Despite being known for its Bush-covered outbacks, New Zealand is becoming more of a cinematic treasure trove by the week. Movies like Housebound, What We Do In The Shadows and Deathgasm have rocked the horror circuit as of late, but the Kiwis boast more than jovial scares. Taika Waititi’s latest, for instance, made waves after outgrossing Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice at the NZ Box Office. Yes, a movie titled Hunt For The Wilderpeople struck down Zack Snyder’s superhero kerfuffle after only a few short weeks, and rightfully so. Good on New Zealand for supporting cinema in all forms, even when pitted against mass-marketed comic legends.
Waititi’s tale (based on Barry Crump’s novel, Wild Pork and Watercress) dives deep into New Zealand’s lush “Bush” environment, as two unlikely friends find themselves fleeing from government pursuers.
Actually, let me rewind for a minute – it all starts when Aunt Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and Uncle Hec (Sam Neill) adopt a troubled foster child, the thug-obsessed Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison). After bouncing around for years – foster home to foster home – Ricky finally settles in to his new backcountry abode, only to see his Aunt Bella die shortly after. Ricky, refusing to go back into a faulty system, runs into the Bush by himself but is found by Uncle Hec shortly after. Hec is determined to turn Ricky in, but plans change after a “Wanted” poster displaying their faces is stumbled upon. Who needs society when you’re having so much fun in the Bush, anyway?
The most endearing quality about Hunt For The Wilderpeople is its ability to keep snowballing into this bigger, more grandiose cinematic adventure as scenes press on. What starts on a very small scale – cooped up on a rinky-dink farmhouse – morphs into this “First Blood” kind of escape (a Rambo self-reference) that charms and delights. As Ricky and Hec push deeper into the Bush, their runs-ins become more daring and comical despite larger odds mounting against them. Reward-seeking hunters continually pop up, a beastly animal crosses their path, and Paula (Rachel House) – Ricky’s tough-as-bricks child worker – amasses a literal army who follow her gestapo-inspired motto, “no child left behind.” If you’re assuming this is just another lost-in-the-wilderness journey with spiritually healing results, consider yourself pleasantly duped.
Rima Te Wiata warms us up with her bubbly motherhood, but as young Ricky starts coming out of his quiet shell, actor Julian Dennison handily steals the spotlight. His chemistry with Sam Neill is more than on point, as Ricky’s city-wise ways translate into bumbling survival instincts. Ricky dreams of being a drug-dealing gangster who dies valiantly in a drive-by, confirmed by his Volcom (or similar brand) hoodies, leather jacket, and dope kicks – none of which Herc understands. Dennison finds an endearing persona inside a lost orphan boy, and rattles off zing-tastic lines of thuggish glory while shuffling around New Zealand’s Bush, huffing and puffing for air.
That’s not to say Dinnison carries Hunt For The Wilderpeople in his oversized backpack, by any means. Neill goes full mountain hermit with plenty of character, growing a scruffy beard that’s only topped by Rhys Darby’s psychotic Bush inhabitant (in wacky Darby-esque fashion). Oscar Kightley establishes a comical repertoire as Paula’s policeman guide, Waititi shows up as a Doritos-loving priest, and sausages are shared with a lively household of Bush dwellers, all of whom give us a humorous look into wild New Zealand lifestyles.
Unlikely adventures are a cornerstone of any nation’s cinematic storytelling, but Waititi finds a way to make Hunt For The Wilderpeople feel fresh, invigorated, and full of Kiwi livelihood. It’s an unexpectedly exciting tale ripe with new-school-meets-old-school laughs, set to a moody score influenced by synth-y 80s classics and native drum-beating alike. Sure, Waititi navigates an obvious fish-out-of-water arc, but Dennison plays Padawan to Uncle Hec’s Master in the most hilarious of ways. Come for the goofs, stay for Waititi’s beating tribal heart, and leave understanding why Batman’s latest New Zealand pitstop was bested by two lovable bushpeople.
Hunt For The Wilderpeople is a comical, soul-searching tale from the Bush that delights around every leaf-covered turn.