Funny and moving adaptation of Barry Crumb’s novel ‘Wild Pork and Watercress’ from the director of What We Do in the Shadows. Taika Waititi’s film follows the misadventures of mismatched pair Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison), a 13-year old delinquent from the city, and 65-year old Hec (Sam Neill), as they inadvertently become fugitives and the subject of a massive manhunt through the New Zealand bush.
Repeat offender Ricky Baker has been given one last chance. Adapt to life in the country with new foster parents Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and Hec or face life in juvenile detention. Militaristic social welfare officer Paula (Rachel House) wants to put Ricky away, rattling off a list to Bella of relatively minor crimes (“spitting!”) she considers to be serious but which are clearly the actions of a bored kid. Though at first Bella seems like a comic caricature with her over-the-top enthusiasm and her cat faced jumper, she’s smart and likable and wins Ricky’s trust. Hec remains aloof though preferring his own company, but Ricky finally feels like he has a place to call home.
When things go awry Ricky takes off but his attempts to go Bush prove hopeless, and Hec finds the starving youngster but unforeseen circumstances force them to camp out in the bush for a month. On the way home they stop at a bothy (no idea what Kiwi’s call a hut for travellers in the country). Pinned to the wall is a news article suggesting Hec may have abducted Ricky and warning people to look out for them. With Hec having done time in the past and Ricky facing being returned to the child welfare system the pair decide to go on the run, pursued by the clearly unhinged Paula, social services, the police, a trio of dim-witted hunters, and eventually the military.
While Waikiki’s earlier films Eagle Versus Shark (2007) and What We Do in the Shadows (2014) were similarly colourful affairs Hunt For the Wilderpeople is much larger in scale. With its use of the landscape and subplot about a rare animal hiding in the forest it put me in mind of another Sam Neill movie The Hunter (2011, Daniel Nettheim), essentially delivering a comic version of the themes present in that film as this taciturn loner learns become an unlikely surrogate father to a young boy.
Neill is an effortlessly charismatic straight-man while Dennison is a real find making a character who could easily have been irritating lovable. There’s also a welcome cameo from Rhys Darby as a conspiracy nut hiding out in the jungle, and Waikiki makes a brief appearance as a Church Minister with an unusual line in eulogies. A huge hit in New Zealand, Hunt for the Wilderpeople should do well internationally. Marvel fans might want to seek it out as Waikiki will be directing the next Thor movie.