New Zealand director Taika Waititi has been around for a few years, but it wasn’t until his breakout What We Do In The Shadows that his name become recognizable. While I’m not a huge fan of Shadows, Waititi did do good work with the material. Recently Waititi was named as the director for the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok; an odd choice, perhaps, but there was word that it was Waititi’s work on his upcoming Hunt for The Wilderpeople that put Marvel’s faith in him. And having now seen it, there’s no doubt why. Not only is Wilderpeople a great double-act comedy, it’s also perhaps the best family film of the year.
Based on the book Wild Pigs & Watercress by Barry Crump, the film finds 13-year-old Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison), a bratty little upstart who’s been in and out of foster care most of his life, put in a last ditch effort to find him a home with juvie being the final solution if this doesn’t work out. Ricky is sent to live on the outlands with Bella (Rema Ta Wiata) and Hector (Sam Neill), an older couple who operate a farm just on the edge of the New Zealand Bush. While Ricky is initially shocked by the culture change, he soon finds a comfortable home there thanks to the warmth and kindness of Bella – more so than her cantankerous husband anyway.
Tragedy strikes, though, when Bella dies and Child Services, believing that Ricky would be best with a ‘whole family’, decide to take him back into their custody. Not wanting to go back and risk juvie, Ricky runs away into the Bush with his dog Tupac, gets lost, of course, and is recovered by Hector. But when Hector suffers a fractured ankle, the two of them are forced to live in The Bush for a few weeks until Hector heals. When they return, they realize that the authorities have been looking for them, believing Hector has kidnapped Ricky in his grief. With prison sentences looming over both of them, the unlikely pair decide to hide out as long as they can, leading to a 6 month-long Manhunt.
This is a fun little story that allows the film to take advantage of its New Zealand locale whilst also delivering a tale of unlikely friendships and generational bonding. It’s a fun piece and never feels like it’s pandering for kids or overestimating for adults; it’s pure family entertainment and that’s exactly what it was trying to be.
Ricky is sure to be a breakout role for Dennison; right away the film makes it clear that Ricky is a bit of a brat, with a criminal record for vandalism and enough failed foster families to make the middle of nowhere the only viable option left. But even so, there is something endearing about Ricky. He’s only 13 years old and has gone through a lot already – there’s a hint that one of his friends was murdered by a foster family – and while he takes some getting used to with a lot of complaining and mistakes, he slowly grows on you with his tenacity and his ability to improvise. It’s a fun role for Dennison who manages to turn what could’ve been an “annoying fat kid” role – and that’s not me being mean, the film makes a deal out of the fact that Ricky’s a “little fat kid” – and turns it into something sweet but without losing the edge that he comes into the film with. His failed attempts to be gangster are often the funniest parts of the film.
Much like Ricky we get a sense of who Hector is right from the start: he’s an old curmudgeon who doesn’t care much for Ricky but puts up with him for Bella’s sake. After Bella’s death and the imminent arrival of Child Services, Hector is fine letting Ricky go back, until of course Ricky runs away and Hector is forced to go after him. It’s in those weeks together that Hector sees the two of them share an outsiders perspective; neither of them fit into society all that well and both face trouble if they get caught by the police, leading to the two of them learning from each other the longer they stay together. Ricky might be the main character, but this is definitely a double-act with Neill not being this good since Jurassic Park. His grumpy old man routine works in perfect sync with Ricky’s young gun attitude and the two of them have a great chemistry together, simultaneously at each other’s throats and having each other’s back throughout the film.
And while we spend most of our time with Hector and Ricky the film has a solid cast involved. Bella makes a big impression in her limited screen time with her warmth and humour. Social worker Paula (Rachel House) ends up being the film’s main villain as a hard-edged woman who doesn’t believe Ricky is as innocent as the papers are claiming. And Bushman Sam (Shadows alum Rhys Darby) nearly steals the whole film with some of the funniest lines; his tunnel joke might just be the best in the whole movie.
What’s noticeable almost straight away from Waititi’s direction is that the film stays true to its novel origins; with every new scene getting its own chapter title there’s a very real sense that you’re watching a children’s novel unfold in front of your eyes, and that’s to its benefit. The charm and humour that comes from watching Ricky and Hector’s adventure is prime for both children and adults, with children getting a tale of acceptance and family while adults get something that never panders to a younger audience or feels like it’s holding back. There’s plenty of bad language and intense scenes to keep adults interested without straying too far away from being a family film.
And it feels right to call this a family film. The language might hold other people back but it feels genuine; Ricky is the type of teenager who’ll curse because he thinks it’s cool and Hector’s the type of old fart who doesn’t care all that much. More than that, though, the film manages to capture the same sense of adventure and fun that classic films like The Goonies or, more appropriately, Up manage to create, an eternal sense of optimism – primarily through Ricky’s inability to admit that he has to give up at some point – that pushes the characters forward through the month-long hunt to track them down and what eventually binds them together.
It also helps that the film is hilarious – it’s got a good number of jokes and gags peppered throughout, with everything from Ricky failing to hunt in the Bush and a quite adult misunderstanding of what he tells a group of Rangers he and Hector did to survive to an intense news interview and a fantastic LOTR reference that probably felt too perfect to pass up. Darby gets the biggest laughs of the film for his conspiracy-laden mind and his plans that often up end two-steps behind where he thinks he is, but the whole film has a great level of humour to it that works on all levels, rude enough for adults at points but with plenty of pratfalls to appeal to children.
Hunt for The Wilderpeople has set a high bar for best family film of the year. Not only is it a consistently funny piece that brings about some of the best laughs this year so far, it also brings with it a sense of family, adventure and humour that almost fit this into a live action Pixar film. Dennison and Neill make a great double-act and Waititi’s children’s book direction puts a lot of faith in him to deliver in the future.
4 out of five hairpieces