Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): A quirky Kiwi adventure comedy

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“Hunt for the Wilderpeople” is cheerfully odd and charming enough to draw lots of laughs from me. Freely rolling with its two distinctive main characters who cannot possibly be different from each other, the movie generates numerous small and big funny moments you have to see for yourselves, and it also gradually reveals its sweet heart to us while never losing its quirky sense of humor.

The early part of the movie shows us how Ricky (Julian Dennison) comes to live with Hec (Sam Neill) and Bella (Rima Te Wiata). As a parentless juvenile delinquent kid with a rather impressive record of various misdemeanors, Ricky is indeed a difficult case for Paula (Rachel House), but this unflappable child welfare worker whose motto is ‘No Child Left Behind’ is determined to make sure that this ‘real bad egg’ gets a suitable foster home under her supervision, and now he is sent to a remote rural place belonging to Bella and Hec.

At first, Ricky is not that enthusiastic about his new foster parents, but he soon gets accustomed to them mainly thanks to Bella’s hearty kindness and no-nonsense attitude. One of the sweetest moments in the movie comes from when his attempt to run away from her house is failed. While not so surprised at all, Bella simply says to Ricky, “Have some breakfast, and then you can run away.” Looking both chirpy and eccentric as required, Rima Te Wiata imbues her character with lots of genuine warmth, and her performance becomes all the more poignant when we later come to learn about Bella’s personal motive behind accepting Ricky into her house.

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As days go by, Ricky comes to like Bella more than expected, though it takes some more time for him to get used to her husband’s gruff presence. On Ricky’s 13th birthday, Bella does everything she can do for celebrating this special day, but her husband remains sullen as usual although he gives Ricky a surprise gift after that.

Anyway, it seems Ricky finally finds a home where he can grow up under care and love, but then, due to a couple of plot turns I will not describe here, the situation is changed. Ricky eventually decides to run away, but then he inadvertently draws Hec into his escapade, and they soon find themselves becoming quite famous around the country mainly thanks to Paula, who is eager to bring Ricky back in her custody by any means available to her.

Spending a lot of time together in a vast area of mountainous wilderness, Ricky and Hec certainly become your typical mismatched duo, but the director Taika Waititi’s adapted screenplay, which is based on Barry Crump’s novel “Wild Pork and Watercress”, never feels conventional as always focusing on the rocky interactions between its two main characters. As jaunting from one moment to another along their bumpy adventure, Ricky and Hec come to us as fun, vivid characters to watch, and we care about them even when the movie tries a big climactic action sequence later in the story.

It definitely helps that these two characters are played by two engaging performers. Perfectly cast in his role, young actor Julian Dennison is hilarious as aptly balancing himself between innocence and brashness. In case of a certain wryly humorous scene where his character unintentionally brings another trouble to Hec, the way Dennison delivers his line is so innocuous that we cannot help but laugh as watching the following responses from the other characters in that scene, and it is all the funnier when Ricky belatedly realizes his mistake.

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On the opposite, Sam Neill, a veteran actor whom I noticed for the first time through “The Final Conflict” (1981) and “Jurassic Park” (1993), gives a rare comic performance to appreciate. Wisely keeping his performance straight in front of Dennison, Neill goes for more subtle touches, and he is priceless whenever he reacts to his young co-performer’s comic moments such as when Ricky dances to his imaginary music in front of Hec.

Besides Te Wiata, the other main supporting performers in the film have each own fun with their broad but colorful characters. Rachel House delightfully chews her scenes, and Oscar Kightley is an effective counterpoint as a police officer accompanying her character. Rhys Darby is goofy as a loony hermit whom Ricky and Hec happen to encounter at one point, and Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne is lovely and plucky as another crucial character in the story.

Waititi previously directed “What We Do in the Shadows” (2014), which was one of the funniest film I saw during 2015. That movie is about a trio of vampires living together in Wellington, and I really laughed and chuckled a lot during many of its deadpan moments which are the comic extension of those familiar genre rules about vampires.

While “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” is not as uproarious as “What We Do in the Shadows”, it has plenty of good things to savor besides the spirited performances from its cast. I appreciate the deliberate retro style of the score by Lukasz Buda, Samuel Scott, and Conrad Wedde, and the cinematographer Lachlan Milne provides a number of sweeping nature landscape shots, whose mythic quality reminds me of why Peter Jackson shot the Lord of the Rings trilogy in his homeland. The movie may be predictable to you at first, but then it keeps surprising and entertaining you through solid characters and deft storytelling, and the result is one of the most enjoyable comedy films in this year.

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