Ninjas! Direwolves! Child welfare!
by Thom Yee
Growing up is tough. Whether you grew up in a stable home with parents who loved you, as an orphan who was never lucky enough to find somewhere to belong, both your parents were shot in front of you in a senseless crime that sent you on a path of dark vengeance, or you’re like me and you never really did grow up (still the same self-serious weirdo you’ve always been), growing up is a tough thing even in the best of circumstances. That’s why there’s so many movies about it. There are moments locked away in all of our youths that have, consciously or unconsciously, become so personally meaningful or profound or scarring that they stay with us forever. Though you might not have known it at the time, those are the moments that helped to shape who you are and probably who you always will be. And they weren’t always positive experiences.
Or maybe not, I don’t know, a lot of people turn out fine too. Even people who grew up in the bush. With the police after them. Caught up in the middle of a national manhunt. Which is where we find ourselves with Hunt for the Wilderpeople.
It’s a comedy.
What’s it about?
Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) is a young, fat New Zealand boy, a bad egg and an orphan bouncing between foster homes until one day he’s taken in by the kindly Aunt Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and her gruff and distant husband, Hector (Sam Neill), but when tragedy strikes, he and Uncle Hec (who would rather not be called “Uncle”) must head into the forest, relying on their wit, skill and determination to survive and stay one (or more) step(s) ahead of the authorities who believe he’s been kidnapped. Also, there’s a guy who dresses up like a bush. Also, Ricky becomes a minor celebrity. Also, there’s a warthog. It makes more sense when you watch it, I just couldn’t say certain things because I didn’t want to spoil too much with this synopsis.
So when you think about movies and New Zealand, it’s only natural that your thoughts would drift toward the various Lord of the Rings movies. And that’s probably it. I mean, I for one never had any real knowledge of the little island nation before those movies. Not quite European, not quite Australian, and more sheep than man, New Zealand really seems to me more like Hawaii in that it’s an island colony of an English-speaking country with a strong indigenous Polynesian population. At least that’s what I’ve pieced together from the few disparate facts I’ve learned of the country, mostly from sugar packets. In truth, I’m probably wrong about all of that, but if there’s one thing I’m sure about New Zealand (other than the Lord of the Rings), it’s that it’s where Flight of the Conchords is from. They’re New Zealand’s fourth most popular, almost award-winning comedy folk duo. Also, one of the people in Flight of the Conchords played an elf in one of the Lord of the Rings movies.
I guess it’s kind of reductive and even a bit of a cliché to talk about New Zealand as if it were nothing more than Lord of the Rings and Flight of the Conchords, but at least the latter has something to do with Hunt for the Wilderpeople. You see, Hunt is brought to us by Taika Waititi, whose previous works include once partnering with Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement in an even earlier comedy duo, directing Jemaine Clement in Eagle vs Shark and What We do in the Shadows, and starring as the sidekick in Green Lantern. Although that latter one, the Green Lantern thing, has just about nothing to do with anything other than Taika Waititi’s next directing gig is, weirdly enough, the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok, so that’s two superhero movies. Also, Rhys Darby’s in it (Hunt for the Wilderpeople, not Thor: Ragnarok), and if you don’t immediately know and love who I’m talking about when I mention the name Rhys Darby, you need to get on that. He’s also from Flight of the Conchords (the show, though, not the fourth most popular, almost award-winning comedy folk duo [Flight of the Conchords was also a show]).
Is it any good?
If I’m being honest, there’s actually a pretty good chance you won’t really like Hunt for the Wilderpeople, maybe even a 50% chance, and I think I have a pretty good test to figure out which side you’ll fall on. Are you still reading? Good, that was the test — if you’re still reading this —because if you are still reading this review and gotten past that whole slog of a couple of paragraphs mostly about Flight of the Conchords and that wasn’t enough to put you off, then you’re in this Hunt for the Wilderpeople thing along with me. Basically, if you liked Flight of the Conchords (or Flight of the Conchords), you’ll like Hunt for the Wilderpeople. And if you didn’t like Flight of the Conchords (or Flight of the Conchords), I don’t know what you’re still doing here. But thanks anyway, here are some other GOOReviews you may enjoy. Or maybe not, I don’t really get people like you.
