New Zealand’s Taika Waititi is in the midst of a major career transition, from the low budget likes of Eagle vs Shark and What We Do in the Shadows to next year’s massive Marvel epic Thor: Ragnarok. It’s no surprise then that there’s renewed attention on his latest release, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, in the hopes that it might offer hints as to what to expect from his first major tentpole — and despite boasting a budget a fraction of Thor’s and a distinct lack of demi-gods, it actually rather does.
Julian Dennison is Ricky, a young orphan and delinquent who’s been working his way through foster homes until he’s brought to the countryside home of farmers Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and Hector (Sam Neill). Bella is all hugs and love (and occasional pig slaughter, but then she is a farmer), but Hector is a bit more on the gruff side of life — when Ricky asks for something to do, “Leave me alone” is the almost inevitable reply.
When circumstances drive Ricky to run away from the farm, deep into the New Zealand bush (don’t worry, the film makes the joke so that I don’t have to), it’s left to Hector to track him down. As things spiral out of control, the two of them are left traversing the wilderness together for months, eventually realising along the way that maybe they’re not so different after all.
That may all sound pretty rote, but Waititi finds the space to make the clichés his own. Much of that comes down to Dennison as Ricky, who brings charming, immature bravado to the part. Whether he’s naming his dog Tupac (“he’s a really cool rapper and he’s like my best friend”) or silently dancing to a walkman made out of dirt and vines, his Ricky is both indignant and endearing, both utterly ridiculous and strangely grounded.
Sam Neill does less novel work with Hector, but does provide a lot of the film’s reluctant heart. Meanwhile Rhys Darby makes an unforgettable cameo as the bush-dwelling Psycho Sam, reeling off conspiracy theories through a manic grin, and Rachel House dominates her every scene as Child Services officer Paula. “No child left behind,” she recites like a mantra as she compares herself to the Terminator or reels off a list of Ricky’s wrongdoing (“spitting, running away, kicking stuff”).
Waititi’s earlier films veered between the achingly twee (Eagle vs Shark) and the seriously witty (What We Do in the Shadows), but all have been seriously uneven, unable to strike the balance between their heart and their humour, or to maintain it throughout their running time. On that measure, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is his best yet, suffering none of his previous films’ troughs in interest. Across the film’s ten chapters he finds a way to keep things heartfelt without giving up any of the wit, effortlessly segueing between the film’s saddest moments and its funniest, allowing each to complement the other rather than undermine them.
It’s that deft balance — not to mention a fantastic, thrillingly shot chase sequence late in the film — that offers renewed hope for the third Thor outing, a franchise in need of a triumph after the lacklustre Thor: The Dark World. If Waititi can find a way to work with Marvel to deliver a film a fraction as warm, witty, and relentlessly entertaining as this, then the Norse gods’ fans have little to fear.
Words by Dominic Preston