Early last year one of my friends was absolutely adamant about all of us going to see a little movie called What We Do in the Shadows, so much so that she even drove down to Los Angeles to see a special screening with director Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement because she couldn’t wait long enough for all of our schedules to align. When we finally did see it, we all found ourselves holding our bellies with laughter and delight at the undead-mockumentary much to her delight. So in the meantime as we all eagerly await for Thor: Ragnarok to grace our presences with the dash of Waititi’s comedy genius, we’re treated with his latest picture The Hunt For The Wilderpeople.
(For those wondering it’s like wildebeest, not wild-er)
I don’t mean to compare movies to other movies because I don’t want to detract from the quality of the film I’m discussing, but I couldn’t help but be reminded of the Pixar favorite Up while watching this. The core duo of the film, Uncle Hec and Ricky (a scruffy Sam Neill and a jubilant and robust Julian Dennison), are very much in the same vein as Carl and Russell. One’s a curmudgeon old man who has lost the only valuable thing in his life, the love of his wife (in this case played by Housebound’s wonderful Rima Te Wiata), and the other is a spritely young boy who realizes the adventure ahead of him will satisfy his needs for companionship much more than a “normal” life.
The difference here between the two films is a constant dragging back to reality that Hec and Ricky face, they’re adventure into the bush is never too removed from reality that the movie loses sense of how ridiculous the situation is. Up has talking dogs and a stupid bird and shit that just completely undermined how slice-of-life and quaint the opening ten minutes were. More specifically, Up doesn’t really seem to care that a strange old man accidentally kidnapped a young child, who has no communication with his parents, which you know, should rightfully send someone into a panic. Wilderpeople uses that frightful scenario as its basis for comedy, in that the long ensuing chase of the film thrives from the misconception that Hec has brainwashed Ricky into running away with him.
In this case that makes their partnership a bit endearing, nobody really wants them as we are reminded of by child wellfare agent Paula, played by Rachel House (although I’m not entirely convinced it isn’t just Jemaine Clement in a wig). They’re both rejected from society as delinquents and rejects, Ricky particularly is well aware that his inability to find a home can only lead to a saddened criminal life that he both aspires to and is terrified of. There isn’t some mythical reason for their adventure other than the call of the wild, the majestical beauty of New Zealand’s undeterred landscapes, and a desire to be free of societal restrictions that determine what your life is going to be like.
The comedy here is rich and delightful, with great performances and an extended cameo from Rhys Darby (because duh) that had our entire audience in stitches. The soundtrack additionally is fantastic and exotic, rightfully fitting in with the ambience of the New Zealand bush. What makes the movie work is that there are consequences for the characters’ actions and emotions that ring deep and true with reality, all in the mix of a light-hearted adventure. Perhaps the pairing is familiar and maybe not even that original of a buddy film, but it has a warmth of humor and charisma and comedy that is endearing from beginning to end.