There are a lot of subtle gags everywhere, from the tchotchkes decorating Ricky's new room to the inspirational posters at the halfway house. The bush remains a dangerous place, full of hidden dangers, but Waititi also shows us its lovelier side. And framing things from Ricky's point of view is a joke that never gets old. The budget here was clearly very small, but the filmmakers do plenty with it, including the funniest car chase sequence I've seen since the last "Mad Max" movie.
Of all the superhero movies coming out next year, I'm looking forward to "Thor: Ragnarok" the most, thanks to Taika Waititi's involvement. However, I'm more excited about the prospect of the "What We Do in the Shadows" sequel and the smaller, more personal projects we might see from him next.