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Taika Waititi‘s oddball Hunt for the Wilderpeople continues the Kiwi director’s aggressive expansion into the mainstream while still maintaining his goofy, grinning, soft-centered tendencies. Coming off the roaring critical success of vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows, Wilderpeople is a more grounded venture (but then again, what isn’t?) that maintains Waititi’s ironic and largely innocent sense of humor while injecting a fair measure of heart into the affair.

To get a grasp on what to expect, if you think Moonrise Kingdom by way of New Zealand, you wouldn’t be too far off. Both star a young orphan, hopping from foster home to foster home, who launch solo missions into the wilderness and are hunted by overly-committed search parties. But to assume that  Wilderpeople is a derivative effort – that it apes rather than originates – would be a saltier mistake than Marmite.

The distinction between the works abounds; particularly in the relationships shared. In Hunt for the Wilderpeople, the unions formed between Waititi’s characters are broached naturally, unfolding over a believable timeline and never rushed to be put in place. The internal machinations of our characters feel genuine and Waititi allows them room to breathe, particularly in the developing relationship between the trouble-making orphan Ricky Baker and his surrogate uncle Heck.

The film starts the laughs early on as Ricky (Julian Dennison) arrives at a dilapidated cottage in the middle of a verdant nowheresville. Child Welfare officer Paula (Rachel House) is quick to list the many transgressions of Ricky’s past – including (but not limited to) kicking, spitting, graffitiing, jumping, and general buffoonery – but that doesn’t scare off his new adoptive “auntie” Bella (Housebound‘s Rima Te Wiata). Uncle Hector (Jurassic Park‘s Sam Neill) on the other hand is none too pleased about the new acquisition and when circumstances force him and Ricky into the bush to fend for themselves (though accompanied by reliable pit bulls), their relationship strains, stretches and takes on new meaning.

The two boys couldn’t be more polar opposites. Ricky is a pork pie of an aspiring gangster; a rotund wee hoodlum whose bark is far worse than his bite. He’ll swing a rifle around spouting curse words and gang-isms but gag at first sight of blood. Adversely, Uncle Heck is rough around the edges; a natural bushman with a knack for harnessing the offerings of nature. Of the Survivorman-variety, Heck is the Tarzan to Ricky’s Fat Albert. The two initially clash like plaid and polka dots but their coming to terms with one another opens a door for both comedic and dramatic riches.

Exploring the duality of his characters, Waititi hones his skill, sharpening it like bamboo against a porous rock.  As a veteran comedy director, he handles the on-paper comedic beats like a pro but this time around he’s added some new tricks to his trade. Taking a page from Edgar Wright, Waititi employs flash montages, quick cuts and visual parallels to add some directorial comedy dazzle which in turn gives added emphasis to his writing. The audience erupts in stitches on multiple occasions and it’s no chance occurrence. We are witness to a master in the making developing into himself.

Almost more impressively, Waititi doesn’t skirt delicate moments. Sure, he may use funny haikus to express the misplaced anguish of young Ricky – and both Neill and Dennison’s strong performances go a long way in selling the budding relationship and mutual understanding between Huck and Ricky without ever getting saccharine – but he still purposeful probes meaningful territory. Even though Waititi’s just been swooped up by Marvel – who must have been impressed by his ability to turn a micro-budget into some impressive action beats – the Raukokore native proves himself skillfully multipurpose; foreshadowing a long, exponentially more successful career that’s lurking beneath his belt.

They say you can take the Kiwi out of New Zealand but you can’t take the New Zealand out of the Kiwi and Hunt for the Wilderpeople isn’t afraid of Waititi’s love of country. Accordingly, NZ hasn’t looked this gorgeous since Lord of the Rings. The various locales that Ricky and Heck dart across are breathtaking and handsomely photographed. And while the film loses some steam in the last act (mostly due to an unnecessary – though still amusing -shoehorning in of Rhys Darby), the high-octane conclusion will leave audiences delighted with the offbeat journey and hopeful for the future.

CONCLUSION: Taika Waititi spreads his wings with ‘Hunt for the Wilderpeople’, a genuinely hilarious and emotionally engaging tale of a naughty foster child and his surrogate uncle who venture off into the bush. Sam Neill and Julian Dennison have uncommon comic chemistry in front of the camera while behind it, Waititi shows off some newfound directorial tricks.

B+

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