Thursday, 28 July 2016

Hunt For The Wilderpeople

(PG) ★★★★½

Director: Taika Waititi.

Cast: Sam Neill, Julian Dennison, Rima Te Wiata, Rachel House, Oscar Kightley, Rhys Darby.

"Is it a velociraptor, Mr Neill?"

FOR a country of 4.4 million people, New Zealand has long punched above its weight when it comes to producing great movies.

In recent years Whale Rider, The World’s Fastest Indian, Boy, and What We Do In The Shadows have all attracted large audiences and critical acclaim in and out of their home country.

Those latter two films are the work of Taika Waititi, who is following the likes of directors Jane Campion, Peter Jackson, Roger Donaldson and Lee Tamahori out of NZ and into Hollywood (he’s presently helming Thor: Ragnarok).

Waititi’s latest, Hunt For The Wilderpeople, is his most accessible and enjoyable film yet – the best of a great bunch – but it’s also his most iconically “New Zealand” movie, demonstrating a deep love of the country’s “majestical” landscapes and the rough-and-tumble people that live in its hidden places.

Neill stars as Hec, who is none-too-pleased when his wife Bella (Te Wiata) brings a foster child named Ricky Baker (Dennison) into their rural home on the edge of the NZ wilderness.

Ricky is a troubled 13-year-old city kid who has bounced around foster homes all his life and is one step away from juvenile prison, but after his initial attempts to flee Hec and Bella’s house fail, he finds a new existence and sense of purpose in the country.

But a tragedy shakes Ricky’s newfound happiness, and an unfortunate set of circumstances force Ricky and the belligerent Hec on the run from child services and the police in the NZ bush.

The relationship between Ricky and Hec is the film’s strength. It’s as charming as it is inevitable – both are wonderfully flawed and dynamic characters, and while we know where their relationship will end up, it’s an absolute joy to watch it get there. Dennison and Neill give good performances without being perfect, but their dud moments are not enough to detract from the finished product or the affection and empathy they draw.

The other big star of the movie (aside from the Terminator Pig that appears toward the end of the second act) is the scenery itself. Finding the few locations left around NZ that Peter Jackson hasn't already stuck an elf and a hobbit in, Waititi and his crew take us to some gorgeous places as Ricky and Hec wind their way through the beautiful bushland and lakes of the North Island.

The film’s humour, typically dry and Kiwi, is another highlight, with writer-director Waititi playing Ricky’s wannabe gangster attitude neatly against Neill’s stoic country type. The whole thing occasionally tips too far into the absurd, most notably in any scenes featuring Paula the social worker and her cop offsider (House and Kightley), yet strangely the arrival of Rhys Darby’s hermit “bushman” Sam seems to work despite being even more off-the-wall. It’s all based loosely on Wild Pork & Watercress by NZ author Barry Crump (largely unheard of outside New Zealand) but takes the country-esque, Fred Dagg-like laughs and adds a modern twist.

Kooky, charming, and full of heart and humour, Hunt For The Wilderpeople is great fun, occasionally sweet, and destined to be an iconic NZ film.

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