Hunt For the Wilderpeople is among the best movies that 2016 has to offer. It has heart and humor blended with a tonal balance that many directors can only dream of – often managing to be cartoonishly silly and deeply serious in the same breath. It also may star one of the most lovable odd couples ever committed to film – Ricky Baker and Hector “Hec” Faulkner.
Julian Dennison is a revelation of charm as Ricky – foster child and gangsta aficionado. He boasts the same rough-around-the-edges earnestness that made the kids of Stranger Things so wonderful to watch. In a perfect world, he would join that show for its second season. Sam Neill’s Hec is a beautiful contradiction of a man. I’d say this is the best role Sam Neill has had since Jurassic Park, but to be honest I haven’t seen anything he’s done since Jurassic Park III (which I’m pretty sure was only made because the guys in marketing thought it would be cool to have a claw slash for the “III”). Similar to Up‘s Carl Fredricksen, Hec is both deeply closed off to the point of being horrible and deeply affected by his love for his wife. Rima Te Wiata plays Bella, Hec’s ebullient better half. Between this and her role in the horror-comedy Housebound, she’s quickly becoming my favorite movie mom. Bella’s certainly got a sassy side, popping out zingers about Ricky’s weight within moments of taking him into her care. Despite this, she does something quite beautiful – she proves that sometimes all it takes to bring out the best in people is to treat them as if they have the best to offer.
This may all sound a bit saccharine, but Wilderpeople balances it out deftly with the harsh realities of life. It balances those out with humor that pokes fun of its characters, falling short of mean-spirited due to how utterly lovable they are. It’s like the perfect culinary blend of sweet, bitter, and savory.
It also doesn’t hurt that the film is utterly gorgeous. The opening sequence alone shows a precision of craft that is often forgone in comedies. Filmed deep in the New Zealand bush, Wilderpeople frequently manages to be just as pretty as The Lord of the Rings. Shockingly, director Taika Waititi has found some breathtaking environments on the island that were entirely unexplored in those six oversized films. Who knew Zealand still had some tricks up her sleeve?
Waititi is fast showing the kind of comic genius that put Edgar Wright atop my list of favorite directors. Far from simply “pointing the camera at funny people,” Waititi blocks and edits scenes for maximum impact. Just look at the mise en scène of the above shot. Despite having his back to the open wild, Ricky is trapped within the edge of the frame by a looney old lady. The only space he has access to is the front door of her crappy shack of a house. It’s beautiful, plays up how trapped he feels at the start of the film, and somehow makes the moment even funnier.
If there’s anywhere that Wilderpeople falters a bit, it’s in its pacing. Despite its enchanting… everything – during its 141-minute running time, you may stop a few times to wonder what it’s all leading to. The comedy, action, and drama all tend to ramp up suddenly, and then quiet just as quickly. Parts of this have to do with the footage available. There are a few moments when it feels like a gradual build-up and relief might have been possible with a bigger budget for reshoots. (Then again, the on-the-cusp-of-puberty Dennison looks different enough by the end of the film that, continuity-wise, this might not have been doable.)
That said, the larger culprit at play is simply the film’s premise. Ricky and Hec are on the run from authorities, and they don’t want to be caught. While the dramatic heart of the film revolves around the relationship the two develop during their journey, it’s nearly impossible for Waititi to slowly ramp up tension when the impetus is on the antagonists to find our heroes. While I would never suggest that Waititi chose the wrong plot, he certainly had his work cut out for him keeping agency in the hands of his protagonists, and he occasionally falters.
All said, the film’s occasional pacing issues are perhaps the only criticism I can muster in the face of such beauty, humor, and thematic relevance. While trying to place its closest analog, I realized that it was Pixar’s Up, my second favorite film of all time. If that doesn’t sell Hunt for the Wilderpeople as a Must See film, I don’t know what will. If you’re not fortunate enough to be in one of the few cities this limited release is playing in, make sure you remember to earmark it for a screening as soon as it hits home video.