“You’ve got to do that when sad things happen; process it”
Most people recognise the heavyweight director Taika Waititi from the superhero blockbuster Thor: Ragnarok (2017) and Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award winner Jojo Rabbit (2019). But a closer look at his work leads us to the adventure film Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) which, along with the underrated drama Boy (2010), have become the highest grossing New Zealand films.
Adapted from Barry Crump’s book Wild Pork and Watercress (1997), this feel-good adventure premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. It astounded everyone by striking the perfect balance between comedy and poignancy.
Raised on hip-hop and rude haikus, Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) is a bright, chubby 13-year-old boy, whom child welfare services see as a relentless headache. His last hope is a middle-aged couple living on an unfrequented farm. While Bella Faulkner (Rima Te Wiata) manages to bring his walls down, her grouchy husband, Hec (Sam Neill), has a rougher time dealing with the teen.
However, Bella’s sudden death disturbs the newly established peace in Ricky’s life. After an act of willful destruction, he plunges into the jungle, with Hec hot on his trail. Meanwhile, a misunderstanding sparks a wild manhunt, with Ricky and Hec hunted like wild beasts. Unless they put their differences aside, the odds of surviving this ordeal seem to be against them.
Young Dennison is a delight to behold, with his undomesticated performance and a stern look that throws punches between uttered words. His phenomenal chemistry with Sam Neill, posing as the prototypical image of Mick Dundee (Crocodile Dundee, 1986), moulds them into an electrifying duo. Not only do they stir a whirpool of hilarity that pulls and tugs at cramping stomachs, but they also manage to dig a path through social and personal issues, fortifying such themes as: family, trust, grief and loss.
They touch upon these delicate matters with fragility and ingenuity, shaping their characters into authentic human beings by allowing them to develop far from the traps of yet another coming-of-age flick. In his fourth feature film, Waititi not only writes and directs, but also stars as a wacky minister, while the film’s perfect villain materialises in the form of Paula (Rachel House), a social worker.
Following in the footsteps of Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson, Waititi splits his film into chapters, transforming it into a musing story Ricky would tell his own grandchildren in the future. The editing team has done a remarkable job guiding us from one scene to the next, while a montage of life in the wilderness reminds us of Rambo: First Blood (1982).
Constant references to pop culture, snarky haiku poems, and some recreated scenes from The Lord of The Rings (2001), Braveheart (1995) and The Terminator (1984), only solidify Waititi’s sense of offbeat humour, tickling even the stoniest of audiences. Meanwhile, Hunt for the Wilderpeople‘s cinematography roots out the rustling lusciousness of its backdrop, centering the single camera used to shoot the film on the breathtaking heart of the jungle.
Overall, this is a family film worth the hunt, as it rises to new heights with its fleshed-out characters, superb performances and witty dialogue. What could have easily turned into tedious storytelling has been wonderfully converted to a quirky adventure. Much like Pixar’s Up (2009), it wields just the right amount of emotion to leave you itching for a repeat of the rollercoaster ride the second your feet have touched the ground.
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