REVIEW: “Hunt for the Wilderpeople”

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Taika Waititi has had his hand in many unique projects, but it was his hysterical vampire mockumentary “What We Do in the Shadows” that made me a fan. The film’s wacky mix of absurd and subtle humor was refreshing especially within its formulaic and gimmick-ridden genre.

His follow up is the equally hysterical and equally refreshing “Hunt for the Wilderpeople”. Much like his previous film, Waititi writes, co-produces, and directs this odd couple adventure comedy that so beautifully walks the line between silly absurdity and thoughtful, tender humor. Contrary to many modern comedy norms, “Wilderpeople” delicately explores several deeper themes underneath its unashamedly goofy exterior. Most importantly it does it all very well.

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The film tells the story of two very different but equally isolated people. Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) is a troubled 13 year-old who has been shipped from home to home by child welfare services. After several incidents in the city Ricky is given one more chance at a home life. He is sent to the countryside and new foster parents the quirky but loving Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and the burly, gruff Hec (Sam Neill).

Through circumstances that I’ll let you discover for yourself Ricky runs away into the dense bush but is eventually found by Hec. Child Services, led by the dogged, overzealous Agent Paula (Rachel House), absurdly determine that Hec kidnapped Ricky and therefore set out on a manhunt to find the two. This feeds the film’s main focus – the peculiar relationship between a young boy and an elderly man both with huge needs in their lives.

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To say Waititi has fun with the whole “opposites attract” idea is an understatement. The clashing of these two drastically different personalities allow for some truly hilarious moments. Ricky’s youthful exuberance against Hec’s grumpy desire to be left alone. Ricky’s street gangster ambitions against Hec’s bushland survivalist skills. Yet they come together through one lone emotional similarity and we get to enjoy the zaniness this unlikely pairing brings.

Much should be said about the performances which are very much essential pieces. This is young Dennison’s third project and he is such a treat delivering a fabulous multi-layered character. We see it in his spontaneous pop culture references, his penchant for writing haiku, and his random child psychology quotes. Dennison exudes a certain sweetness and naïveté that melds so well with the tone Waitiki is going for.

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Sam Neill is equally vital. He could have easily been your run-of-the-mill surly old-timer, but his performance doesn’t allow for that. He, along with Waititi’s script, blow apart any surface level perceptions we may have of his character. Hec may appear familiar, but Neill takes him in several unexpected directions. In fact the same could be said for much of Waititi’s film. It’s constantly defying expectations.

Waititi’s star is clearly shining brighter and his next film should be a challenge (Marvel’s third Thor film). But “Wilderpeople” is him making movies in his comfort zone. It is a film so clearly and perfectly attuned to his humor and sensibilities. This fun little odyssey pulls from so many directions but always maintains its balance. It’s genuinely tender and sweet but never overly sentimental. The humor ranges from subtle deadpan to big broad comedy but it always works together. All of this testifies to Waititi’s brilliance as a filmmaker and storyteller. The guy knows how to make a movie, and you won’t find a 2016 comedy much funnier than this one.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4.5 STARS

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46 thoughts on “REVIEW: “Hunt for the Wilderpeople”

    • Paul I love ‘Shadows’. This film falls right into that same vein of humor. But this film also has this inherent sweetness that is neither forced or overused. So good.

  1. Dude this just sounds so great, right up my alley. I too have really jumped on board with Taika Waititi ever since WWDITS. That movie was SOO funny. This sounds right in spirit with that, minus the subject matter of course. I love both Waititi and Clement man, they both seem like great guys you could go out with a beer with and talk about anything in the world about. I can’t wait to see this

    • It’s top notch bro. I too loved WWDITS and this fits in so nicely with that film despite its obvious differences. I think that speaks to Waititi’s uniqueness as a filmmaker. A possible Wes Anderson in the making?

