When was the last time a film left you with a feeling of absolute joy? You know, that bubbling excitement that adds a spring to your step and a smile to your face as you walk out of the cinema? It seems to be happening less and less as cinema swings between overwhelming spectacle and harrowing intensity - so much so that the arrival of a film like ‘Hunt for the Wilderpeople’ deserves as much attention possible.
Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) has spent most of his childhood shuffled between foster homes, none of which could handle his rebellious streak. He hits gold when he ends up on a remote farm in the New Zealand bushland with warm and inviting Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and cantankerous Hec (Sam Neill), who take the boy in and give him the home he needs. When tragedy strikes and Ricky risks being taken in to juvenile care, he runs off into the bush, causing Hec (much to his annoyance) to go after him. As far as the authorities are concerned though, Hec has kidnapped Ricky, and they launch a massive manhunt to apprehend the pair.
Ricky and Hec are an unlikely pairing, both loners content in their independence who find themselves manacled together against their will, but as they embark on their fugitive lives, pursued by an ever-growing army of Well-Meaning Adults, walls begin to collapse and they forge an unlikely bond that benefits them and keeps the authorities on their toes. What really makes ‘Wilderpeople’ unique however is writer and director Taika Waititi’s ('What We Do In The Shadows') ingenious and inspired approach. Rather than aiming for an obvious quirky drama, he weaves ‘Wilderpeople’ into something akin to a children’s film for adults, full of youthful energy and imagination, but with mature, acidic and brutal wit. Every moment you think you’ve got your head around its style or tone, it throws you off into more unexpected and ridiculous energy. Every frame sparkles with tremendous characters, beautifully clear storytelling and impeccable craft. Waititi pretty much confirms his place as one of New Zealand’s most exciting filmmakers, utilising every cinematic tool at his disposal to maximum effect, from the breathtaking cinematography to the endlessly inventive editing.
Part of watching ‘Wilderpeople’ is marvelling at its impeccable craft, but mostly it’s being caught up in a film so remarkable entertaining and riotously funny. The film moves at an absolutely furious pace, with visual gags and sublime one-lines coming thick and fast. ‘Wilderpeople’ is a ridiculous film, a work of magical realism that doesn’t give a damn for believability, but its heart is so enormous and pure and its commitment to its style so unfaltering that all thee elements that should not work fall perfectly into place. From the first frame to the last, ‘Wilderpeople’ hits every right note and countless more.
It also could not have had a more impeccable cast. Julian Dennison was the stand-out in the mostly-forgettable Aussie film ‘Paper Planes’ (2014), and here he is given free reign to push his enormous comic talent to the limits. His performance as Ricky is a master class in comic detail and understatement, and his loveable innocence provides the necessary lens to make the magic journey he is undertaking make sense for us as an audience. This is a genuine comic talent in our midst, and one with hopefully a great future. He’s also a perfect complement to the gruffness of Sam Neill as Hec, easily his best performance in years, cold and stern and yet still insanely funny. But what makes ‘Wilderpeople’ so magical is their enormous chemistry, one built out of mutual admiration and respect. It might be the finest pairing on screen this year, bubbling with humour and heart. The film benefits from their individual talents, but becomes something truly extraordinary by having them together.
The arrival of a film like ‘Hunt for the Wilderpeople’ deserves as much attention possible.
It also features a tremendous supporting cast, particularly from Rachel House and Oscar Kightley as the child support officers leading the hunt for Hec and Ricky. The film plays with that trope of children literature that most of the adults are ridiculous, and the entire cast fall perfectly into step with this conceit, helping to build what could have been a quaint drama into an imaginative, unexpected epic.
I could not have loved ‘Hunt for the Wilderpeople’ more. It’s so rare to find a film these days filled with so much imagination, heart, joy and anarchy. This is a towering achievement for Taika Waititi and for New Zealand cinema, a film that ticks all the right boxes and then blows the boxes up. Great cinema finds a way to marry great craft with impeccable entertainment, and ‘Hunt for the Wilderpeople’ achieves this better than any film so far this year. It’s an instant classic, a little comic gem with enormous ambitions it easily fulfils. Run as fast as you can to the nearest cinema, you really can’t afford to miss this one. It’s an absolute bloody marvel.