Hilarious 'Hunt for the Wilderpeople' is your antidote for the summer blockbuster blues
Posted August 1
“HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE” — 3½ stars — Sam Neill, Julian Dennison, Rima Te Wiata; PG-13 (thematic elements, including violent content, and for some language); Broadway
“Hunt for the Wilderpeople” is the perfect antidote for the summer blockbuster blues. If you’re feeling a bit burned out on CGI-heavy franchises, relentless fan service and underperforming bravado, this charming, witty and heartfelt film about the meaning of family might just remind you that there really are fresh voices at the movies.
The film begins as a young man named Ricky (Julian Dennison) is placed in foster care with a middle-aged couple on a remote New Zealand farm. According to his zealous child services rep Paula (Rachel House), Ricky is on the fast track to a life of crime — which director and writer Taika Waititi illustrates through a comic montage of high jinks. As far as child services workers are concerned, this is Ricky’s last stop before landing in juvenile detention.
At first, Ricky is ready to tune out the world completely, often zipping up the front of his hoodie to the point that it covers his entire face. But with a little love and determination, Bella (Rima Te Wiata) is able to soften Ricky’s edges, even if her husband Hec (Sam Neill) chooses to play the cold and distant card. Ricky slowly begins to take to his new home and feels like he has a family for the very first time.
Of course, that’s the precise moment Bella drops dead (leading to one of the most bizarre funeral scenes in recent memory, with a scene-stealing turn from Taika Waititi as the minister). Without a mother in the home, child services employees decides to remove Ricky from Hec’s custody, but the boy will have none of it. He packs up his things and heads for the woods, mistakenly burning down Hec’s barn in a misguided attempt to fake his own death. Naturally, the city boy promptly gets lost, and when Hec tracks him down, he winds up breaking his ankle, stranding them far from civilization.
When child services employees arrives to find Hec’s abandoned home, the stranded pair become the subject of a massive manhunt, and the hunt for the self-named “Wilderpeople” is on. For the bulk of its running time, we follow Ricky and Hec on their myriad adventures in the wilderness, encountering wild pigs, hunters, and the various rural residents of the New Zealand bush, all the time pursued by Paula and the local authorities.
Hec initially keeps up his obligatory tough guy routine, but as the movie rolls on, he and Ricky prove to be an inseparable and dynamic team. Neill is a perfect choice to play the old codger Hec. He and Ricky make up a perfect odd couple, and Neill says as much with his eyes as he ever does with his dialogue.
Based on Barry Crump’s novel “Wild Pork and Watercress,” one of “Wilderpeople’s” best qualities is its quirky and often heartwarming wit, but what’s even more impressive is its ability to maintain that wit throughout the film. There are plenty of charming movies that get off to a comic start, only to fade as they focus in on the serious obligation of following a plot later on. But “Wilderpeople” keeps you smiling at a steady pace, always complementing the story, all the way to the finale.
(In fact, sharp eyes will spy a familiar face in a hilarious late supporting role that doesn’t even show up until three-fourths of the way through the film.)
“Wilderpeople” further proves the notion that if you set up a camera anywhere in New Zealand, you’re bound to catch some gorgeous scenery. When Ricky first arrives on Hec’s idyllic farm, he turns up his nose at the obvious absence of modern technology and comforts. But to anyone watching, he’s pretty much just landed in paradise.
There are definitely weaknesses in “Wilderpeople” if you’re determined to find them, but that’s almost beside the point. “Wilderpeople” is great fun; it's a moving and original film with a striking blend of wit and drama that’s well worth your time.
“Hunt for the Wilderpeople” is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, including violent content, and for some language; running time: 101 minutes.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photographer who appeared weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" from 2013 to 2016. He also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. Find him online at facebook.com/joshterryreviews.