New Zealand’s great outdoors; the setting for many fantastic films - most prominently The Lord of the Rings trilogy - and now Hunt for the Wilderpeople, an adaptation of Barry Crump’s Wild Pork and Watercres. Instead of snowy mountain tops and huge chasms, though, Taika Waititi’s latest directorial effort locks itself within sprawling forests, greenery permeating every crevasse.
For young city slicker/wannabe gangster Ricky Baker, played by the fantastic Julian Dennison, it’s a difficult adjustment to make. (What kid in this day-and-age wants to be stuck in the countryside without a games console?) With welfare services having left him in the countryside with a new set of foster parents - Sam Neill’s Uncle Hec and Rima Te Wiata’s Aunt Bella - there’s only one way out, and that’s to run away.
Quickly, Aunt Bella’s charm wins Ricky over, Uncle Hec remaining less impressed, wanting him gone. However, as fate has it, the two are bound together, eventually ending up on a whirlwind adventure, running away from tyrannical welfare services as a terrible twosome, known to bounty hunters as the Wilderpeople (a self-prescribed name, of course).
Uncle Hec and Ricky’s journey together is hysterical, the laughs coming often, the two central characters’ relationship becoming the ginormous and heartwarming soul of the film. There’s brilliant chemistry between Dennison and Neil, the pair quite obviously bouncing off each other; a joy to watch on screen, and as the story progresses you begin to feel like a member of their special pack, gleefully part of the adventure.
The downside to this is that, when other characters do appear - like Rhys Darby’s Psycho Sam - their screen-time is often fleeting, lacking any momentous impact on the story. Waititi elects to focus on our two heroes which is fine but also leaves very little room for unpredictability in the script; as the adventure springs along there are few twists and turns you don’t expect.
Thankfully, where the story lacks ingenuity, the script is so crammed full of charm it’s unbelievably hard not to love, Waititi’s dry wit and humour - previously seen in Boy, What We Do in the Shadows, and Flight of the Conchords - being ever present.
Similar themes also perpetrate Wilderpeople, most interestingly the idea of what it means to be a ‘man’ in New Zealand. Where Ricky believes you should be Skux like Tupac, while Hec’s idea of masculinity is growing a beard and living in the wilderness (Of course, both realise there is no real definition of what a man is).
While laughs are hearty and often clever, with loving emotional moments in-between it’s the subtlety at which these themes are addressed that makes Wilderpeople so fantastic. Fingers crossed the Marvel machine won’t remove Waititi’s style from their upcoming mega-film.
Review by Jack Shepperd, Independent