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Since 2007's Eagle vs. Shark, writer/director Taika Waititi has progressively been becoming a more and more interesting filmmaker, leading to his fantastic and hysterical 2014 vampire mockumentary What We Do In The Shadows. His latest feature, Hunt For The Wilderpeople, however, is not just a simple step forward, but a wonderfully weird and entertaining comedy that is his best work to date.
Loosely based on the book Wild Pork and Watercress by Barry Crump and adapted by Waititi, Hunt For The Wilderpeople begins as young, rebellious, overweight, orphaned Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) is dropped off in the country to live with a new foster family. He quickly finds his way into the heart of his "aunt" Bella (Rima Te Waita), but less thrilled about the boy's presence is her husband, "uncle" Hec (Sam Neill). Unlike his previous foster homes, Julian actually begins to like living with this new family out in the boonies -- but it all starts to unravel when Bella suddenly dies.
Despondent after the death of his wife, and never feeling anything for Ricky anyway, Hec calls the child welfare services to take the boy away -- but before they come, Ricky decides to run away into the bush. When Hec manages to track him down, an injury forces them to stay in the wild for a brief spell -- but what they don't know is that Ricky's social worker, Paula (Rachel House), has been stirring up trouble after their "disappearance," and everyone is convinced that Hec has abducted the boy. Fearing the police, the kid and his foster uncle make a decision to stay in the bush, and constantly one step ahead of those pursuing them.
The plot description may not sound very funny, and the movie could easily be molded into a drama, but it's Taika Waititi's specific sensibilities that allow the movie to be both a charming take on a father-son story as well as often screamingly hilarious. The filmmaker mines an incredible number of laughs simply by having his characters be ridiculously blunt with each other, whether it's Bella commenting on Ricky's weight within 10 seconds of meeting him, or Hec making no effort to hide his feelings about the kid -- but Waititi also proves skillful in setting up great physical gags, and just establishing a gaggle of oddball characters living in an odd world. Not only does the story never lose pace or start dragging, but the film is constantly funny throughout.
Hunt For The Wilderpeople's fantastic ensemble obviously deserves a lot of credit for delivering the excellent script. Julian Dennison shows impressive timing for such a young performer; Rachel House's Paula is ridiculous in all the best ways; and both Rhys Darby and Taika Waititi are amazing in small, scene-stealing roles that I won't spoil here. Truly, though, the movie is also Sam Neill just putting on a clinic -- as the notable dramatic actor is able to conjure just as many laughs as his costars while also executing some wonderful character work. Through his relationship with Ricky, Hec undergoes the most significant and wonderfully transformative arcs in the movie, and with a balance of heart and gruff humor, Neill puts on one of the best performances of his incredible career.
While comedies are typically so focused on the laughs that visual style is downplayed, Taika Waititi clearly knows that wasting the splendor of the New Zealand bush would have been a crime in the making of Hunt For The Wilderpeople, and the movie is actually as beautiful as it is funny. The writer/director regularly reminds the audience of the vastness and scale of the characters' environment as they continue their trek through endless greenery, and in addition to showcasing epic natural beauty, it also serves to enhance the story -- isolating Ricky and Hec from the rest of the world and bringing them closer together.
Hunt For The Wilderpeople is a challenging feature to make on pretty much every level, from balancing the story's comedy and drama in the movie's tone, to what surely must have been a hard production in the New Zealand bush, but the result is a phenomenal piece of work, and a tremendous example of Taika Waititi's great craft as a filmmaker. It's off-beat in all the best ways, has fantastic actors all delivering fantastic performances, and is an uproarious adventure with endless heart.