What We Do in the Woods: Hunt for the Wilderpeople

hunt for the wilderpeople

Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Directed by Taika Waititi
Opens June 24

Blessed be New Zealand. While other countries flock to the mega-movies that even American audiences won’t go for, they go ahead and set box office records with Hunt for the Wilderpeople, a sweet adventure comedy from Taika Waititi, the director of the vampire spoof What We Do in the Shadows. This film’s primary outcast doesn’t drink blood; he’s a foster kid called Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) placed with welcoming Bella (Rima Te Wiata), who immediately composes a ditty about his arrival into a new family, and grumpy Hec (Sam Neill), who would prefer not to sing along. Round, initially taciturn, and accompanied by a bad reputation (that includes “kicking stuff” and “spitting”), Ricky Baker considers running away from this domestic bliss, but begins to enjoy life on the farm.

Then he runs away anyway; a series of dire circumstances lead Ricky and Hec into the bush, pursued by an overzealous child services rep (Rachel House) and eventually the media, who mistakenly believe Hec has abducted Ricky. Waititi’s style recalls Wes Anderson, especially when he uses carefully arranged static shots and equally fastidious quick cuts, with a few wrinkles of its own: His version of the circular pan, for example, overlaps the action, so characters re-appear further along into a continuous shot. More specifically, his story recalls the wilderness adventure of Moonrise Kingdom: orphans, dogs, child services, sometimes-pitiless fates.

The losses aren’t as fully felt as in Anderson picture; Waititi’s version sometimes gets a little maudlin. It also whisks past an unnecessary amount of time passage (I’m still not sure how or why Ricky and Hec need to be in the bush for almost half a year), despite managing to go on a little long at only 100 minutes. But Wilderpeople is fully redeemed by its sense of humor, both deadpan (Hec: “Ever worked on a farm before, or are you just ornamental?”) and broad (Ricky Baker’s fumbling survival skills; Rhys Darby’s late-movie appearance as an isolated wacko), well-delivered through the strong performances of Neill and especially young Dennison. The movie’s warmth and laughs can’t be faked.

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