As Hunt for the Wilderpeople opens, it may seem like something you’ve seen a million times. Perhaps it is, thematically speaking. But Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a joy. In the day-and-age of death and destruction reigning supreme at multiplexes, it’s a treat to see something so enjoyable from start to finish.
The movie begins with Ricky (Julian Dennison) being dropped off at a new foster home. Paula (Rachel House), the child welfare worker, informs his new foster mom, Bella (Rima Te Wiata), that Ricky is a “real bad egg.” He has been moved around a lot and gotten himself into trouble. Petty theft! Graffiti! Knocking mailboxes over! Paula drops Ricky off in a “he’s your problem now” fashion.
But Bella is unmoved by Paula’s insistent warnings. She’s unshakably positive and will do anything to make a nice new home for Ricky. When Ricky wants to run away, she lets him. When he returns back home after not making it very far, she makes sure her husband, Hec (Sam Neill), has a nice hot breakfast waiting for him on the table.
After a while, Ricky seems to like his new home. Even so, circumstances arise that cause him to venture out into the bush, with no looking back. Grumpy ol’ Hec ends up finding him deep in the bush with the intention of bringing him back home (even though Hec never had much interest in Ricky being there in the first place).
Before they can get moving, Hec gets injured. Ricky and Hec end up spending much more time in the bush than anticipated. It becomes a second home to them. They cross paths with a few people, who inform them of what is happening in the real world. Hec and Ricky are the subject of a manhunt, which has posed them as two dangerous people on the run.
Writer-director Taika Waititi’s (What We Do in the Shadows) film supersedes its familiar narrative because his adaptation of Barry Crump’s book cares so deeply about Ricky and Hec. They are an oddball pairing, who can be obnoxious in their own individual ways, but we end up loving every minute we spend with them.
Neill is gruff and cranky as the world-weary Hec. There is empathy to his character and he is never treated as just the old man. Dennison is a real find here as Ricky. Ricky marches to the beat of his own drum, which can be insufferable at times, but there is such humanity to seeing this story through his eyes.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople is much more than its Sundance packaging. It’s beautifully shot in sun-soaked New Zealand, funny and moving. It’s one of the most pleasant films of 2016 has to offer.
9 out of 10