Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople is, in many ways, an old-fashioned big screen entertainment but with a modern day sense of humor. It has all the thrills and laughs you could hope to get in return for the cost of a movie ticket. But it also has the final ingredient that elevates a movie beyond mere entertainment. It has heart. Oh, and an adorable pit bull named Tupac.
Julian Dennison stars as Ricky, a troubled kid who’s been moved around the foster care and juvenile justice systems all his life. When we meet him, he’s just been delivered to his newest foster parents, Bella (Rima Te Wiata, a delight) and Hec (Sam Neill). Following a number of mishaps and poor luck, Ricky and Hec get stranded in the bush for weeks and, when they attempt to return, they find that Hec is wanted for kidnapping Ricky. And so they go on the run, living in the wild and evading authorities for months on end.
Waititi is largely known for his comedies and Wilderpeople does not buck that trend. Many of the laughs come from the interplay between Ricky’s street-smart affectations and Hec’s crusty but benign grumblings. On occasion, the movie’s tone shoots up to the stratosphere, in broadly hilarious turns from Rhys Darby as a fellow bush-dweller and Waititi himself as a rambling priest.
These inspired flights don’t detract from the main story, though, largely because Waititi is giving us a heightened, filmic spectacle even when he’s at his most sincere and, by comparison, grounded. Perhaps the reason for his grandeur is that, despite the salty language, what he’s made is essentially a classic children’s adventure story. His silly visual gags (Ricky sees Hec’s head as a cheeseburger during a stint of hunger) work perfectly with his big action set-pieces, which eventually expand to include helicopters and tanks, because they all come from the same place, somewhere akin to the brain of a pre-teen child mixing her or his own inspirations with images and tropes from old movies.
Waititi sneaks some bigger ideas in there behind the chase scenes and the shootouts and the crazy characters. For one, he clearly has sympathy for kids in the systems Ricky has traversed and the irony of how programs and departments ostensibly intended to help often seem designed specifically to make these kids fail. The world itself feels that way to outsiders like Ricky and Hec. But, for a time, these two misfits fid each other and create for themselves a tribe of two.