By Reid Ramsey (August 13, 2016)
"The film subtly invokes its message of the power of acceptance without ever feeling preachy."
If you had told me that Taika Waititi would follow up his 2014 mockumentary about vampires “What We Do In the Shadows” with a hilarious story about a foster child and his ex-foster parent living in the New Zealand jungle on the run from Child Protective Service (CPS), I probably would have believed you. Now, if you had added that it was Waititi’s most cinematic film to date and included a heartfelt and honest portrayal of a complicated relationship, I may have doubted you. But that’s what “Hunt For the Wilderpeople” (2016) is.
“Hunt For the Wilderpeople,” as previously stated follows Ricky (Julian Dennison) a city-kid who CPS places in the care of the unconditionally loving Aunt Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and the callous Uncle Hec (Sam Neill). After a tragedy, CPS offers to take Ricky from Hec. Communication errors and the overzealous social worker Paula, who probably imagines herself as Al Pacino’s Vincent Hanna from “Heat” (1995), incite a New Zealand wide manhunt for Ricky and Hec.
Sometimes I have a hard time telling if I just personally find New Zealand accents in Waititi’s films to be innately hilarious or if he’s purposefully using his deadpan style mixed with the accents to form the comedy. Based on other audience members’ laughter, I lean towards the latter. In this film and his two previous films I’ve seen, “What We Do In the Shadows” and “Eagle vs Shark” (2007), he also uses this same comic technique.
“Oh look, he’s giving a pig a piggyback ride,” an officer calmly and dryly states as Hec ruggedly walks over a hill with a pig on his back.
This film is also one filled to the brim with movie references. This includes more subtle visual references to “Thelma and Louise” (1991) and much more explicit and hilarious references to the Terminator franchise.
At its core, “Hunt For the Wilderpeople” explores the emotional journey of a young boy figuring out that he not only has a place in the world but also has people in the world that love him. As he continually reminds the audience throughout the film (mostly for comedy), since birth he has been destined to be a statistic to pass through foster homes and end up in prison or dead. The film subtly invokes its message of the power of acceptance without ever feeling preachy.
One of the key components of the film is Ricky’s dog, who he names Tupac, given to him by Bella and Hec. The joy and responsibility Ricky enjoys while training Tupac can be read as quietly hopeful and cycle-breaking.
Essentially Waititi has made a referential broad comedy about the strength of acceptance in a child’s life, and it’s one of the year’s best.