Review: 'Hunt For The Wilderpeople'

Kiwi filmmaker Taika Waititi returns with hilarious, all-ages
romp through Nee Zealand jungle
CALL OF THE WILD: A bit like 'Moonrise Kingdom'-only set in New Zealand and with Michael Bay-esque chase sequences-the Sam Neill-starring 'Hunt for the Wilderpeople' is heartfelt and delightful.

A joke that you can tell anyone—that's rare. So is a movie that can be recommended with pleasure to anyone, of any age. In Hunt for the Wilderpeople by Taika Waititi, lush landscapes of the rainforest of New Zealand counter a sense of humor so toast-dry that it makes the British Ealing comedies of the 1950s seem overripe.

Co-star Sam Neill is both touching and funny—Oscar-worthy, if you like—as an old, illiterate tramp-turned-farmer. He's called Hec Faulkner. It's short for Hector, and the Faulkner part fits as well, particularly per William Faulkner's The Reivers. This noble, never-vainglorious actor conveys the irresistible movie appeal of a solitary elder forced into the role of uncle against his will.

Young Ricky (Julian Dennison) is brought to a remote, shabby farm—a foster kid dropped off by our villainess, Paula (Rachel House), a massive, squinty-eyed social worker who calls her charge "a bad egg" for committing crimes such as spitting off a freeway overpass. Bella (Rima Te Wiata), the lady of the house, examines plump Ricky: "You hungry? Silly question. Look at ya." As for her husband Hec, he barely tolerates the kid. Bella isn't mean, just blunt—she later shows her goodhearted side, handling the boy's desire to run away with the tact and gentleness of a born mother.

When we lose Bella—an event Waititi handles with taste and distance—the child welfare people want the boy back in custody. Hec is determined not to let Ricky return to an institution. So, he and the boy are off to the woods, and the police sound the Kiwi equivalent of an Amber Alert. Having little to go on, the news reporters vamp a bit with features titled "Inside the Mind of a Fugitive." Some of the newsmen produce think-pieces. One solemn reporter says: "I am reminded of [Rambo:] First Blood ...."

And Paula sees herself as the force of justice: "No child left behind," she intones, as if she were reciting the Mounties' motto "We always get our man." When she gets within shouting distance of her quarry, she warns him: "You're playing with a bag of snakes, boy. A big bag, with a bunch of holes in it."

The film is similar to Moonrise Kingdom, only tarter and warmer. Waititi played a wistful, genteel vampire in his previous film We Who Live in the Shadows. The dainty creature spread newspapers on his floor before biting a victim, to soak up the bloody mess. He has a real skill for matching the morbid with the merry.

For himself, Waititi reserves the part of a pastor officiating a funeral where six backwoods mourners have gathered; he envisions heaven as a celestial snack machine with "a bounty of delicious confections." The service wraps up with a feeble Casio keyboard rendition of "The Old Rugged Cross." The sense of mortality gathers like shadows, as we head toward the customary dangerous ending of a movie about fugitives.

Incidentally, a person I knew in college—who I was certain was going to succeed in business—ended up emigrating to New Zealand, in a desperate attempt to avoid the masterminds behind the "inside job" that was 9/11, and the chemtrails and so forth. I'd laugh at him, the way you can laugh at Wilderpeople's resident crackpot, Psycho Sam (Rhys Darby), hiding from the government in a squalid trailer, way out in the bush.

Should I laugh? This old friend is now living in the single most fireproof spot on our inflammable globe. One of Waititi's knacks is contrasting this damp, ferny world of small reactions and big skies, with fantasies of American action movies and gangsta rap. The film is amused with the ease by which such different characters as Paula, Ricky, and the TV reporters suck up these violent fictions of our far-away country.

Neill's gift as an actor is that he's not troubled with these legends of busted caps and dogged cops—he's a man of few words, unflappable as a true Western hero, with an eye planted firmly on the horizon.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople
PG-13; 101 Mins.
Camera 3

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