Hunt for the Wilderpeople

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*** (out of five)

Taika Waititi is a talented individual and can tune into the New Zealand audience better than anyone – two of his films, Boy and now Hunt For The Wilderpeople, broke records as the highest grossing local films during their respective releases (and Hunt continues to make bank, in NZ and now as it releases worldwide). He’s written and directed a few episodes of the Funniest Television Series Ever Made, Flight of the Conchords, and there are many, many critics and civilians around the world who think his previous film, What We Do In The Shadows, was the funniest film of 2014/15.

His new film has charm aplenty, excellent performances, and a few huge belly-laughs – but how I’d have loved a lot more. Like What We Do In The Shadows, it’s got the perfect ingredients for an ecstatically funny movie, and then, unfortunately, delivers on that promise only in fits and starts. I laughed my ass off in the first ten minutes, and then began to wonder where the funny had gone.

Young teenager Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison, who will now become a huge unlikely movie star in the style and shape of Rebel Wilson) is a smart and compassionate but mischievous scamp who has been bounced around the foster system before ending up on the doorstep of kindly, childless farming couple Bella and Hector. Bella adores him instantly and  showers him with love; unfortunately, she dies pretty soon after his arrival, and, with the threat of child services taking him back and sticking him in “juvie”, he and Hector go bush. Fearing that Ricky’s been abducted by Hector, a manhunt – the Hunt for the Wilderpeople – ensues.

Waititi, who wrote the screenplay based on a novel by Barry Crump, is pretty fearless in his tonal palette, showing us, early on, a suitably bloody rural event that would definitely freak out little kids (the film is rated PG-13 in the US, PG in Australia). Our heroes are on the run partially because the authorities think Hector may be using Ricky as a sex slave, leading to a long (and deeply unfunny) gag about pedophilia. And there are guns, which get fired. It’s not your conventional, conservative kid’s flick, to its definite credit.

And yet, and yet… It’s such a shame it still suffers from the sentimentality and essential tropes of so much of this type of entertainment. Once you get past its risqué elements, you find a film practically begging to be adored. It’s got everything: sweeping, gorgeous aerials of the New Zealand landscape, action sequences, Lord of the Rings references (too many and always lame) and Rhys Darby, who is badly used by being forced to play an outsized kook rather than what he’s brilliant at: a deadpan one. It’s as though Taika is auditioning for the big time.

He’s got the part. He’s now directing Thor: Ragnarok. Finally, I can look forward to a superhero movie, because even though Waititi, for me, has yet to make a masterpiece, you just know he’s got it in him, and if it was a Thor movie – well, that would be hysterical.