Heart and Humor Make ‘Hunt for the Wilderpeople’ One of 2016’s Great Films

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Some great movies take a little while to assert their greatness, playing coy before building to a great to crescendo. Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople doesn’t do that. This is a movie that asserts its greatness early on through the introduction of Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison), a young delinquent being placed into a new foster home by social services. In mere seconds we’re introduced to this boy and all of his destructive tendencies through a lively recollection of his various crimes. The entire foundation for the film adaption of Barry Crumps’ novel Wild Pork and Watercress is laid and every major character is introduced in this opening scene. From there Hunt for the Wilderpeople just builds on its foundation, making the film one of the most joyous cinematic experiences of the year.

The delinquent Ricky is being adopted by Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and Hector Faulkner (Sam Neill), a married couple living on the outskirts of forest of New Zealand known as the bush. Their adoption is overseen by Paula Hall (Rachel House), a humorless bureaucrat who follows procedure and repeats trite catchphrases with ease. At first, Ricky is apprehensive in his new surroundings, running away each and every night but not getting very far. Soon Ricky comes to love his new home due to Bella’s maternal care, her heart being as big as the bush and her compassion seemingly limitless. Meanwhile, the gruff tough guy Hector isn’t exactly warming to his family’s new addition. Things take a turn for the worse when Bella suddenly passes away, and in the wake of the tragedy social services will remove the young boy from his new home. This prompts Ricky to run away again, but it’s not long before Hector is able to track him down. A series of mishaps leave the two stranded in the bush and quickly they become fugitives after missing their appointment to turn over Ricky to social services. Soon the duo become unlikely media sensations as they stay on the lam in the rugged wilderness with countless members of law enforcement and vigilantes scour the bush for them.

It’s almost impossible to list every little thing that Hunt for the Wilderpeople does with such excellence. Not only is the film thoroughly hilarious, it really has an emotional core that drives the film. Everything that occurs is driven by character and you’re never left wondering why any character performs a certain action. It all makes sense. Ricky is a brash young boy who is obviously influenced by American hip hop, viewing himself as a gangster. Meanwhile, Hector is gruff outdoorsman, one that doesn’t have much time or concern for the boisterous nature of Ricky’s hip hop influenced attitude. But the bond these two characters build on the screen is so incredibly earnest and believable – the combination of Neill and Dennison can leave you crying from laughter in one moment and crying from the more emotional aspects of the story. To borrow a mangled phrase from the movie, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is “majestical.”

Already a name to watch on the filmmaking scene, Taika Waititi continues his incredible ascension as a director following up last year’s excellent What We Do in the Shadows. Here the New Zealand filmmaker shows an incredible balance as the film effectively treks across a number of genres. The comedic aspects are robust from start to finish, and Waititi also shows a keen eye for action filmmaking – all of which culminate in a riotous conclusion including a car chase. Even the aspects of Hunt for the Wilderpeople that seem to be taking direct aim at New Zealand media work seamlessly for American audiences, tapping into an absurdity present in almost all television news coverage. Hunt for the Wilderpeople also features some of the most inventive use of a time lapse montage of recent memory, a camera pans as shots bleed into one another. With his follow up to Hunt for the Wilderpeople already announced as Thor: Ragnarok, the fact is that if Taika Waititi can garner one-third of this movie’s brilliance, Ragnarok will be the best Thor movie yet (not a high bar, I know).

In the days since seeing it, whenever I think back to Hunt for the Wilderpeople (and it has been often) a smile comes to my face. There may be no other movie this year that has such a magical blend of humor and heart. I don’t want to say that this little film from New Zealand will endure over time as a cult classic because I believe it will endure as a classic. Full stop. From start to finish, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is simply a joy to watch, with great characters, great jokes, and great visual storytelling. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is Taika Waititi’s latest triumph, one of the best films of 2016, and hopefully just the latest in a long line of brilliant films to come.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople
  • Overall Score
5

Summary

Simply “majestical,” Hunt for the Wilderpeople has a unique blend of humor and heart in one of the best movies of the year.

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