Taika Watiti may be the best filmmaker at the moment. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is certainly the best film. Focusing on thirteen year old orphan, juvenile delinquent, Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) who runs from the system into the New Zealand bush. Accompanied by his reluctant caretaker Hector (Sam Neill) they soon find themselves the targets of a national rescue effort turned manhunt.
Watiti’s script is a joy, humorous and heartfelt, it flows through the plot like liquid, thoughtfully building its characters and contriving situations to challenge and test them. It is directed too with lightness cutting through material that could, in the wrong hands, fall easily into being melodramatic or overly sentimental. Credit goes to the two leads who accept the material given to them at every moment. It’s crazy really, the film moves through so many modes it’s a wonder it manages to make them all work. Drama the relatively naturalistic performances by the major players is a far cry from the goofy shenanigans of their pursuers, the world’s most dedicated community support workers (Rachel House and Oscar Kightley). In this world, neither feel out of place.
Taika is a filmmaker who is fiercely New Zealand, while his previous films have all been exploring aspects of the country’s culture this film steps back into its heritage. Specifically that of its native population. News has been made of his requirements on his sets for both this and the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok (which he is also directing) to have indigenous New Zealanders involved in the production process. This film sets its focus square on the relationship that the country has with the past, with the very landscape they inhabit. Characters played by Rima Te Wiata (Ricky’s adoptive mother) and Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne (a kid Ricky meets on his travels) are used to explore expression of culture in the modern world. In a scene where our heroes cower from their pursuers under a log by the road, they note ‘It’s like Lord of the Rings.’ It is, the nature photography, the environments they move through are similar (and in some cases probably the same) as those trod by the hobbits in Peter Jackson’s films. In that respect it does feel like a reclamation of New Zealand from it co-option into European imagery.
I’m going to stop here. Which really isn’t useful. Suffice to say, it is one of the best comedies of the year, also one of the best family films of the year. Throw in in a great soundtrack by Moniker and you have a film that everyone will love when it comes out on Netflix in seven months. In the meantime given that Watiti has wrote the script for Disney’s Moana and is directing an upcoming Marvel joint perhaps his next local effort will get the release it deserves.