Adapted from one of New Zealand's most beloved books 'Wild Pork and Watercress' by Barry Crump, Hunt for the Wilderpeople emerged among the most heartening international success stories in recent years. Abandoned by his mother, thirteen year old juvenile delinquent Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) is placed in foster care at a remote farm with kindly Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and her grizzled, cranky husband Hec (Sam Neill). His attempts to escape prove fruitless. So Ricky settles down and grows to enjoy life on the farm with a doting Bella until fate deals a cruel blow. Thereafter mishaps and misunderstandings unexpectedly set Ricky and Hec on the run as fugitives from the law, struggling to survive in the wilderness, hunted by armed police and vigilantes. In the midst of learning to trust each other they somehow wind up national heroes.
Eagle vs. Shark (2007) established Kiwi auteur Taika Waititi as a quirky comedic auteur some found comparable with Wes Anderson or Edgar Wright. He continued to develop his own unique voice with the overlooked, underrated Boy (2010) and cult vampire mockumentary What We Do In the Shadows (2014) but Hunt for the Wilderpeople is his breakout work of mad genius. Written in the blokey, good-natured style that endeared Barry Crump to readers in New Zealand, the original novel is both a celebration and wry send-up of the rugged, self-sufficient survivalist ethos central to their national character. With the movie Waititi pulls off the unique feat of embracing these rugged ideals, as Ricky blossoms under Hec's cantankerous tutelage into an accomplished hunter, while at the same time refining and even subverting them at times including a few amusing digs at First Blood (1982) and that ultimate macho survivalist icon: Rambo.
While echoing ideas central to other movies, most notably Up (2009) and Moonrise Kingdom (2012), Hunt for the Wilderpeople succeeds on the strength of its own precise combination of humane observational humour, surreal Looney Tunes-like sight gags, unpredictable plot twists and that strange, mystical otherworldliness conjured by the New Zealand landscape. Indeed the wilderness is as important a character here as the central twosome: wild, unpredictable, awe-inspiring (or to use Hec's own term: 'majestical'), alternately nurturing and dangerous. Skeptics maintain it boils down to Jurassic Park (1993) without the dinosaurs or Lex but miss the point. While the story imparts a message really no more profound than "you don't give up on family" it does so with tremendous wit, energy, pathos and comic invention. Also a lot of heart. The plot revolves around the softening of two surly antisocial misfits who must learn to love each other to survive a wilderness that stands as a metaphor for the capricious realities of life.
In Hec and Ricky the film presents two avatars of a familiar male archetype. Both are wannabe tough guys who have a hard time revealing their vulnerabilities and insecurities. The film exhibits a shrewd insight into the male psyche as only under extreme duress to young boy and old man prove willing to share their feelings. A crusty, commanding Sam Neill is well paired with bright newcomer Julian Dennison. He gives a truly stellar turn as the lovable, chunky, hip-hop obsessed, haiku composing orphan delinquent. Yet the film spreads its many laugh-out-loud moments evenly among a solid cast of memorable supporting players including Rima Te Wiata as the well-meaning Bella, Rachel House as the wildly overzealous social worker in hot pursuit of the mismatched fugitives and Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne as the guitar strumming teenager who proves both Ricky's saviour and instant crush. Which leads to a hilarious reference to the infamously erotic Cadbury's Flake ads, likely to resonate most strongly with British and Kiwi viewers. Waititi employs staccato editing, weird slapstick and even a handful of gory monster attacks involving computer animated wild boar evoking Peter Jackson that bolster the film's unpredictability. It also provides a welcome showcase for the warm and humourous side of Maori life. All in all: majestical.