Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Cast: Sam Neil, Julian Dennison, Rima Te Wiata, Rhys Darby, Rachel House, Oscar Kightley

Director: Taika Waititi

Running time: 1 hour 41 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

There's a streak of polite absurdism running throughout Taika Waititi's Hunt for the Wilderpeople which proves to be both its greatest strength and achilles heel. Like his last feature, the hilarious vampire mockumentary What We Do In The Shadows, Waititi understands how to bend narrative conventions by using deadpan humor, but here, the story doesn't quite work the way it should because the comic tone is much too deliberate. Like fellow arch visual stylists Wes Anderson and Edgar Wright, Waititi uses static compositions, quick zoom lenses, and arch dialogue in order to paint a heightened portrait of humanity. In this case, it's a very specific, very New Zealand brand of humanity.

Based on a novel by Barry Crump and told in chapters, Hunt For the Wilderpeople has an oddball kind of charm as it tags along with a problem child and his curmudgeonly older guardian. It begins with the arrival of the boy, Ricky (Julian Dennison) to a remote farm owned by Bella and Hec (Rima Te Wiata and Sam Neil), where he initially proves to be a standoffish delinquent. Eventually, Ricky warms up to the maternal Bella, even as Hec gruffly dismisses his presence as little more than a nuisance. However, the narrative shifts after Bella suddenly leaves the picture, sending Ricky out into the wilderness on his own. Having no real affinity for survival in the wild, the kid soon becomes lost and hungry before Hec begrudgingly comes to his rescue. What follows is basically a series of chases pitting the unlikely pair of travelers against a gung-ho child services worker (Rachel House), her dim-witted assistant (Oscar Kightley), and a group of daft bounty hunters.

The plot here is pretty slim and Waititi isn't one for developing a sense of atmosphere. The New Zealand bush locales are filmed either in widescreen drone shots or tight compositions and look appropriately lush, but there's little sense of danger. The jungle-like terrain could have been a deft metaphor for Ricky's troubled coming-of-age, but Waititi mostly uses geography in order to stage broad sight gags. The film's major asset is the relationship which forms between the kid and his grizzled mentor, with Dennison and Neil gamely playing off each other. Meanwhile, Waititi's penchant for absurdism is fully embraced in the film's farcical action-oriented climax, which involves dozens of vehicles giving chase to our scruffy heroes. However, despite the spirited whimsy, the picture's self-consciously storybook tone strips away our ability to connect emotionally to the characters. This lack of connection would be fine if this was simply a straight comedy, but the film's attempts at pathos feel especially tacked on here since Waititi doesn't seem invested in the reality of this story.

Despite it's affability, Hunt for the Wilderpeople doesn't register as anything more than a trifle; a familiar odyssey of mismatched partners which just so happens to take place in the New Zealand wilderness. If Waititi had either pushed his off-beat sensibilities further or even backed away from them in a bid for realism, this could have been something altogether transporting. As it stands, it's a sweetly charming little movie, which is probably good enough.