Taika Waititi’s follow-up to his hilarious homage to horror films, 2014’s What We Do in the Shadows, is a return to the type of tale about human eccentricities which the director has built his career on with films such as Boy and the criminally underrated Eagle Vs Shark.
Based on a book called Wild Pork and Watercress by Barry Crump, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is further proof that Waititi – a director who is about to make his first big budget blockbuster with Marvel’s Thor: Ragnarök – is essentially New Zealand’s equivalent of Wes Anderson, even if his films do lack the visual vigour of Anderson’s immediately recognisable back catalogue.
The closest the director comes to creating some kind of style that’s comparable to Anderson are the different chapter titles that separate the various scenes through the film, but what Waititi lacks in a distinctive visuals, he more than makes up for with his weird, wonderful and surprisingly sweet storytelling.
Central to the film is the odd-couple paring of a grumpy farmer named Hec and a young orphan named Ricky, an unlikely pair who are brought together when Hec’s wife decides she wants to adopt the young child. When Bella dies, the adoptive “aunt” who Ricky forms a relationship with, he and Hec end up on the run in the New Zealand bush as local authorities believe the young boy has been kidnapped by his “uncle”.
Considering the two characters are central to the film’s quality, Sam Neill and Julian Dennison are a joy to watch together and are quite easily the best thing about ‘Wilderpeople’. The chemistry between Neill’s gruff and grumpy farmer and Dennison’s annoying, wannabe-gangster orphan, is beautifully realised by the two performers and is absolutely believable throughout the ups and downs of their relationship.
It’s a shame then that, whilst there are plenty of big laughs splashed throughout the story, the script isn’t tight enough to turn it into something truly special.There a number of sequences and characters that are introduced to us which have no real narrative payoff – a brief turn from comedian Rhys Darby as a character called Psycho Sam is frustratingly fleeting – and there are times where Waititi’s script feels lost in the woods with its central characters.
Good enough to recommend but not great enough to make it an instant classic, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is still worth the price of admission for the two central performances alone. The jokes are there and the heart is there as well, but it’s not quite as memorable as the director’s previous works.
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