I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

The Hunt For the Wilderpeople

THE HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE is a sweet New Zealand comedy about a gruff, inarticulate woodsman and his goofball foster child on the run together in the wilderness. To give you an idea of their differing outdoor skill levels, Hec (Sam Neill, DAYBREAKERS) has a broken ankle, but still manages to wrestle and stab a large boar to death, while Ricky (Julian Dennison, PAPER PLANES) initially called the woods “that jungle.”

The movie starts with child welfare services dumping Ricky off with Hec’s wife Bella (Rima Te Wiata). Ricky apparently has a hell of a rap sheet (spitting, kicking things, throwing things) and he looks funny standing on this rugged Hoggett Hollow wearing his shiny hat and giant hoody with dollar sign and diamond print. He later gets a dog and names him after Tupac Shakur, who he explains to Hec is “a rapper and my best friend.”

This is a movie where almost all of the characters are likable, and it’s impressive how quickly it imprints them on us. For me I knew the movie had me during the scene where Aunt Bella improvises her own “Happy Birthday” song for Ricky’s 13th and he un-self-consciously sings along: “Ricky Baker, ah ah / Ricky Baker, ah ah…”

Bella is not a woman you can fit in a box. She wears cat sweaters and talks lovingly about her toy animals, but is very good at hunting and butchering. At first you kind of laugh at her, then you want her to adopt you too.

It’s all laughs and goofiness on the surface, but an abrupt tragedy, presented without any sugar-coating, really stings. Somehow director Taika Waititi (of WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS and the upcoming THOR movie) vividly captures the random cruelty of existence within just a few minutes of light comedy.

Ricky’s naive overconfidence is lovable, and so is Hec’s kneejerk distaste for such a person. I get a kick out of Ricky’s quirks (like composing haikus all the time) but also Hec’s uncomfortable reactions to said quirks, so it’s like a feedback loop. It hurts when Hec bluntly tells Ricky it was Bella’s idea to adopt him, not his, so it moves us when he starts to act otherwise. Hec is rough, restrained, and ultra-capable, Ricky is soft, prone to jibber-jabber and completely ridiculous. They have every reason to not get along, and for a while they don’t.

I don’t know if they realize this one thing they have in common: both are misunderstood. For some reason (possibly institutional racism) the child welfare officer Paula (the very funny Rachel House [WHALE RIDER, MOANA]) holds a grudge against Ricky and thinks he’s a bad kid, but it’s an impression of Hec as an unstable person snapped because of grief that makes them the subject of a manhunt. All he did was go help a kid who got lost in the woods and various parties have assumed sinister motives.

Like PRINCE AVALANCHE and THE KINGS OF SUMMER, this deals a little bit with the differences between rural and urban living, and that modern question of masculinity: how manly am I if I can’t kill and eat a wild animal or make things out of wood or fix an engine or whatever? Is Ricky too domesticated if he is “ornamental,” as Hec describes it (doesn’t know how to contribute much on the farm), and hasn’t really experienced the “gangsta” life he identifies with either? I think the movie sees this mostly as a cute generational disagreement, and offers the gentle, humane answer that people are people and should live however they want. This bushman and this teen are both pretty silly in their ways, and all the more relatable for it. Even the literally insane survivalist guy they meet (disguised as a bush, like Stanley Stupid) is a sweetheart, and the doofus hunters they’re battling with are well-meaning (Ricky’s weird babble led them to believe that Hec is a child molesting kidnapper).

Though Ricky has not lived the Thug Life, it’s not like he’s had it easy either, spending his childhood rejected from home after home, fearing the abuse that killed his best friend, and unfairly demonized as a troublemaker. There’s also a specifically Kiwi cultural angle to it because he’s Maori. When he meets another Maori teen and her dad (weird, friendly stoner characters) they see him as an outlaw folk hero, a Clyde without a Bonnie. They’re so proud, and he needs that kind of support. It’s good for him to feel just a taste of what it would be like to be somebody’s Tupac.

With a goofy kid on the run in the wilderness, being chased by local police, there are obvious parallels to MOONRISE KINGDOM. But the story comes from a 1986 book called Wild Pork and Watercress by New Zealand author Barry Crump. Still, it’s hard to imagine the dry humor, carefully static visual style and funny synth score existing without Wes Anderson having been there first. Luckily, this is the first time I’ve seen a movie that seemed Anderson-inspired without it being annoying.

