The magical Hunt for the Wilderpeople follows an unusual coming of age tale, where the two boys who are bonding are a teenager and his grizzled caretaker. Taika Waititi’s movie — currently appearing on several Best of 2016 lists — opens in the city of Auckland, as Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and Hec (Same Neill), meet Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison), a 13-year-old they’ve decided to foster.
Based on Barry Crump’s book, Wild Pork and Watercress, the movie makes clear right off that Ricky is considered “a real bad egg”, according to his welfare worker Paula (Rachel House). Though Bella’s cheerful warmth and boar-gutting hardiness win him over in no time, Ricky has more hard lessons to learn. When Bella passes suddenly, the gruff Hec is left with a kid he doesn’t particularly want, not to mention one whom social workers quickly assume the taciturn old man’s somehow abusing. With Hec unwilling to face a prison sentence and Ricky afraid of being put back in the system, they decide to run away into the famously wild New Zealand bush.
New Zealand has become a destination for filmmakers in search of a fantasy land: think of The Lord of the Rings or Narnia or the Four Lands in MTV’s The Shannara Chronicles. In Waititi’s Wilderpeople, the bush offers not wizards or elves, but the land is fantastic in other ways. The film’s opening shot glides slowly over the mountains and trees; scenes open and close with long panning shots of foggy lakes and open fields. In this world, there are storybook characters, like the girl riding her horse in bright sunlight, and monsters too, like the wild boar charging Ricky, as the boy heroically stands his ground.
Against this backdrop of adventure-story imagery, the movie offers a series of other whimsical devices. Chapter numbers and titles show up at the bottom of the screen, newspaper headlines announce the sensational manhunt as authorities take off after the escapees, and Paula provides her version of events on a talk show, reminding viewers that a second layer of fiction surrounds our heroes, a story where Hec has kidnapped Ricky. This story takes the form of men in uniforms searching along a river as the camera swoops back to reveal Hec and Ricky on the cliff above, watching them.
Such marvelously conceived visuals — ranging from monumental to intimate, frightening to thrilling — help us to see this odyssey through Ricky’s eyes. As his horizon expands, so does his heart, and as the movie tracks this journey, guided by Hec, we share in the transformation of the ordinary world to one that is brilliantly and generously wondrous. The pair’s flight from the world that means to judge them grants the rest of us the chance to see them and ourselves anew.
What keeps all this enchantment grounded is the characters. Ricky’s a boy who grew up in a system designed to enforce order and conformity, who has a history of misdemeanors and writes haikus to express his feelings, most of which are angry. He’s not the usual lovable misfit who shows up in a kids’ movie. He’s something much weirder, and that’s a good thing.
Ricky is, of course, a child, full of false bravado and declaring himself a “gangster”, even naming his dog “Tupac”. He wants a family and a sense of security, repeatedly trying to connect with Hec, no matter how gruff the response may be: as they embark on their journey, Ricky asks, “If I got lost today, would you miss me?” But Ricky is also often more grown up than Hec. He’s had to deal with grief and loss, as well as rejection and disapproval — all before he turned 13. Dennison pulls off this complicated performance, combining levity and gravity, with flair. He also has an easy chemistry with Neill — who is as terrific here as he has ever been — as they bicker. They’re one of the most appealing and intriguing on-screen pairs of the year.
Their evolving relationship is visible in a beautiful shot of an especially verdant area of the wildlands. Hec stands in the foreground, surveying the sparkling lake that stretches before them, as he and Ricky argue over whether “majestical” is a word. We see the beauty around them while they’re lost in their squabble, but we also see where they’re headed, and how magnificent it will be. The shot offers us the same perfect balance of silly and lovely that the movie conjures throughout, a balance that makes Hunt for the Wilderpeople such an irresistible adventure.