Picture yourself in the year 2009.You have heard nothing but fantastic things about the latest Pixar creation, “Up.” You hear tellings of the best animated film ever made, and run off to the theatre in excited earnest. The opening sequence absolutely floors you and leaves you unbelievably excited to see the rest that it has to offer. But then they get to South America and they just…run out of steam. What was a terrific character study and charming relationship between an old man and a kid has digressed into some sort of nonsensical adventure with some annoying talking dogs and an absurd bird. Now flash forward to the year 2016. You hear pretty good things about Hunt For The Wilderpeople, so you rent it off iTunes. And then, completely out of nowhere you fall absolutely in love with these characters; an old man and a chubby kid, two dogs and even at one point a rare species of bird. Your mind is blown. You’ve finally seen the second half of Up.
This was my experience while watching Hunt For The Wilderpeople. Of course, it’s not actually the exact plot of Up, but it undeniably has many elements that are reminiscent of their adventures in South America (although in this film South America is the wilderness of New Zealand). The film follows the story of Ricky Baker (newcomer Julian Dennison), a delinquent child who gets thrown into a foster family for what seems like the last time. Much to his surprise he actually enjoys his stay with the family until a tragedy occurs, inspiring him to run away from home. A misunderstanding occurs and all of a sudden he has a fugitive companion in his would-be foster dad Hector (played in a refreshingly honest performance by Sam Neill), as they are both the subject of a nationwide manhunt on the part of Child Protective Services. And thus we are thrown into an absolutely wild ride which coincidentally happened to be one of my favorite movies of the year.
The Goonies. The Sandlot. ET. These are all adventure movies with kids in the main roles. What do each of them have in common? They’re fun. At the end of the day, all criticism and analysis aside, these movies are just simply fun. And if there’s any way to describe Hunt For The Wilderpeople it would be that. I have not had a more enjoyable and high-spirited experience with any other film this year than I did with this one. Each scene is funny and heartening without having to try hard to make you smile. It’s effortlessly directed by Taika Waititi, the brilliantly funny auteur who brought us What We Do In The Shadows in 2014. Waititi has been a champion of the indie film industry for years now, but it seems that these days may be numbered, as he’s recently been snagged to direct Thor: Ragnarok, following Marvel’s usual model of taking a talented and plucky indie director and molding them into their Hollywood sensibilities. I’m happy that Waititi is being given better opportunities, but I’d like it if he stayed in the indie scene for just a little bit longer. One thing that I can say on the matter however is that if Hunt For The Wilderpeople is the last film that he makes that is just purely his, it’s an excellent movie to end on. This film is absolutely loaded with charm; painted with a visual style that is simply iridescent to the eyes and backed with a miraculous score that is just absolutely adventurous. The New Zealand wilderness-The Bush as they call it in the film-is a dazzling backdrop that really has never been explored onscreen before. Sure you’ve got the sweeping vistas of the Lord of The Rings franchise for one thing, but nobody’s really gotten down into the thickets and the brush in the same way Waititi has in this film. The adventure aspect is ever present, our intrepid hero Ricky always bursting with enthusiasm and bliss, following a story that is creative and gallant, creating a sort of timeless feel to this movie, as if it could’ve been released at any point in time.
The character dynamic in this film is just pure joy. I’m not kidding when I say it’s very reminiscent of Up. You’ve got the disgruntled older gentleman who really just wants nothing to do with this plucky little kid, off trudging through the wilderness, quarrelling over whether the experience is fun or taxing. I would say where the similarities end is with the Ricky Baker character. Ricky is not in complete earnest, as the Russell character in Up is, having had enough negative experiences in his life to know that the world isn’t always the most friendly place to be. However his motivations are clear: he’s finally found someone to love. Sam Neil’s character Hec is a true screen character. He starts out indifferent to the child, but as the film progresses and he learns more and more lessons, he softens and comes to really appreciate the kid. Watching this wall come down is very pleasing and, like most everything in the movie, just appears to relieve stress from the viewer. The “villains” are truly entertaining as well; Rachel House and Oscar Knightley play two very eccentric CPS officers with bold personalities and a bumblingness that feels like something straight out of a Disney cartoon. These four elements blend together in a simply delightful fashion, creating a final product that jubilates the audience in a fresh and sunny movie that deserves to be seen by you. The only part of the movie that I would change would maybe tighten up a scene in the middle when Ricky takes a detour, but otherwise this is a riotous adventure that never fails to put a smile on your face. If it is within your power, see Hunt For The Wilderpeople as soon as possible. Of all the films that I’ve reviewed in my 2016 indie series, this one is my favorite. It’s better than The Fits, better than Everybody Wants Some!!, better than Captain Fantastic, and yes, even better than Hell or High Water. I suppose what I’m saying is that if I could only watch one of these five movies for the rest of my life, I would want to watch Hunt for The Wilderpeople. It’s simply that enjoyable. I highly, highly recommend it.
All images are taken from Hunt For The Wilderpeople, from Piki films.