Ricky Baker is a bad egg. That’s the way his Child Services agent Paula describes him. He burns stuff, steals stuff, kicks stuff. And that little line says a lot about just how little the world actually thinks of him. He’s a big kid, round and pudgy with dark skin, yet wearing a big red hat underneath an even more oversized white hoodie covered in decals of diamonds and Illuminati pyramids. If all you think of Ricky is that he’s a bad egg, then you won’t see the quirky personality this outfit alone suggests; you’ll just see a punk kid and wannabe gangster destined for nothing.
Taika Waititi’s “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” gives Ricky some credit and shows what he’s capable of if given a little love, care and attention. What’s possible when we set kids loose? The magic and irreverent, cartoonish humor nested within this unusual New Zealand film give new life to a story of adolescence and fatherhood, and it’s one of the more enjoyable viewing experiences of the year.
Ricky (Julian Dennison) gets dumped in the outskirts of New Zealand near the wilderness with the last foster family that will take him. His new aunt Bella (Rima Te Wiata) is as charming and inviting as her fuzzy cat sweater, and she doesn’t mind when Ricky tries to run away in the night because she knows he’ll be back for breakfast. I mean look at him. For his birthday, he gets a dog he names Tupac and an upbeat birthday song written just for him on a tiny home synthesizer. But when she suddenly passes away, Child Services determines that Bella’s husband Hec (Sam Neill) can’t care for him alone. Determined to remain at his new home, Ricky and Hec hide out in the woods and end up on the run after the press starts believing that Hec is a kidnapping pervert.
Waititi’s style both in this film and in “What We Do in the Shadows” echoes that of Wes Anderson. He has chapter headings intercutting the film, the film plays like a live action cartoon, and some of the shots are gorgeously artificial landscapes, such as one of Ricky running away at night on a luminous blue mountain cutting across the horizon. But to borrow a made-up word used by Hec, “Hunt of for the Wilderpeople” feels “majestical,” regal, fantastical and broad in scope but never taking itself too seriously. Waititi will use grandiose classical music but constantly downplays the film’s styles with deadpan goofiness.
And Waititi gets a lot of traction in that regard from the performances by both Dennison and Neill. Hec has a thick mountain man accent and untamed facial hair, and Neill is the best at striking an astonished WTF glare at Ricky, whose clueless, pudgy face alone can serve as a punch line. The two characters are like oil and water, but they’re outcasts brought together by the love and attention of Bella.
“Hunt for the Wilderpeople” works better as a chase movie than a buddy movie. Ricky and Hec have wonderful chemistry, but the film has more fun imagining Paula as a Terminator type ruthlessly chasing down Ricky. “You’re like Sarah Conner in the first movie before she could do chin-ups,” she barks at Ricky. And before long the film leaps from being “Terminator” to “Mad Max: Fury Road,” the type of movie George Miller would’ve made as a comedy.
That’s not something Wes Anderson would strictly do, and Waititi has emerged as a distinctive voice on the international, independent film stage. His next film will rope him into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but he has the character depth and irreverent style to make the next superhero movie truly wild.
3 ½ stars