Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016): ‘Up’ Meets ‘The Fugitive’ (Review)

Adapted from Barry Crump’s 1997 book “Wild Pork and Watercress” by Taika Waititi (Boy, Green Lantern), who not only wrote the screenplay but directed the feature as well, The Hunt of the Wilderpeople is a funny and touching “buddy film” between two generations and races. The film is, in essence, Disney’s  Up meets The Fugitive, meets Thelma and Louise and is quite easily the best film of 2016.

Ricki (Julian Dennison) is a 12 year old Maori boy who has been shuffled from foster home to foster home. Finally, he is sent to live with Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and her husband Hec (Sam Neill). His new home is right near the Bush and it seems, at long last, that Ricki has found his place in life.

Unfortunately fate has other plans as Bella dies right after Ricki’s 13th birthday. Ricki wants to stay with the curmudgeonly, and illiterate, Hec but Child Services agent Paula (Rachel House) is determined to find the young juvenile delinquent a new home.

Hec and Ricki go on the run. The unlikely duo lead the police on a merry chase through the New Zealand bush and the film follows their adventures and their bonding process.

The Hunt for the Wilderpeople is, quite simply, the best film to come out of 2016. Sadly, as it is a “foreign film” it cannot compete for the category of Best Movie when the Oscars roll around. Regardless of this fact, the film should pull in best film in the World Cinema category.

At first glance, Waititi, who has a cameo role as the minister, has given us a splendid buddy film where two similar but different characters learn from one another as they flee the authorities. Delving deeper, however, reveals a coming of age film as well.

In the film, Ricki is not the only person who grows,  his “uncle” Hec also changes from a monosyllabic grumpy loner to a caring parent to a boy who has, until now, identified more with the “gangster” life than that of a “normal” child.

Not having read the book that the film is based upon, it is not clear whether the elements from the Disney film are there or not.  There are direct correlations between the two movies though.

Hec, taking the part of Carl Fredericksen, is lumbered with Ricki, who is the Russell in this scenario. Hec loses his wife, like Carl, and he too is reluctant, initially, to travel with Ricki (Russell.)

There is a rare bird in both films, although in Waititi’s film the creature is not a form of comic relief, and the two males bond through their experiences out in the bush (jungle).

While there are many parallels between the two films, Waititi, or Crump, have also interwoven the Child Services Agency official Paula;  a comic Samuel Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones), into this tale. 

Despite her cry of “No child left behind,” Paula really seems to have it in for Ricki, who she describes as a delinquent. Every time the official talks about the Maori boy she references his crimes and not his many foster home moves.

The chase scenes in the film almost seem to be a nod to the climatic end of Thelma and Louise but the last minute dodge by Ricki, who drives the get away vehicle could be lifted from Kim Jee-Woon’s 2009  The Good, The Bad, The Weird.

Waititi makes the most of his material and gives us, as well as the nods and winks to other films, a nigh on perfect film.  It is comedy with a touch of pathos and at least two scenes where tissues are required to stem the unexpected flow of tears. Ricki’s constant quest for toilet paper is very funny.

The director also manages to produce more laughs per square inch of film than any other movie on offer in 2016.

Neill and Dennison have a brilliant onscreen chemistry and together they are beyond brilliant. House is spot on as the OTT officer who chases the two men across the country. Te Wiata is excellent as the loving and slightly eccentric Bella and the whole cast bring something to the table in this New Zealand offering.

The scenery is breathtaking, as it would be, this is, after all, where The Lord of the Rings was filmed. (One comic moment has Ricki alluding to the film.) Cinematographer Lachlan Milne makes every frame count.

The Hunt for the Wilderpeople has a message that equates to love being the answer to helping kids on the wrong path to get straight. Whether this is true or not, it should be, and by the end of the film, we believe it.

This is a full 5 star film.  It may sound somewhat trite and be a bit of a cliche, but  Hunt for the Wilderpeople hits every single mark. It will make you laugh, think and cry.

Taika Waititi has given us an example of New Zealand cinema at its finest, do not miss this one.

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Author: Michael Knox-Smith

World traveler, writer, actor, journalist. Cinephile who reviews films, television, books and interviews professionals in the industry. Member Nevada Film Critics Society

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