  2. I can’t wait to catch this soon! Was too busy this weekend to watch it but I LOVE What We Do in the Shadows so naturally I’m anticipating this one. So glad to hear Taika is getting noticed as he’s directing THOR 3, he’s so talented and has that rare wit that Hollywood needs!

    • I’m with you on WWDITS. This is just as good. It’s a much different film as it has such a sweetness at its core. But that special brand of humor is there. Waititi’s finger prints are all over this film (and that’s a good thing). Love it!

      • Yeah I figure it’s a very different tone and style, but I LOVE Waititi’s brand of humor, it’s certainly more watchable than a lot of the crude humor Hollywood’s churning out (the Seth Rogen types of flicks) masquerading as *comedy.*

      • Sooo true. Waititi doesn’t need crutches, gimmicks, and he certainly doesn’t need gutter humor. But how on earth will the cross over into the MCU? Hopefully Marvel gives him plenty of creative room.

      • “Hopefully Marvel gives him plenty of creative room.” Amen! But Marvel seems to do that w/ creative folks, i.e. the Russo brothers w/ the last 2 Captain America movies. So yeah, fingers crossed!

  3. I just saw What We Do in the Shadows as I’m now intrigued by Waititi as I wanna check out more of his work including this film. Plus, seeing Sam Neill in a role like this just adds more interest.

    • Great to hear Allie. It’s magnificent, right? My wife watched it with me and she loved it too (and her sense of humor isn’t as quirky as mine). I think these last two films speak to Waititi’s amazing comedic talent especially in a fairly stale genre as of late.

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  5. I liked this – it’s very funny at times and it has got a lot of warmth – but I must admit I was a little underwhelmed by the end. I think it’s because the reviews were so positive…I probably went in expecting too much. Still, I am intrigued to see what he does with a Marvel movie, now, and hope he fares better than Edgar Wright did with Ant-Man.

    • I knew the reviews were off the charts but I paid them little attention. I’m such a fan of Waititi’s What We Do in the Shadows. I’m a tad picky when it comes to comedy but he is right in my zone. This film hit the right notes for me.

      • Yep. But as for Marvel, I don’t know man. I have a hard time seeing his unique quirky humor fitting. I’m going to remain optimistic though.

      • Yeah, that’s why Wright’s experience is playing on my mind. Both have their own distinctive styles of comedy, and it’s quite a big ask to tailor it for an existing series.

      • The only thing I cling to Waititi’s knack for telling oddball stories about people out of place in society. Thor can be that type of character. But you know as well as I that Marvel isn’t going to allow the character to be taken that far. So the question becomes how will Waititi do within Marvel’s restrictions. I just don’t know.

      • One promising sign is that a lot of the funnier moments I can remember in recent Marvel films have involved Hemsworth. I’m actually in the mood for a couple of Marvel films…Civil War was really enjoyable and I don’t feel like I’ve been overloaded with them this year. Luckily Doctor Strange is out soon.

  6. Oh, how I enjoyed this film. My wife didn’t, she scoffed the whole time like some heathen, but I thought it was great. Two points for me, though: i found the character of the welfare officer to be overplayed to the detriment of the film’s “villainy” – the character was so campy idiotic and Bad Guy cliched, it took me out of the film. Second: if Django Unchained taught us anything, it’s that a director should never step in front of the camera in a cameo funny role, because Waititi’s role as the Minister in this was awful. Again, way too camp and it took me out of the film.

    Other than that, I agree with everything you’ve said about this one. Dennison is excellent, Sam Neill is terrific, and the New Zealand landscape has rarely looked better in it’s non-CG enhanced form (looking at you, Peter Jackson).

    • Oh I thought Waititi’s minister but was hilarious. It was a riff on his family’s heritage and their funeral practices. I loved it. I also liked the welfare officer. Intentionally broad for sure, but she worked for me on an entirely different absurdity level.

    • Thor is going to be really interesting. Such a departure for him. How will he incorporate that wonderful quirky sense of humor into a big budget superhero film? We will know soon.

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