Hunt for the Wilderpeople ***

A unique mixture of genres yields a crowd-pleasing adventure film.

Is it worth $10? Yes

“Hunt for the Wilderpeople” is an odd movie. That’s not a dismissal, just an observation. It’s a strange amalgamation of genres and tones that mixes high drama with deadpan humor and adventure with a dose of unexpected action. That by itself makes the movie stand out, especially as it’s released in the middle of the summer movie season, which tends to favor safe movies with their edges shorn down in order to appeal to the masses. “Wilderpeople’s” edges stick out, and sometimes precipitously, but for the most part it mixes its genres well and presents a good story, well told. What else could you ask for?

Twelve year-old Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) is an abandoned, rebellious child from the city who fancies himself a “gangster.” Shifted from one home to another, he ends up at a farm on the outskirts of New Zealand’s bush (jungle/rainforest) where he’s been adopted by the warm Aunt Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and the gruff Uncle Hec (Sam Neill). With Bella’s kind but firm guidance, Ricky begins to acclimate to life on a farm. Sadly, tragedy strikes and Ricky has to go back to the city. He runs off into the jungle instead with Uncle Hec in hot pursuit. Looking as though Hec has kidnapped Ricky, a manhunt ensues and an adventure begins for Ricky and Hec.

The film has much to recommend. On the technical side, the cinematography, which beautifully captures the terrain and wildlife that New Zealand has to offer, is simply breathtaking. If all you’re looking for is a film with pastoral beauty, this one fits that bill nicely.

I suspect that any production filmed in bucolic New Zealand is going to be beautiful, so what really stands out in “Hunt” is the attention to character in both the writing (the film was written by its director, Taika Waititi) and the acting. A know it all child, who actually knows little, and a gruff, temperamental old man could easily become very grating, very quickly. Waititi shows restraint and doesn’t overdo their more annoying sides, and Julian Dennison and Sam Neill mirror that restraint in their respective performances, finding the likable core of their characters without sacrificing their less wholesome qualities. By the end of the film, I really cared about these three-dimensional characters, and that’s a hard trick to pull off.

Rounding out the good parts of the movie are a quick pace, goofy, deadpan humor, and a genuine sense of adventure with a little bit of action thrown in for good measure. Both grow unexpectedly in scale as the story evolves. Without giving too much away, let’s just say that the finale will be enjoyed by fans of the “Mad Max” films.

Inevitably, there are always aspects of a film that don’t work. No movie is perfect and neither is this one. Paula (Rachel House), the child services leader of the search party, had me scratching my head in confusion. Her character simply doesn’t work. She’s an over the top cartoon who seems to have walked in from an entirely different movie. Though well-acted and sometimes funny, she doesn’t quite fit in with the tones of the movie. Credit to Waititi though for not turning her into a simple villain. Unfortunately, what she is supposed to be instead is unclear. Paula’s basically a two-dimensional joke who stands in stark contrast with the film’s other characters.

The film’s other “problem” is so rooted in my personal hang-up that I’m reticent to mention it in fear of overblowing it. But it stands out like a sore thumb, so I’m bringing it up: There are at least two sequences that depict violence towards animals, and both are disturbing. One is played as a shocking joke meant to juxtapose Ricky’s idolization of movie violence and his reaction when faced with the reality of it. The scene is grisly, but not pointless, but I could have easily done without it.

And I especially could have done without the second scene of violence toward an animal that is even sadder and more upsetting, though, admittedly (begrudgingly, at least), tastefully done. I bring this up not to scare away potential audiences, but to make clear that this film, while billed as a comedy (and it is that), also has a dark side that some (sensitive) people (like me) might not be comfortable with. Do take the PG-13 rating seriously.

My personal issues aside, this is very much a film worth watching, especially on the big screen which should do the grand vistas justice. Despite its simple premise, it is a unique, sad, funny, and exciting film with characters who grow and grow on you, and that’s anything but simple. Yes, “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” is an odd movie, but it’s also a good one.

Did you know?
This film’s director, Taika Waititi, will next direct the high profile Marvel movie, “Thor: Ragnarok.” I’m curious what a man with his obvious talent will bring to that franchise.

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