Movie Review: Hunt for the Wilderpeople

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Thanks to a misunderstanding, a boy and his foster father go on the run from the police through the New Zealand wilderness.

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Taika Waititi, 2016

In a last ditch effort to keep him out of juvy, foster child Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) is placed with an older couple who live way out in the New Zealand bush. He flourishes on the farm, and forms a strong bond with foster mum Bella (Rima Te Wiata) – that is, until she unexpectedly dies. Ricky wants to stay with her husband, the reticent Hector (Sam Neill). Hector never took to Ricky, but when Ricky tries to run away, a series of unfortunate events leads to them getting on the wrong side of the police. A manhunt, led by the determined and slightly delusional social worker Paula Hall (Rachel House), ensues. As they hide in the wilderness, Ricky and Hector meet new friends and foes, go on adventures, and learn to live with one another.

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Every so often a really surprising, excellent movie comes along and takes off via word of mouth. Hunt for the Wilderpeople appears to be one such movie. Directed by Taika Waititi, who has been picked up by Marvel for the next Thor film, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a funny, heartfelt, and beautifully shot little New Zealand film that could. The film is decidedly quirky, with some very odd characters and off-kilter jokes, but its warmth and the genuine drama involved keep it grounded. It provides plenty of laughs for the young and old alike, and it’s a great family film. Some of the themes might be too heavy for younger audiences, but they’re perfect for tweens, providing some complexity around foster care, found families, and trauma and loss alongside the adventure and laughs. The characters are likeable, helped along by (mostly) very strong performances. Sam Neill is terrific, giving Hector just the right blend of laconic grumpiness and kindness. Julian Dennison nails Ricky, giving a very strong central performance without precociousness. Rima Te Wiata is warm, tough, and funny, making a huge impression in her brief appearance, and Rachel House is a hilarious villain. She has one exchange with Ricky about Terminator that is brilliant. Waititi and Rhys Darby get terrific cameos. There are definitely some weaker performances – the teenage girl Ricky likes is just awful – but overall, the acting is strong.

The biggest struggle Hunt for the Wilderpeople has is in its pacing. This could be a result of the adaptation from the book – the breakdown of the action into titled chapters on screen often disturbs the action, cutting abruptly from one timeframe to another. Our heroes just spend too long traipsing around the bush, no matter how beautifully it is shot. Much like Up, the best part of the movie is the first act, and the friendship that forms between Ricky and Bella. The relationship between Ricky and Hector is rougher, and builds much more slowly. Their ending feels earned, certainly, but it takes a long time to earn it. Fortunately, every time the film starts to slow down, Waititi proves that he has plenty of tricks up his sleeve. He manages to throw in some genuine surprises along the way, just enough to keep you guessing. This is a hard movie not to like.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople on IMDb

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