By all accounts, New Zealand director Taika Waititi seems to be a very pleasant individual who, in turn, makes very pleasant movies. Waititi continues to ride that wave of pleasantry with “Hunt For The Wilderpeople,” a perfectly amicable dramedy that makes a concerted effort to avoid offending or provoking. And by extension of the film’s unending niceness, Waititi has made a movie mired in the middle-ground, a terrain marred by the absence of innovation.
That same lack of ingenuity can’t be said for Ricky (Julian Dennison), though, a precocious foster care child who is relocated to the home of Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and Hec (Sam Neill). Dubbed a delinquent by a child-services worker (Rachel House), Ricky quickly proves to be nothing but a little misguided. With an affinity for both Tupac and Twinkies, it doesn’t take long for Bella to warm up to Ricky’s eccentricities. However, when a tragedy strikes that threatens to ship Ricky to another home, the pudgy, funny child and Hec, a laconic curmudgeon, embark on an adventure in the New Zealand wilderness.
Resistant to Ricky’s affection, Hec is initially apprehensive about “running in the bushes” with a kid he neither fostered nor understands. Together as they traverse across the uninviting bushland, a tender relationship blossoms. The development of this familial connection occurs while a national manhunt unfolds in search of Ricky. Spearheaded by House’s character from child-services, droves of people are on the prowl for little Ricky, who they believe to have been kidnapped by Hec. Mass confusion consumes New Zealand’s citizenry and police force, all of whom are oddly (almost comically) invested in returning Ricky to society.
Based on the book by the late, prolific New Zealand author Barry Crump, Waititi keeps this part road comedy, part coming-of-age drama alive through laughter. Ricky is the movie’s ace in the hole. Whenever Waititi’s script falters dramatically, Dennison is there to inject an uproarious one-liner. No matter how dire the predicament he and Hec face, Ricky can’t avoid excavating humor from the situation.
This is a character we’ve seen in the movie before: a self-aware preteen who uses his intelligence for self-deprecation and sarcasm. Ricky’s comedic toolbox is well-stocked with gadgets that allow him to deflect and divert. Anything to avoid feeling the pain his family, or lack thereof, has caused. Despondency is not an option, so he tells jokes. But Ricky isn’t mean to himself. Outspoken and honest, he loves himself for who he is and what he will be one day, given the opportunity,
To enliven the proceedings, Waititi takes a few pages out of the Wes Anderson visual playbook. There are some clever employments of zooming, quick cutting, and spatial symmetry that come across as homages to “The Royal Tenenbaums” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” The emulation eventually devolves into imitation, though. In the milieus of Anderson, there’re a deluge of the fantastical. His eloquent characters spit out poetic lines of dialogue that in reality can only be written, not spoken. This passes in Anderson’s confections because his intoxicating whimsy is consistent, ceaseless. Waititi waffles back and forth between the gritty wilderness, where a menacing boar attacks Hec, and cheeky tête–à–têtes between Ricky and seemingly every human being.
The character played by Ms. House, for example, exists in a different movie. Her unbridled lunacy is always entertaining, but within the context of the story feels out of place. Why does she continue to hoot and holler uncontrollably as she chases down Ricky? Why does she have to undercut the movie’s playfulness with outlandishness? After about thirty minutes, she no longer is an angered child-services worker dedicated to making a better life for Ricky. She’s a spineless villain, whose malevolent motives come out of left field.
On the whole, though, “Hunt For The Wilderpeople” knows what it is and does it well. Waititi, who’s been picked out by Marvel to direct “Thor: Ragnarok” this year, knows how to construct a tight movie with joyful, warm three-dimensional characters. It’s to be determined whether his talents extend beyond the indie quotidian, which is where the movie resides. It’s conventionally unconventional in the way mainstream arthouse fare — often distributed by studios like Fox Searchlight — typically are. No one is going to loathe this movie. It’s just unlikely anyone will love it, either. [B]
This is a reprint of our review by Sam Fragoso from the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. “Hunt For The Wilderpeople” hits theaters today.