The story sounds like something out of an earnest Disney live-action picture from the 1950s: a troubled young boy is placed with foster parents in a remote locale, and “becomes a man” in the new environment. The surprise of Taika Waititi’s “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” is that it takes a well-worn premise and turns it into a quirkily funny delight.
The boy in question is Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison, suitably dour, almost bovine in his movements), a chubby thirteen-year old terror whom a sternly cynical child welfare worker named Paula (Rachel House) dumps off at remote farm in the New Zealand bush. The sullen, silent boy is more than warmly received by the chirpily voluble Bella (cheerily wacky Rima Te Wiata), but her grumpy husband Hector (Sam Neill, with a scraggly beard that gives him a suitably morose air) is much less welcoming.
Ricky tries to run away immediately but gets nowhere, and Bella’s insistent cajoling ultimately wins him over. (A birthday scene is a special treat, giving all three actors a chance to shine.) Unhappily, her sudden death means that he’ll be removed by Rachel, probably sent to a juvenile detention center. The boy decides to fake his own death in a fire and disappear into the wilderness—a plan that goes awry and sends Hector into the bush to track him down. Unfortunately, the authorities jump to the conclusion that the geezer has kidnapped Ricky, and soon the two are on the run, pursued by Rachel and a raft of cops and soldiers, as well as some vigilantes. Of course, during the long chase they bond, though their adventure does not end predictably.
One can imagine all this being played as a solemn message movie, but that isn’t Waititi’s way. Taking off from Barry Crump’s “Wild Pork and Watercress,” the maker of the sharp-eyed vampire mockumentary “What We Do in the Shadows” treats the tale mostly with droll understatement, though he leaves room for outbursts of antic, over-the-top humor that might remind you of what Peter Sellers might have done in his early days on “The Goon Show.” The relationship between Ricky and Hector is developed as an oddball marriage of convenience, with only occasional turns to old-fashioned sentimentality; there are also moments that give the script a piquant touch, like Ricky’s habit of expressing himself through haikus—presumably a device he was taught by some well-meaning psychologist.
But the deadpan attitude of the Ricky-Hector material is periodically interrupted by outrageous scenes involving others (the joke, of course, is that while they consider themselves “wild,” it’s those whom they meet who actually fall into that category). One such is Rachel, who as played by House is a fanatic with a decidedly dictatorial streak. But there are also the hunters who turn into rabid vigilantes, not to mention a nutty recluse who gives our heroes shelter for a time. Calling himself Psycho Sam (and rather disappointed that Ricky and Hector haven’t heard of him), he’s played with such wild-eyed zest by Rhys Darby that he seems like Sellers reborn. More sedate, but still wonderfully off-kilter, is an interlude that brings Ricky in contact with a self-reliant young girl and her celebrity-obsessed uncle.
Waititi also makes room for more conventionally programmed sequences, like an encounter with a nasty wild boar in which the intrepid pair’s dogs exhibit their selfless dedication to their masters, or the culmination of the pursuit, complete with a race across the desert and military roadblocks, that comes across like a junior-league “Mad Max.” And while the move finds its way to an obligatory happy ending, it does even that with a few neat twists.
Mention should also be made of the lovely New Zealand locations, which—as shot with loving widescreen care by cinematographer Lachlan Milne, give the movie the quasi-epic feel it’s both embracing and mocking.
“Hunt for the Wilderpeople” is a delicious, though heavily accented, treat that’s not for the smallest fry, but would be perfect family fare for adventurous parents and kids ten and up.