I know plenty of people who were head-over-heels for Waititi’s WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS. I thought it was funny and clever, I liked it. But this is on a higher level to me. It’s such a warm-hearted movie, taking a wad of grief and hurt and loneliness and wrapping it in enough bonding and friendship and humor to keep it locked in forever. Also the kid gets to do some crazy off-road truck driving. I loved this one.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, May 3rd, 2017 at 10:06 am and is filed under Comedy/Laffs, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

13 Responses to “The Hunt For the Wilderpeople”

  1. This movie is a total gem, a family favorite over here. It reminded me a lot of movies I remember going to see as a kid in the late 70s and early 80s at the local art-house cinema, stuff like “Breaking Away” or “My Bodyguard” — human-scale movies built around real-seeming people getting into complicated, unexpected situations with each other. I love movies like “Kong: Skull Island” but sometimes you just need a break from giant action set-pieces and CGI, you know? Plus “Wilderpeople” has a few moments of genuine wilderness badassery and is hilarious throughout. “Shit just got real, homies!”

  2. Dreadguacamole

    May 3rd, 2017 at 11:26 am

    Such a lovely movie. Much as I love it now, I can only imagine how much it would have blown my mind had I seen it as a teen.
    My kid (9) really turned against it after about the midway point – right after (spoilers)

    ..
    ..

    ..
    Hec’s dog is killed. Which I guess is one thing that can get a kid to hate a movie. I’ll try again in a few years.

  3. I love this movie. It is touching and hilarious. I don’t think there is another film that has resonated with me like this one.

    (SPOILERS) In many ways it is like a better version of the film UP (another film I love).

  4. Darth Irritable

    May 3rd, 2017 at 4:14 pm

    We do occasionally make good films. This gives me high hopes for Thor Ragnarok

  5. CrustaceanLove

    May 3rd, 2017 at 5:00 pm

    Pleasantly surprised to hear that Vern liked this one so much. I was convinced that this would be one of those overhyped, Internet-beloved movies that Vern only ends up kind of liking. I loved Bella, I knew country folk like that growing up. Visually it has a big Wes Anderson influence, but it has way more warmth and emotion than Anderson or most of his imitators, which I think is why it struck such a chord with people. This movie, more than WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS, is what got me excited about Waititi on THOR RAGNAROK. I think Chris Hemsworth would kill it with this kind of wry visual comedy and dry humour (although I don’t imagine the Disney leash extending that far).

  6. This was directed by that dude who played the comic relief in GREEN LANTERN and looks like Jemaine Clements lil bro right? If so then shit I didn’t know he was doing THOR THE 3RD. Now I’m less worried about it. That vampire flick he did was also the tits.

  7. MonsterMensch

    May 3rd, 2017 at 5:56 pm

    I missed this one in the cinema and finally watched it last week on DVD.
    Totally loved it. The scenes with the aunt broke my heart.
    Great film

  8. 1-900-MIXALOT

    May 3rd, 2017 at 6:32 pm

    Easily the funniest/most badass moment in this one for me was during the off-road chase sequence when the synth score fully kicks into high gear and those whispered vocal samples saying shit like “majestical” start coming through. I lost it. Such a great movie. Watched it back-to-back with SWISS ARMY MAN last year and they actually complimented each other really well.

  9. Yet to see this one but I liked BOY a lot. Also loved the NZ horror/comedy HOUSEBOUND. The Kiwi sense of humor always gets me. So dry and matter of fact.

    And what is it with Kiwi women not being able to take a joke? I’ve had two NZ girlfriends, one back in high school, one more recent. They were both highly intelligent, articulate and wry with their observations and humor. There never seemed to be a filter between their brain and their mouths, which made their honesty very refreshing. But as soon as you give it back to them, they get all cut and serious. Then kitchen utensils start flying across the room. I mean, I love them. I just don’t get them.

  10. Lovecraft In Brooklyn

    May 4th, 2017 at 12:19 am

    If you’re doing NZ horror comedy, check out DEATHGASM. It’s very Evil Dead.

  11. George Sanderson

    May 4th, 2017 at 6:38 am

    So stoked you got around to seeing this Vern. This movie has already reached classic status in my home. Waititi’s Boy is another good film that mixes Kiwi humour with pain and grief. I’m not sure what it says about NZ as a country that even the comedies that are produced have some dark edges, but the documentary (narrated by Sam Neil) Cinema of Unease is a pretty good crash course in Kiwi filmmaking.

  12. This movie is an absolute delight. I remember first coming across Waititi when Eagle vs Shark came out, and I kind of hated that film. But What We Do in the Shadows completely turned me around, and then Wilderpeople is even better. It’s great to see a director find his groove like that.

  13. For those who starting to dig that Waititi Style i strongly recommend Taikas EAGLE VS SHARK which is kind of an geeky superhero RomCom tragedy with an excellent and hillarious Jemaine Clement as the leading love object.

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