Given my limited cinematic experiences with New Zealanders (or “Kiwis” as they’re often called because… I don’t really know why and I’m not going to figure that out here), I would have to conclude that they’re an utterly delightful people who make utterly delightful movies, and Hunt for the Wilderpeople is probably my favourite New-Zealand-based movie. It’s delightful.
I think if I had to describe Hunt for the Wilderpeople (which is pretty much what I’m doing here), it would be kind of like an Edgar Wright movie by way of Wes Anderson. Actually, scratch that. It’s probably mooore like… Wes Anderson by way of Edgar Wright. It’s full of eccentric characters, sharp cuts, and funny little moments, rarely overwhelming you with entertainment but always adding up to great entertainment value. A good example is when you learn about one of Ricky Baker’s defining character traits, writing haikus, when he makes one up about the maggots he sees as they consume the remains of a sheep. “That was my haiku about maggots,” he says. “It’s called ‘Maggots’.” If you don’t find that funny, you’re right, it’s not funny. It’s hilarious. Similarly, when you read Ricky Baker’s suicide note (spoiler alert: no one kills themself in this movie) it’s hilarious. But again, probably only if you liked that joke about the haiku about maggots called “Maggots”. The movie’s full of little humorous payoffs like that, like mentioning a hot water bottle and then later seeing a character holding that hot water bottle or one character having a bag of trail mix and then later another character eating from it. It doesn’t do anything or mean all that much and none of it sounds funny, but it’s surprisingly funny on the basis of absurdist humour and how it fits with this absurd world that still fundamentally makes at least basic, logical sense.
Maybe the weirdest thing about these movies, although it’s something you do see in a lot of movies that aren’t American, is that they’re filled with normal-looking people. I mean, Ricky Baker, our main character, is fat. How often do you see movies starring fat kids that aren’t about how fat they are? His Aunt Bella looks exactly like she’d be somebody’s aunt and yet you can still fall completely in love with her. As an aunt. Rachel House, who plays Paula the child welfare worker, has what I would charitably call an overpowering face, but you completely buy that she could have become a movie star. In New Zealand. The only real exception to this rule is Sam Neill, who was up for James Bond at one point, but here as Uncle Hec he never once seems handsome. Because you won’t think about that.
And yet with all of this weirdness going on, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is at its heart a very real movie about very genuine things, and that’s where it crosses the line from absurdist comedy to something that will stay with you. It’s extremely heightened all throughout, with high-speed chases, wild boar hunts, a foster kid who never seems to have to go to school, and seemingly a small island country’s entire media and military might brought to bear simply for the sake of finding one kid lost in the forest, but all along it’s still a grounded, realistic story about family and belonging.
So should I see it?
Growing up is tough, but a lot of times a lot of what makes it tough is mostly in retrospect, often in the darker moments of our adulthood if not in the midst of a full-on midlife crisis, and there’s something to be said for the resilience most of us had when we were only 13 years old. Life is harsh, life is sad, and life is tough, but it’s also really weird and while it’s usually up to us and us alone to find the humour and grace to guide us through the darkness, sometimes we get lucky and a movie like Hunt for the Wilderpeople shows up to carry us into the light. It’s a funny movie, obviously, but at its best it will leave you in a better place by reminding you that even in the worst of times we can find warmth and hope and promise when we open up to others.
But you might not like it.
Thom’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople final score
On the Edge
- “He’s a bit of a handful, real bad egg. We’re talking disobedience, stealing, spitting, running away, throwing rocks, kicking stuff, defacing stuff, burning stuff, loitering, and graffitiing, and that’s just the stuff we know about.”
- “Don’t even get me started on the national rugby team. They’re not human.”