‘Magestical’ isn’t necessarily a real word but it perfectly sums up Kiwi director Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Invented by Sam Neill’s gruff, illiterate grouch of an old codger, Hector, to describe a breathtaking mountaintop vista above New Zealand’s wilderness, in the company of hip-hop loving, fast-talking and lovable troublemaker Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison, who is a revelation), one can’t argue against it. With something for the big kid in all of us, Hunt for the Wilderpeople pours a dose of the mystery and wonderment of Beasts of the Southern Wild, the sense of loss and troubled childhoods of Son of Rambow and the reckless, carefree abandonment of outlaws on the run in Thelma & Louise.
All stirred into a melting pot with generous amounts of uproariously dry humour, some questionable haikus and two wonderful leading performances, there’s really nothing to dislike about Waititi’s latest project. However, at the same time it’s hard to truly rave about it. After a succession of foster homes Ricky Baker arrives to a remote hilltop house in the company of slightly deranged social worker Paula (Rachel Hall), takes one walk around and promptly gets back into the police car that escorted them there. Quite a plump little fella, decked out in pristine white hightops and baggy hoodie, he’s not ideally suited to farming life. This is especially clear when Hector lumbers into shot with a wild boar over his shoulders, grunting an acknowledgement at the boy. His wife, Bella (Rima Te Wiata), takes to Ricky instantly but a swift turn of circumstances sees the supposed ne’er-do-well fated to return to care.
Wanting to stay with his adopted family and also stick it to The Man, he takes off into the bush with his dog, a boxer aptly named Tupac. Lost and hungry, he is found by Hec and the two go on the run from the authorities together. As the manhunt progresses and media circus hits fever pitch, encounters with bounty hunters, selfie-obsessed fans, a young lady who is the only person to stun Ricky into silence, and a madcap conspiracy theorist cameo from Kiwi comedian Rhys Darby all serve to attract the opposites. Dennison is more than a match for his vastly experienced seniors. The comic timing and delivery exhibited by the young actor is tremendous and will have viewers in stitches throughout.
For a bearded, shaggy Neill, Hector is a curmudgeonly diamond in the rough who mellows into a charming, warm ‘uncle’ figure, equally unable to resist the charisma of his young charge. Structured in a series of chapters, there is an element of picturebook, even fairytale, enchantment to Hunt for the Wilderpeople. It is easy to be swept up in the adventure of it all, and the comedy and light-heartedness make it eminently watchable but as one narrow escape leads to another, and another, things start to feel a little thin and what Waititi is actually trying to say with this journey into the unknown – for both characters – never fully forms. That said, as a transient feel-good movie it certainly is ‘magestical’.