The daft, stylized and quasi-surreal comedy of “Eagle vs. Shark” and “What We Do in the Shadows” may have made Taika Waititi’s reputation in his native New Zealand and at film festivals far and wide.
But the sweet, goofy and sentimental “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” is what sealed with deal for Hollywood.
A Thor sequel followed, “Mandalorian” episodes and oh yeah, the Oscar-nominated whimsy of “Jo Jo Rabbit.” That picture that could have pigeon-holed him as the Kiwi Wes Anderson forever, had he not shown more commercial/conventional inclinations before that one.
I missed “Wilderpeople” during its limited North American run, and in my mind had built it up into something more in fitting with Waititi’s Jemaine Clement collaborations than the almost straightforward comic adventure it actually is.
It’s funny, with colorful, exaggerated characters and a near outlandish situation or two. But in the end, it’s just an unwanted “problem” teen on the run in the woods with his “uncle,” the surviving half of the couple that finally took him in and lent him the promise of a happy “normal” life.
Ricky, played with a just-go-with-it ease by Julian Dennison, is an unwanted kid with a history of vandalism, arson, car theft and running away with he’s dropped with farmer Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and her grump of a “Crocodile Dundee guy” husband, Hector (Sam Neill).
He’s dropped off with a lengthy list of his “issues” by his bluff social worker (Rachel House), who leaves with an “Ok, he’s all yours. ‘No returns!’ Just joking.”
Ricky’s parked in a farmhouse high in Hobbit country, the New Zealand “bush,” with The State’s reassurance that “There’s no one else who wants you, Ok?”
And aside from not talking for a day or two, and running away every night, Ricky adjusts. He’s bonding with their dog and with nurturing Maori Earth mama Bella in a flash, even sharing his obscene would-be rapper haiku with her.
“This one’s called ‘Kingi, You Wanker.'”
Hector? “Something you want me to do?”
“Yeah. Leave me alone.”
That changes the moment Bella drops dead. Hector is devastated, Ricky is all about fixing his situation and avoiding “juvie.”
“Why don’t we just get you a new wife? There’s all sorts of women on the Internet!”
Rebuffed, the kid takes matters into his own hands, faking his death and fleeing into the bush with the dog Bella just got him, Tupac.
Yeah, Ricky may be out of his element. But dude is hard.
That’s when things go totally wrong, Ricky and Hector become wanted criminals — well Hector does, anyway. He’s confused for a “molesterer.” Damned if there isn’t a nationwide manhunt for them. As social worker Paula (House) assures a worried nation that “No child left behind” is her policy, Ricky and Hector stumble off the grid and into legend.
Waititi touches abound in this adaptation, taking chapter titles from (one assumes) the novel — “Famous,” “Broken Foot Camp” — a hilariously off-putting eulogy by Waititi playing the priest at Bella’s funeral, and violence involving kids played for laughs.
But what sticks with you from this “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” is the sweetness, the soft edges Neill gives to his bush-savvy curmudgeon, the kid’s street “smarts” that’re really just naivete. Because he’s just 13, no matter what crimes he has “the knack” for.
Dennison went on to have a key part in “Deadpool 2” and sadly in the obnoxious “Christmas Chronicles 2.”
House has become a popular animated voice actress (“Soul,” “Moana”).
And Waititi? He’s got an Oscar, another “Thor” sequel in the works and a “Time Bandits” TV series in the works. In an era when “star directors” have become an endangered species, he’s become a brand — not just for offbeat humor, but for making even “sentimental” kid-friendly goofs like “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” go down easy.
MPA Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements including violent content, and for some language
Cast: Sam Neill, Julian Dennison, Rachel House, Rima Te Wiata, Rhys Darby and Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne
Credits: Directed by Taika Waititi, script by Taika Waititi and Te Arepa Kahi, based on the novel by Barry Crump. An Orchard release on Netflix.
Running time: 1:41