Hunt for the Wilderpeople
The accolades for Taika Waititi’s latest are of a piece with those for his previous picture, What We Do in the Shadows, in that they’re slightly over-effusive. Hunt for the Wilderpeople strikes unqualified gold with the odd couple relationship between Julian Dennison’s rotund juvenile delinquent Ricky and Sam Neill’s gruff bushman Hec, or “Uncle” as he objects to Ricky calling him. However, it’s less convincing when it comes to Waititi’s erratic comedy quality control. He’s more Paul Hogan than Monty Python.
Maybe such broadness of temperament is an Oz/Kiwi thing, or maybe it’s simply that Waititi’s always a draft or two from honing his material as precisely as he might. It could also be, without going all Mary Whitehouse on Hunt, that there’s a central awkwardness in what passes itself of as a family movie running a central plot motor wherein Uncle is accused of paedophilia (or being “a molesterer”). Even the Carry On… movies would have blanched at the scene in which Ricky is assumed to be describing how he was forced to masturbate Hec. Oh, those earthy New Zealanders and their loveable lewdness! If Victor Salva had been passing by the set, no doubt Waititi would have convinced him to cameo, just for added yuks.
There are jarring tonal shifts throughout, though, as the picture lurches from a poignant scene in which Hec loses Bella to Waititi delivering an indulgent (and not very funny) cameo as the minister at her funeral. Elsewhere, he seems fixated on lobbing us copious pop culture references (The Terminator, The Lord of the Rings, Thelma and Louise), but as randomly as Zuckers and Abrams rather than the at least germane manner Pegg and Wright would, while a stark rites of passage sees Hec putting down his beloved pooch.
It’s almost as if Waititi’s a little shy of letting the grounded, relationship side of the tale tell itself and feels obliged to pep it up in any way he can. Which is a shame, as this is definitely a case of less being more. It doesn’t help that, most of the time, the gags are verging on the second rate. At points too, he will compound this by feeding a character a line because it’s funny, not because they’d say it (Ricky’s “Too soon?” after suggesting Hec remarries), or allow a scene to pass purely because it’s been through his random reference generator (a vision of the ever-phallic ’80s Flake advert anachronistically materialises before Ricky’s eyes when he meets Kahu, which can be added to the pile of inappropriate moments – if you were nursing the illusion this was a family movie).
Generally, the sketch comedy routines are much more successful in the improvised vibe of Shadows, where hit and miss is par for the course. Here, his bungling social services worker (Rachel House) and redneck hunters tend to miss. Waititi even has Dennison administer a passing-out pratfall at one point, which indicates he’s been watching some kids’ TV for research too.
And yet, the Hec-Ricky relationship is genuinely touching (not in a Jimmy Savile sense, although that’s just the kind of gag Waititi would have cracked), and the early scenes with Rima Te Wiata as Bella succeed so profoundly in establishing her as a huge-hearted, kindly soul, that we’re entirely on board with these two lost ones making a fist of things. Sure, the template for Juvie Ricky just needing someone who will accept him and understand him is broad brush, but such uncynical sincerity is entirely appropriate for a kids’ movie. Just not the proliferation of child molestation jests.
Once the manhunt is well underway, Waititi loses focus on his trajectory rather, introducing Rhys Darby in one of his lesser cameos (I do like his bushman outfit, though) and a car chase that may have been a calling card to Marvel (although I’ve yet to be convinced of his blockbuster chops) but feels more like it’s there because referencing another movie is all he can think of for a big finale (which it doesn’t really need anyway).
Neill, who is also on board for Thor Ragnarok, has maybe his best big screen role since Dean Spanley, and it can’t be understated how much he makes Hunt for the Wilderpeople worthwhile for all its rocky passages, effortlessly inscribing it with heart and gravitas. Dennison makes up what he lacks in range and timing with enthusiasm, as the key quality is his strong chemistry with his elder. Maybe Waititi should take on a writing partner (I wonder if the better gags in Shadows didn’t come from Jermain Clement), to lend his screenplays that extra polish. Then he might make a really great movie. A majestical one.