‘Hunt for the Wilderpeople’ (2016) | Sundance Review

A sentiment many film critics love to toss around is, “It felt like an ’80s movie.” Depending on how you feel about the height of Amblin and child-centric adventure films, Hunt for the Wilderpeople may or may not be your cup of tea. These kinds of movies were not the ones I watched primarily growing up, so my childhood attachment to this tone is minimal at best. However, I can appreciate it when done well, and this is one of those times. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is both very funny and cloyingly sentimental, which normally is a turn off but is executed very well.

Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) is a foster kid in New Zealand, who is on his last chance with a foster family before he has to go to juvie. He has a past of stealing stuff, spitting on stuff, burning stuff, loitering, and a myriad of other petty crimes. He is setup with ranchers Bella (Rima Te Wiata), who is warm and loving, and Hec (Sam Neill), who would rather be left alone. After warming into the new family, a death occurs, propelling Ricky to fake his own death (which he easily gives away by giving the fake body a metal head with a drawn-on face) and head into the woods. Hec finds him, but he fractures his ankle, delaying their trek back to civilization. This causes child services and the media to declare Ricky as kidnapped and the hunt begins.

For the precocious kid/grizzled old man pairing to feel lively, you need two great performers who can bounce off each other without being types. Dennison and Neill have tremendous chemistry, ping-ponging with ease. Ricky as a character is occasionally inconsistent, mainly in the service of getting a laugh, but Dennison does manage to reign it in to a real kid when it counts. Their bonding is, of course, the heart of the movie, and it sells it. So even when the overly saccharine stuff between them occurs, as we know it will, it works.

The adventure holding up that bonding is a bit thin. There is not enough variation in their obstacles to make their journey more vital and propulsive. In a chase movie, meandering is the last thing you want. Yes, it gives you time to build character relationships, but it’s at a hinderance to the pace of the movie. So when the action ramps up, you are simultaneously invested because of the people but kind of exhausted from the plot. It’s an odd position to be in.

What bridges that gap is the humor. Taika Waititi always keeps the jokes coming, and almost all of them hit. Whether it be Rachel House‘s child services agent comparing herself to the Terminator and Ricky to Sarah Connor (the first one, before she could do chin-ups) or Waititi himself as a priest performing a truly bizarre eulogy, there is a joke to be mined in every situation without feeling forced. That is a tricky thing to accomplish, but I would not expect less from the co-director of What We Do in the Shadows in terms of comedy.

As a whole, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is not as successful as What We Do in the Shadows, which always is moving forward with new information, but it is still a highly enjoyable romp. It’s a sweet, funny movie whose adventure is not as grand as it needs to be. Yet the characters are so likable you can almost forgive it if you get bored in places, which I did. If you are someone who does gravitate more to movies like The Goonies, you will adore this movie. For someone like me, I think it is merely quite good.

GRADE: B

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