Although this buddy comedy from Taika Waititi ticks all of the typical conventions for such a film and is very funny , Hunt for the Wilderpeople is much more than the sum of its laughs. Waititi’s fourth feature is a whacky, whimsical adventure in which a fat kid and a curmudgeon come together to form an uneasy alliance in the face of myriad adversities, misunderstandings and moments of mirth. Our two protagonists are taciturn 13-year-old Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison), a foster child with a penchant for haikus, and ‘Uncle’ Hector (Sam Neill), a surly loner whose gruff exterior is more bark than bite. Sure, there are clichés at play here as these two distinctly different personalities find themselves on the run from authorities, but the two central characters are so likeable that it is easy to forgive the more predictable elements of the story.
The opening moments of the film come across as quite mean-spirited with Ricky the subject of numerous jokes about his weight by the very people you would expect to know better; Paula (Rachel House) the welfare officer delivering him to his last-chance foster home, and Bella (Reme Ti Wiata) the big-hearted woman who has agreed to take him in. Not surprisingly, city kid Ricky is reluctant to stay with Bella and Hec, who reside in a ramshackle cottage deep in the New Zealand countryside. His wordless assessment and rejection of the idea is very funny indeed, but ultimately he has no choice as Paula makes it clear that his only other option is juvenile detention. As expected, Ricky’s misgivings fade soon enough and he develops a nice rapport with Bella. However when tragedy strikes, Ricky, fearing for his future, heads for the hills. Intercepted by Hector, the two reluctantly team up and spend the best part of a year living in the wilderness, oblivious (initially at least) to the extensive ongoing efforts to track them down. With Paula leading the way, the authorities start closing in and a spectacular Thelma and Louise-inspired showdown ensues.
Amidst all the humour are more serious undertones with Waititi taking particular aim at the New Zealand child welfare system. Paula is a pathetically punctilious public servant whose every effort to paint Ricky as a menace to society falls short when his list of ‘crimes’ contains nothing more serious than setting a letterbox on fire. Her obsession with tracking down Ricky is more to do with her saving face than it is to do with what might be best for him. The way in which she exhorts control over the law enforcement and military personnel involved in the search pushes her character from being merely objectionable to utterly repulsive and unconvincing. Crazier even than Rhys Darby’s off-the-grid conspiracy theorist Psycho Sam, Paula is the worst kind of crackpot; one with the power to influence the lives of others. In fact, most of the supporting characters, with the exception of Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne’s chilled Kahu, are over-the-top caricatures. Whenever Ricky and Hector are on screen though, the film soars and it is a great credit to young Dennison that he is more than a match for his veteran co-star.
Visually, the film is a treat, with sweeping vistas of the New Zealand landscape and a series of seamlessly edited montage sequences that are so effective in representing the passing of time and the movement of the characters through the bush. Adapted from the book Wild Pork and Watercress by Barry Crumb, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is also presented in chapters, allowing Waititi to necessarily advance the story several months at a time. There are moments of action – including an encounter with a wild pig and an elaborate chase sequence that might have served as Waititi’s audition piece for his gig helming the next Thor film for Marvel – combined with touching moments of drama and genuinely funny comic interplay between the two leads and the various supporting players. Perhaps what makes Hunt for the Wilderpeople so enjoyable though is the fact that these two characters are oh-so-flawed but oh-so-likeable all the same.