[This is a re-post of my review from the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. Hunt for the Wilderpeople opens tomorrow in limited release.]
There are plenty of light comedies floating around Sundance, but with Eagle vs. Shark, What We Do in the Shadows, and his latest film, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, writer/director Taika Waititi shows he knows how to make those movies memorable rather than disposable. He doesn’t shy away from sadness or alienation, and he revels in the bizarre. His films have a great well of empathy for outsiders, and so it’s fitting that Wilderpeople should take us to the great outdoors, or “the bush” as his New Zealand-set comedy follows a man and his adopted son on the run from the authorities after a misunderstanding. While the plot and some of the characters may be a bit cartoonish, the emotions always feel honest and Waititi is able to get some big laughs thanks to his charming protagonists.
Juvenile delinquent Ricky (Julian Dennison) has been searching for a home all his life, and it looks like he may have finally found it with the curmudgeonly Hector (Sam Neill) and his loving wife Bella (Rima Te Wiata). When family services threatens to take Ricky back, a move that would likely put Ricky out of the foster system and into juvenile detention, Ricky clumsily fakes his death and runs away, but has limited survival skills against the elements. Hector fractures his ankle trying to rescue the young man, and since they’re out in the bush with no way to contact anyone, people think Hector kidnapped Ricky. Unable to make people see that this was a misunderstanding, Hector and Ricky begin living a life on the run and forming an unlikely bond in the process.
Even though it’s a Sundance indie comedy, Hunt for the Wilderpeople almost feels like a comedy made for younger audiences (as long as those audiences can handle some light swearing). The chapter structure of the story makes Wilderpeople feel like a young adult book, and the relationship between the grumpy Hector and the exuberant Ricky trekking through the wilderness conjures up flashes of Pixar’s Up. It’s a lighthearted film that occasionally deals with a grief and fear in between jokes about molestation and “No Child Left Behind.”
Unsurprisingly, that’s not enough to sustain much of a picture, and while Neill and Dennison have strong chemistry, at some point the movie feels trapped by their circumstances. Waititi won’t move them out of the wilderness, so they can’t interact with other people, and the limited cast creates limited situations. We know for Ricky this is a way to escape reality and for Hector it’s a way to grow into a more open-hearted person, but once they’re reached their goals, they’re still in the bush and evading the authorities. Waititi captures the beauty of the New Zealand landscape, but his characters don’t have many places to go within it.
There’s nothing wrong with light, cute movies like Hunt for the Wilderpeople, and while it’s not as imaginative or as inventive as What We Do in the Shadows, it still has the same level of humor and heart (for those looking ahead to Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok, Wilderpeople proves he has no problem doing a mismatched buddy-road picture). It’s a warm hug of a movie that has just enough spark and fire to stop it from fading from your memory the moment the credits roll.