It took the theater three attempts to get our screening started properly, but it was well worth the wait. "Hunt for the Wilderpeople", written and directed by Taika Waititi, is a truly delightful and often laugh-out-loud adventure set against the gorgeous backdrop of New Zealand's breathtaking vistas.
Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison --- an unlikely star when we first meet him) is a troubled city kid, with a long list of past misdeeds. His social worker, Paula (Rachel House) delivers him, with the help of police officer Andy (Oscar Kightley), to a farm out in the country where he is taken in by a jubilant Aunt Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and a reluctant Uncle Hec (Sam Neill).
Ricky has no intention of remaining in Bella and Hec's care, but after a few attempts at running away --- and all of Bella's warm attention --- not to mention a new dog just for him, Ricky becomes part of the family. A tragic turn causes Ricky to really leave his new home, with Hec close behind. But when the two are discovered missing, Paula immediately suspects the worst about Hec, and a nationwide manhunt ensues to find the delinquent duo.
As I stated, Dennison is not your typical star. He's rather overweight and initially seems to lack the certain charisma necessary in a leading character. But this young actor actually possesses infinite charm, and we, the audience, cannot help but fall in love with him.
Based on the book "Wild Pork and Watercress" by Barry Crump, "Hunt for the Wilderpeople" boasts a whip-smart screenplay and superb acting. I've already established Dennison's worth, and combining his talents with both Te Wiata and Neill produces a film which is terrifically poignant and hugely entertaining.
The majority of "Hunt for the Wilderpeople" centers around Ricky and Hec's ability to remain on the run from authorities, and their growing bond. Hec, who initially wants no part of Ricky or his shenanigans, manages to teach Ricky how to survive in the wilderness. Ricky takes it upon himself to learn from Hec --- and also to teach Hec a thing or two, like reading. It's a beautiful and moving "buddy" story --- full of hilarity.
Neill, a favorite actor of mine --- and so handsome opposite Nicole Kidman in "Dead Calm" (1989) --- has grown into a craggy, but still nice looking thespian, well suited to play Hec. Neill infuses Hec with just the right amount of impatience, patience and empathy. It's really a wonderful performance and I absolutely love him and Dennison together.
In a summer with a scarcity of decent films that aren't animated, "Hunt for the Wilderpeople" is a welcome, much-needed respite from all of the blockbuster nonsense. The cinematography by Lachlan Milne is worth the price of admission alone. And the fabulous soundtrack by Lukasz Buda, Samuel Scott and Conrad Wedde just adds that much more to this exceptional movie experience! I cannot recommend "Hunt for the Wilderpeople" enough!
Opinion: Strong See It Now!
You would think a film about a 60-something man and a 12-year-old boy hiding from police in the wilds of New Zealand could only be a drama. But "Hunt for the Wilderpeople" is a surprisingly effective comedy.
New Zealand director Taika Waititi said he believes in showing moviegoers what they want to see, and his attention to detail affirms that belief. His screenplay, based on a book by late author Barry Crump, is full of funny moments. But without exceptional performances from Sam Neill and Julian Dennison, "Hunt for the Wilderpeople" would likely devolve into an outlandish situational comedy-wannabe.
Dennison, in particular, the actor portraying the chubby, unwanted, smart-aleck Ricky who has been moved from one foster home to another, had to come off as a likeable character, or the movie would have failed. But Dennison is terrific, and he takes little time earning Ricky the audience's admiration. Given Ricky's reputation for causing havoc wherever he's been, some skeptics might take the position that he couldn't possibly change his demeanor so quickly.
But credit should go to his foster aunt, Bella (Rima Te Wiata) who welcomes him with open arms and doesn't hesitate to shower him with her own personal brand of love and affection. Later, Neill's character Hec, the foster uncle, takes time to warm up to the lad, but like peeling layers off an onion, their relationship grows exponentially.
It helps to share the common experience of being holed up in the woods of New Zealand, eluding police searches for months even as Hec is loosely being regarded as a kidnapper and child molester. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth, as the duo helps each other to find their true selves.
Ricky's social worker, Paula, is the main thorn in Hec and Ricky's sides. She is played by Rachel House, who could have been over-the-top in her role, but dials it down just enough to be credible.
Waititi was actually nominated for an Oscar in 2005 for Best Short Film ("Two Cars, One Night"), and in this film he orchestrates how real people interact. "Hunt for the Wilderpeople" could be a surprise hit. Hopefully it will find its audience, which in truth should be anyone who appreciates a really good movie.
Opinion: See It Now!