Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)

Directed by Taika Waititi

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Hunt for the Wilderpeople has the energy of an animated film.  The paternal bond between a crusty old curmudgeon and a doughy, talkative young boy strongly resembles Pixar’s Up (2009).  Beyond that Taika Waititi’s sense of humor is extremely playful and innocent.  It feels straight from the imagination of a 13 year old which makes sense considering so much of the plot is driven by a 13 year old.

Waititi’s characters banter in a way that’s hard to pin down.  It’s often somewhat improvised (even on his latest movie, Marvel’s Thor: Ragnarok), and the characters clash in a light-hearted way, like kids in a schoolyard fighting over their favorite member of the X-men.  In Wilderpeople there’s even a scene in which young Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) bickers with the antagonist, a surly Child Welfare Services employee, about which of them more resembles the Terminator.

Even the adults, and in some ways particularly the adults, of Wilderpeople act like children.  This is a film that touches on a few heavy emotions and involves gunshots, car chases, the implication of pedophilia, etc. and yet it feels like it’s all just a game.  Again, that’s mostly driven by Ricky’s perspective.

Working with some meta humor, Ricky aspires to be like his action-star/rap heroes, and the movie’s climactic sequence reflects this dream of his.  It’s not unlike the childlike aspirations of Nick Frost’s action-movie idolizing character in 2007’s Hot Fuzz.  The movie finds humor in a character’s sense of imagination and then pays this off by putting them in that situation they’ve dreamed for.

In this way the movie plays with genre conventions, demonstrating a self-awareness that could easily betray the emotional core of the story.  But Wilderpeople doesn’t.

Waititi’s movie maintains a certain quirky, amusing charm while slowly building upon the friendship between Ricky and his reluctant Uncle Hec (Sam Neill).  It’s really just a buddy cop/road trip hybrid, finding a lot to play with in the dramatically different perspectives held by this old man and this young kid.  Hec is a wanderer, preferring to spend his days alone in the forrest, and Ricky is a city kid who has ambitionz like a ridah (well “as” a ridah, it’s a Tupac reference).

They’re an odd couple pairing.  Ricky is brought to his new home, an isolated cabin of sorts out in the forrest.  The woman who joyfully adopts him is Bella (Rima Te Wiata), and Hec just sort of hangs around the edge, wanting nothing to do with Ricky.

At first eager to escape, Ricky slowly warms to Bella who understands the boy and indulges in his sense of fantasy.  When everything seems like it’s finally settled in, she dies, and that leaves the man and the boy alone together.

Ricky, now having embraced this location and his new dog Tupac, doesn’t want to go back to Child Welfare Services so he runs away.  Hec goes to find him, but when Ricky mocks Hec’s illiteracy, the old man trips and fractures his ankle.  They campout for a few weeks while he heals, and in that time their unexplained absence is interpreted as a kidnapping, and they’re both on the run.

They discover their outlaw status (much to Hec’s chagrin and Ricky’s delight) when they stumble upon an empty ranger’s station.  There they come to blows with three hunters who assume Hec must be a pedophile, though this assumption doesn’t give them any sympathy for young Ricky.  Instead they behave towards each of our heroes with the same antipathy, as if the outlaw label applies equally to them both and is a personal affront to these men.

After the brief altercation, our heroes go back on the run, now doubling down on their escape.  They continue to run through the forrest, enjoying their time as they do so, and our antagonist, the Child Welfare Services’ employee, Paula closes in.  She keeps repeating the phrase, “no child left behind” with more menace, and the film indulges in the villainy of her character.

Whereas Paula might realistically be more concerned about Ricky’s wellbeing, here she is just the bad guy, reflecting Ricky’s own perspective.  In Hunt for the Wilderpeople he sees himself and Hec as the lovable outlaws and everyone else as the bad guy.  So this means that the hunters, Paula and the large show of force (SWAT officers) brought out to combat Ricky and Hec is more a product of his imagination than it is reality.  Waititi’s ability to empathize with this childlike sense of the world is the film’s greatest strength.  He embraces wonder, and that kind of joy permeates every scene of the film.

Eventually this run from the law leads to a few more memorable side characters but ultimately a car chase reminiscent of every 80s action movie.  When Ricky crashes the car and gets angry with Hec for giving up, the hunt ends.  Ricky is taken to live with a new family, a boyish man and his daughter whom we meet in a brief scene, and Hec is sent to prison and later a halfway home where he learns to read.

In the epilogue Ricky and Hec meet once more and make amends.  Then they decide to go back out in the wilderness, now in search of a rare bird they briefly glimpsed earlier in the film.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople is just a delightful movie.  It’s family-friendly despite a not insignificant amount of violence (several pigs are slaughtered, for example).  It’s a fun and entertaining movie because of the characters’ own joy.  Like in an animated film, the movie offers some kind of visual spectacle (both in terms of location and shooting/editing style), but the biggest strength is our empathy for the main characters, their innocence being the major charm.

So, I think Hunt for the Wilderpeople feels like an animated children’s film because these are characters kids can relate to.  Beyond just Ricky, the other adults have childlike characteristics, for better or worse.  Hec can’t read (a deliberate attempt to put him on Ricky’s level), Bella is a mother figure (all warmth and joy), and Paula is nothing more than a schoolyard bully.  These all feel like people a child would be familiar with.  You have the warmth of a loving home, the danger and allure of the wild (kids like to dream about running away, right?), you have the bullies, and you have the best friend, Hec.

Even the first sequence of the film, building up the relationship between Ricky and Bella, works in the same away as the first sequence of Up, establishing the life shared by the old man and his wife.  Both sequences bring the characters together and focus on their shared joy in each other’s company before ending with the death of one of the two.  It’s a heartbreaking moment which then establishes the new normal for the characters to adjust to.  In each film, the characters go on a wild adventure far from home, and you know the rest.  It’s an adventure film, and it’s pretty great.

Up Next: Downsizing (2017), I, Tonya (2017), The Congress (2013)

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