“Hunt for the Wilderpeople” is the type of film that makes comedy look easy, a well-oiled machine that bounds back and forth from big laughs to heartbreak and back again. One of Sundance 2016's most guaranteed hits, it's an adventure of storytelling itself.
In the film directed by the infuriatingly talented New Zealander, Taika Waititi, Julian Dennison plays pre-teen Ricky Baker, a chubby thug-culture-loving hoodlum brought to the New Zealand boonies to be set straight by loving matriarch Aunty Bella (an immediately endearing Rima Te Wiata) and her curmudgeonly husband Hector (Sam Neill). Though Ricky initially refuses to be happy under their watch, (trying to run away the first night, but passing out from exhaustion minutes into the journey), he does come around to like her. She respects his angst with a dry wit, and inspires within him a sense of adventure, especially that which can be found beyond self-isolation, although requiring the proper guide.
A few days into their companionship, Bella drops dead. Not long after she is buried, Hector states that he isn’t going to take care of Ricky in Bella’s place, but wait for child services to come within a few days and put Ricky into government care. This causes Ricky to run away into the forest—for real, this time—with a dog he named Tupac in tow. Hector eventually catches up with Ricky, but doesn’t get him back home in time for the government's visit. When the child service agent thinks that Ricky has been kidnapped by Hector, “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” becomes a wacky homeward journey for the two, albeit being pursued by the military, police, and even a gaggle of hunters, while becoming the focus of a nationwide media sensation. Waititi nicely expands the story to such engaging ridiculousness with a fast pace and a lively, youthful imagination.
Always with a charm or surprise up its sleeve, Waititi’s film wins its viewers over from the start, even if it does borrow from the overall charisma that made Pixar’s “Up” such a dramatically thorough journey. The film certainly has the hyper, imaginative young kid in Ricky (whose facial reactions can get some huge laughs), and the grumpy old man dealing with his own place in the world, now that his loved one is gone. As the latter, Neill is a great straight man to a kid who talks in slang; in moments the film earns later, Neill also presents a depth to which he needed Aunty Bella for his own life redirection. Like in his own 2010 film "Boy" (of which "Hunt" plays like it's in the same universe of good spirits on emotional adventures), Waititii proves here to be very skilled at mining the empathy that binds the inner comedy and drama of seemingly regular people.
The business of comedy within “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” is immediate, breathless. Waititi knows funny like a reflex, not something that many other filmmakers, who have made far more films than him, could ever claim. The film expresses this magnificent touch through a prevalent precision to its assembly: just as the movie separates itself into chapters, one has to imagine that Waititi has a complete, piece-by-piece vision of the story, regarding each goofy cut, each smash zoom into a close-up, every fast montage that further enlivens its animated dialogue (such as when Ricky’s offenses are listed/presented). Even when the movie bungles one of its late additions (a “bush man” in the third act), it isn’t the filmmaking failing with its exact beats or general skill, but its sense of humor just briefly overstepping its cartoonish impulses.
Though Waititi hails from New Zealand, Sundance likes to claim him as their own, and rightly so. Each of the former comedian’s films ("Eagle vs. Shark," "Boy," "What We Do in the Shadows") have played the fest, many of them worked on at the institution's workshops. To no small feat, Waititi may have been schooled during an indie filmmaking era that thrived on regurgitating Wes Anderson-brand stylization, but he has been able to build out with similar aesthetic tools to a style that is truly and warmly his own.
After Sundance, Waititi is essentially off to direct “Thor: Ragnarok.” It’s not certain as which parts of his resume won him the gig, but I imagine his continuously precise and heartfelt vision of big entertainment didn’t hurt. Here’s hoping that Marvel lets him run wild.