'Hunt for the Wilderpeople': Sundance Review

An old-fashioned good time at the movies.

Taika Waititi's adaptation of Barry Crump's 'Wild Pork and Watercress' stars Sam Neill and Julian Dennison.

A hard-to-handle foster kid from the big city and a grouchy bushman in his sixties are forced to forge an unlikely alliance to survive in the New Zealand wilderness in Hunt for the Wilderpeople, a deliciously good time at the movies. An adaptation of Wild Pork and Watercress from the late and legendary New Zealand outdoorsman and novelist Barry Crumb, this familiar but perfectly balanced blend of drama and comedy, action and heart was directed by actor-director Taika Waititi, known for his work on projects such as the vampire mockumentary What We Do In the Shadows and also the director of the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok.

Based on the evidence here, that hire was a brilliant move on Marvel’s part, as Waititi is fully in command of Wilderpeople, his biggest and most ambitious film to date. With Kiwi legend Sam Neill and impressive local up-and-comer Julian Dennison (Shopping, Paper Planes) headlining the proceedings, this should again do solid business at home — where Waititi’s 2010 feature Boy remains the highest-grossing local film of all time — while also exciting distributors further afield.

The film kicks off with the delivery of rotund and taciturn 13-year-old Ricky Baker (Dennison) at a dilapidated cottage in the middle of the New Zealand bush. As explained by a barking employee of Child Welfare, Paula (Rachel House), Ricky, who has changed homes frequently, has a history of getting into trouble. However, his new adoptive mother, Bella (Rima Te Wiata), isn’t concerned in the slightest, not even after he’s run away during his first night in his new home, telling him to come back in for breakfast before continuing his escape.

Waititi is most famous internationally for his comedic work — which besides Shadows also includes work on Flight of the Concords ­— and his nimble adaptation here combines solid writing with an entire bag of filmmaking tricks that includes visual gags, unexpected cuts and quick montage sequences to score laughs from the get-go. He also cleverly exploits who these people are to get the audience in stitches.

In all films except for childish comedies, it would considered bad taste to make jokes about the fact Ricky’s overweight, for example. Here, they are placed in the mouth of the no-nonsense yet big-hearted countrywoman Bella, and it’s hard not to crack up and be touched at the same time, since they come across as terms of endearment from someone with a tough-as-nails, tell-it-like-it-is worldview. (Te Wiata’s carefully calibrated performance has a lot to do with finding the right tone as well.) Similarly, Ricky’s incongruous interest in haikus to express his feelings, which he seems to have picked up from one of the no-doubt countless shrinks he’s been forced to see in his recent past, is used simultaneously as a source of humor and character information, with a few of them neatly (if also somewhat predictably) woven into the film’s final stretch.

The bulk of the story takes place after Bella’s suddenly exits the picture and Ricky is forced to escape into the bush with Bella’s partner, the scruffy curmudgeon Hector or Hec (Neill). As in all mismatched buddy stories, the sixtysomething doesn’t like his 13-year-old new charge very much, though the kid insists they escape into the bush together, since otherwise he’ll be forced to go to juvie.  

Indeed, the two are polar opposites in more ways than one: Apart from the differences in age and experience, Ricky is a city slicker while Hec is a real outdoors expert, as the costumes (by Kristin Seth) also keep reminding us, with the boy’s new and colorful hoodie, baseball jacket and cap standing in stark contrast to Hec’s much more practical, camouflage-colored and lived-in gear. Hec’s experience in this field will allow them to survive for months in the country’s virginal forests, while they hide from the increasingly large man- and childhunt led by Paula, the local police and, eventually, the military. Even when Hector fractures his foot and can’t walk properly for several weeks, they manage to survive because he instructs Ricky in the ways of the bush. This leads to quite a few comic setpieces as the boy, who’s appalled at the idea of having to survive without toilet paper, tries to get the hang of how to live in the forest.   

The Hunt for the Wilderpeople — the title comes from Ricky likening the duo to wildebeests, known for their long treks — is divided into novelistic chapters with titles such as “The Bad Egg,” or “Broken Foot Camp”. They not only help recall the film’s source material but also help to further infuse their journey with something epic, as it suggests many other chapters were left out for this condensed version of events. Along the way, Waititi alternates moments of action, including some ferocious wild pig action (courtesy of The Lord of the Rings’ FX company Weta); countless moments of humor (a highlight is their stay with the off-the-grid-living Psycho Sam, played by Rhys Darby) and also touching moments of drama, including a nighttime conversation in a bunk bed that’s played just right, staying miles away from syrupy sentiment even as the two men allow themselves to shed some light on their feelings.  

A chapter called “War” was no-doubt something Marvel looked at before handing Waititi the reins of their Thor franchise, and he handles the large-scale action sequences here with aplomb, always respecting spatial coherence while making sure the proceedings also contain a certain wow-factor. But finally, what makes Wilderpeople memorable is how attached audiences become to the characters, and as played by  Dennison and Neill, they are two fully realized, full of flaws but nonetheless oh-so loveable human beings.  

Production companies: Defender Films, Piki Films, Curious

Cast: Sam Neill, Julian Dennison, Rima Te Wiata, Rachel House, Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne, Oscar Kightley, Cohen Holloway, Stan Walker, Mike Minogue, Rhys Darby

Director: Taika Waititi

Screenplay: Taika Waititi, based on Barry Crump’s Wild Pork and Watercress

Producers: Carthew Neal, Leanne Saunders, Taika Waititi, Matt Noonan

Executive producers: James Wallace, Charlie McClellan

Director of photography: Lachlan Milne

Production designer: Neville Stevenson

Costume designer: Kristin Seth

Editors: Luke Haigh, Tom Eagles, Yana Gorskaya

Music: Lukasz Buda, Samuel Scott, Conrad Wedde

Casting: Stuart Turner

Sales: Protagonist Pictures

No rating, 101 minutes