Review: Hunt For The Wilderpeople
Hunt For The Wilderpeople (PG,101 mins)
Directed by Taika Waititi
A man and a boy are on the run in the dense and vast New Zealand wilderness. The man is Hec, an archetypal laconic Kiwi bloke with a rollie smouldering away in one hand and the stock of his rifle in the other. The boy is Ricky Baker. He's a great kid, with his heart in the right place, but he's set fire to one too many mailboxes for his last foster family to cope with and now Ricky has washed up on the isolated back country farm of Hec and his beloved wife Bella.
To tell you what else rolls out in the first third of Hunt For The Wilderpeople and how Hec and Ricky come to be on the run would be a spoiler too far. But that first act is a goldmine of character and comedy. Hec (Sam Neill), Ricky (Julian Dennison) and Bella (Rima Te Wiata) play off each other superbly. Characters are deftly sketched in, a couple of terrific jokes are cracked and Hunt For The Wilderpeople hits its straps like a champion.
Te Wiata especially, though she doesn't get star billing alongside the boys on the poster, is an absolute revelation in these scenes, with comic delivery to die for and a heart utterly unconcealed by a selection of the finest hand-knitted sweaters seen on a Kiwi screen since the David Bain trial.
With the set-up established and the boys in the bush, Wilderpeople settles down into the familiar rhythms of a chase movie, as Hec and Ricky try to stay a couple of steps ahead of an assortment of pursuers.
Hunt For The Wilderpeople is Taika Waititi's fourth feature. After the underrated Eagle vs Shark, the hugely popular Boy and the internationally acclaimed What We Do In The Shadows, which Taika co-directed with Jemaine Clement.
Of all those films, it's pretty easy to pick Shadows as the most successful. Shadows was a comedy without a truly serious bone in its body. It wanted nothing more than to make us laugh and it succeeded mightily. The occasional moments of pathos and introspection in the film – and they were there – played like bonuses for the attentive that only sharpened our enjoyment of the punchlines we knew were coming.
But Wilderpeople, like Boy, has got some trouble in mind and a whiff of darkness around its edges. At the heart of both films is an abandoned kid trying to survive or escape from a potentially toxic relationship. James Rolleston's Boy had to grow past his old man's lies, while in Wilderpeople young Ricky must learn to be something more than society – personified here by Rachel House's cartoon-villain Child Welfare Officer – has told him he is ever going to be.
Wilderpeople emerges as a hugely likeable but not always coherent yarn. There are moments of sheer laugh-out-loud genius. But at other times Wilderpeople misses its mark. An early cameo from Taika is funny enough, but feels misjudged in a scene that might have yielded more of an emotional pay off down the river if it had been played a little straighter.
While not allowing the people chasing Hec and Ricky to ever be more than two-dimensional "baddies" robs the film of what might have been some welcome shading and credibility.
In amongst a deep grab bag of decades-old references (the soundtrack has nods to both Miami Vice and Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs Miller, for god's sake) it is Roger Donaldson's Smash Palace and Geoff Murphy's Goodbye Pork Pie that Taika quotes from the most liberally.
Late in the day Rhys Darby turns up in a brief role exactly mirroring John Bach's foreboding psychotic from Goodbye Pork Pie. In Pork Pie the character ushered in the dark and perfect last act of the film that arguably made it the timeless classic it is. Here Darby seems to be just a comic interlude on the way to the finale.
Hunt For The Wilderpeople is a hellaciously enjoyable film. I laughed often, found some moments of pathos and emotion and a few scenes that I will grin thinking about for days. (We wait until nearly the end of the film for the Lord of the Rings gag we know must be coming sometime, and when it arrives it's an absolute killer.)
I just can't help wishing the film-makers had been willing to forego that PG rating and perhaps turn in something that embraced its shadows and its sadness just a bit more passionately. And that'll probably put me in a minority of one.