hunt for the wilderpeople

Director: Taika Waititi

Genre: Comedy, Adventure

Year: 2016

The premise of New Zealand director Taika Waititi’s latest film may seem a bit familiar at first glance. A young troublemaker from the city is sent to live in the New Zealand countryside with his outdoorsman foster parents, and winds up going on a trek through the wilderness to escape child services, becoming a national news sensation in the process. Alright, at first glance it actually sounds pretty strange, but aside from some cosmetic differences, the story is comprised of old parts.

Starring Sam Neill (of JURASSIC PARK fame no less) as a survivalist living in the rural New Zealand outback who becomes responsible for young hip hop enthusiast Ricky Baker, (13-year-old Julian Dennison) we track this unlikely friendship. Once child services come to reclaim the troubled youth, the two decide to make a run for it in “the Bush.” Obvious odd couple, road trip high-jinks ensue and they end up learning a thing or two about family along the way. Think MOONRISE KINGDOM with unintelligible accents and less romance.

hunt for the wilderpeople sadboys


Visually, the film has a very unique look to it. How many movies can you name that have been filmed in the New Zealand outback? The unfamiliar setting plays to WILDERPEOPLE’s advantage, bringing a very distinct, “somewhere between civilization and the unknown” feeling. There are also several sequences combining stop motion and digital animation to create interesting, exotic creatures; a page taken from THE LIFE AQUATIC’s book of tricks, but with a more colorful, surreal spin on it. Director Taika Waititi confidently commands the film’s graphic elements.

Waititi previously co-directed 2014’s horror-comedy WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS along with FLIGHT OF THE CHONCORDS’ Jemaine Clement. This film was praised by critics and widely considered one of the year’s best comedies. Fans of that movie will find noticeably fewer laughs this time around, as WILDERPEOPLE relies more heavily on story and heart. That being said, the film does share SHADOWS’ dark, oddball sense of humor. The comedy in both films mainly comes from interactions between the bizarre characters. This is also where most of the film’s charm stems from.

hunt for the wilderpeople guns

Like the charming sight of boys with guns

Waititi has an undeniable knack for creating imaginative characters. Self-proclaimed badass Ricky Baker is by far the most memorable aspect of the film. He is the spitting image of every 10-year-old kid who strives to one day become an original gangster. Julian Dennison’s animated performance combined with Taika Waititi’s dry, offbeat humor creates a very vivid character. Sam Neill’s Uncle Hec brings enough cynicism and grittiness to create an interesting dynamic, which ultimately is what gives the film its heart.

Hec is not your usual father figure type. He’s actually kind of a gruff, negligent asshole. A former criminal who did time for manslaughter, Hec was scarred permanently by the prison system and ultimately banished himself to live in the countryside once he did his time. If you think his character seems a little dark for this movie, you’re right. That’s what gives HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE some dynamic.

hunt for the wilderpeople compelling

Also a compelling difference in height

It may seem like a run-of-the-mill odd couple movie about discovering family, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have some depth to it as well. Hec and Ricky are both characters who were treated badly by the world and found ways to isolate themselves for survival. They go on the run for personal reasons, Hec to avoid criminal charges and Ricky to stay out of the foster care system, and they end up realizing that life is better with other people around. It’s a film about two people discovering empathy.

WILDERPEOPLE really finds its voice when it digs into its themes. Hec and Ricky’s story highlights the fact that, in modern life, someone always has to get the short end of the stick. As humans, we have a way of discarding those who have already been mistreated instead of finding help for them. There’s a reason that both characters were made to be products of government systems that neglected them. One of the main themes of the film is death, and whether or not there’s any room for things like love in a world where you need to be tough to survive. This is where WILDERPEOPLE really hits its stride.

hunt for the wilderpeople sweater

This sweater is also the closest this film goes to having its “eyes on the money”

Like I said, the story may not seem like anything you haven’t seen before on film, but it has a unique voice and something worthwhile to say, which never comes across as disingenuous. Effort was made to give what would normally be over-the-top cartoonish characters some depth and vulnerability. It’s a crowd-pleasing story with heavy themes. Also, there’s an animal-related death in the film that’ll make you cry like a bitch. It will be interesting to see what Waititi does with next year’s third installment in the THOR series, for which he was recently hired. While I’ve always found THOR to be among the least exciting blockbuster franchises, I’m eager to see him put his own spin on it. All in all, Waititi isn’t breaking any new ground, but he never really tries to either. More demanding viewers may be disappointed, but HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE is an earnest labor of love that handles weighty ideas gracefully without ever taking itself too seriously.

Verdict: Recommend

Eden Bailey is a director and writer from Surf City, California. Non-film related interests include bowling, lazer tag, and referring to himself in the third person.

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