Man, 2016 has a been a great year for weirdos in the forest. Between The Lobster and Captain Fantastic, nature loving eccentrics have had a lot to love. The Hunt for the Wilderpeople offers the same kind of bizarre experience as The Lobster and the sweeping vistas of Captain Fantastic, and manages to be even funnier and more enjoyable than either of them. Warm and heartfelt without feeling saccharine, silly and creative without feeling childish, The Hunt for the Wilderpeople is truly fantastic.
Despite its sparse cast and simple plot, the film manages to achieve some undeniably touching and funny moments. The tale follows Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison), a troubled New Zealand youth landing in yet another foster home. Baker is the classic preteen hoodlum – cursed with delusions of gangster grandeur he rejects his new foster Auntie’s (Rima Te Wiata) earnest attempts to welcome him to his new home. Te Wiata steals these opening scenes; her relentless desire to make Ricky feel like part of the family is cavity-inducingly sweet. Her perfect counterpoint, Uncle Hector (Sam Neil) is an emotionally impenetrable man’s man that is sick of Ricky’s nonsense from the moment he arrives. As is wont to happen in adventure movies, misfortune thrusts Ricky and Hector together and the two are forced to survive in the “Bush” of New Zealand with only their wits to protect them (well, wits and a pair of dogs and rifles).
The ensuing adventure is one of the funniest and enjoyable romps through the forest in film history. Dennison absolutely nails several physical gags, and his nearly constant wannabe-gangster façade leads to some downright hilarious moments in the Bush. The pair meets an eccentric cast of characters during their trek, each completely memorable and valuable to the story. Most notable is a brief appearance by New Zealand national treasure, Rhys Darby, as “Psycho Sam,” an anti-establishment nutter living in the middle of the Bush. But even the hysterical antics of Darby in these scenes can’t distract from the real heart of the film, though – the relationship between Ricky and Hector. They are truly one of the most enjoyable on-screen pairs in quite some time. The movie’s biggest weakness is the antagonist. Rachel House’s Trunchbull-esque portrayal of a New Zealand Child Protective Services agent is wonderfully despicable, and gives the audience a great villain to hate. The problem, however, is that the character’s gross incompetence borders on absurdity to the point of occasionally distracting from the otherwise believable narrative. It’s not enough to really hurt the film, but it did cause an occasional palm-to-face moment.Without even considering the incredible vistas of the New Zealand Bush, the tight narrative pacing, or the moments made very funny by excellent cinematography, Wilderpeople is an excellent movie based solely on the merits of the physical and emotional journey taken by Ricky and Hector. It does, however, have beautiful vistas, a tight plot, and hilarious cinematography, which elevates Wilderpeople to one of the best films of the year. Between last year’s What We Do in the Shadows and Wilderpeople, director Taika Waititi is well on his way to proving himself as one of the best comedic directors out there. I, for one, can’t wait to see what’s next for those Kiwis.
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-Patrick B. Mcdonald