When the Oscar for Best Picture went to The Revenant last year I was distraught. I felt like I was the only person in this crazy world who thought the film dull, pretentious to a fault, ill serving of its own dramatic premise. I realise now that that’s because there was another wilderness film waiting for me; an infinitely better, more emotional, funnier, lovingly made, quirkier, beautiful film. That film is Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople.
It’s a very simple setup: Ricky Baker, a 13 year-old who has spent his life in the care system, is placed with Bella and Hector, a couple who live semi-off-the-grid on the outskirts of the New Zealand bush. Ricky doesn’t want to live with them, and Hector doesn’t like Ricky. But Bella loves everything and everyone, and she will have her perfect family unit by hook or by crook. The trouble is that tragedy is looming and it will send Ricky and Hector out on their own, living like true woodsman until the whole of New Zealand is trying to find them.
Based on the book Wild Pork and Watercress by Barry Crump, Waititi’s film takes the premise and injects it with so much wit, warmth and wondrous filmmaking that you can’t help but be swept along entirely. There’s just so much to ingest. In the looks department there’s shades of Edgar Wright and Jared Hess, and the humour ranges from the offbeat to the slapstick with every style in between.
What’s truly impressive is how Waititi manages to include absurdism and grounded storytelling in a way which makes neither side feel less authentic.
If you’ve seen the trailers then you’ll know just how funny the film is, but in truth that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are several scenes and gags in Hunt for the Wilderpeople that are all-timers. An impressively bizarre birthday song, a hilarious Lord of the Rings reference and perhaps the funniest horse dismount ever committed to film are a select few that spring to mind, but I’ll no doubt be quoting the rest for years to come.
Special praise must go to Sam Neill and Julian Dennison (Hector and Ricky), who, as the leads, deliver stunning individual performances, alongside a believable relationship which never resorts to schmaltz to prove the growth of its bond. They are as authentic as the story around them, and the deadpan delivery of Dennison coupled with the wearied reactions of Neill create a comedy partnership for the ages.
I was already hugely intrigued as to what Waititi will bring to Marvel when he hands in his cut of Thor: Ragnarok. After Hunt for the Wilderpeople I have even more curiosity as to how his style will work in the MCU. But more than anything I hope people keep giving him money to make precious gems like Wilderpeople and last year’s What We Do in the Shadows.
We all need a lot more Waititi in our lives.