Sundance Film Review: ‘Hunt for the Wilderpeople’

Hunt for the Wilderpeople Sundance 2016
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Taika Waititi's latest is a pleasing comedy-adventure that pays cheeky homage to some early New Zealand classics.

A young orphan and his very reluctant keeper “go bush” on the lam from authorities in “Hunt for the Wilderpeople.” Based on a tale by the late, prolific New Zealand novelist Barry Crump, Taika Waititi’s latest is a pleasing comedy-adventure that pays cheeky homage to key early works from that nation’s first filmic renaissance — right down to casting the still-game Sam Neill, who was also a fugitive 40 years ago in Roger Donaldson’s “Sleeping Dogs.” Despite the humor, there’s a cornier, more formulaic core here than in the writer-helmer’s prior successes “Boy” and “What We Do in the Shadows” that may comparatively limit its offshore prospects. But international sales should be hale enough, and the pic is sure to be another home-turf hit.

Dropped off on a remote farm by a very caustic child-services worker named Paula (Rachel House) who assures his new minders he’s a “very bad egg,” Ricky (Julian Dennison) is a heavy-set lad of about 10 who’s defeated a series of foster families and group homes his whole life. This new arrangement is his last chance before he’s sent to juvenile lockup. His ebullient if tactless new Auntie Bella (Rima Te Wiata) simply ignores his sullen silences and initial attempts to run away; she’s got enough positivity for both of them. Indeed, Ricky does start to accept her love and her home as his own. As for taciturn Uncle Hec (Neill), well, the young man and the old one can probably coexist tolerably enough with Bella as a giant buffer between them.

Unfortunately, fate drastically changes this promising domestic situation, leaving Hec without a wife and Ricky once again without a mother figure. The boy is unwilling to go back into the public system — though  Hec is equally adamant he’s not in the market to raise a child alone, and in any case, the court has remanded Ricky back into custody. The latter responds by running off into the bush, where his survival skills prove nonexistent. He’s fast located by Hec, whose own ample wilderness savvy keeps them both fed and warm when an accident strands the adult from hiking out for several weeks.

Once they do finally emerge at civilization’s first outpost, however, they discover that over-eager Paula and confusing evidence left behind (Ricky had torched the barn and left a fake “suicide” note) have convinced all that grieving new widower Hec has probably “gone crazy” and hauled the boy into the bush against his will. After an encounter with some suspicious hunters at a camping hut goes badly, it is now imagined that Hec is a “pervert” busy “molestering” his young captive. Later, however, their continued evasion of bounty hunters, police, army, et al. begins (a la “Sleeping Dogs”) to make the fugitives into folk heroes.

Remainder of the pic is a backwoods manhunt that’s both a salute to and gentle parody of several late 1970s-early ’80s Kiwi classics, with specific references not just to “Dogs” but also “Goodbye Pork Pie,” “Smash Palace” and more. Some support turns (in addition to a decent Laurel and Hardy act by Te Wiata and Oscar Kightley as a none-too-bright cop) tip scales a bit much toward farce, with Rhys Darby over-the-top as hermit “Psycho Sam.” But for the most part, pic’s sheer good-naturedness pulls off a not particularly inspired crusty-old-coot-thawed-by-young-scamp concept, maintaining an agreeable tonal balance despite occasional wobbles between spoof, sentimentality and silliness.

In his third local feature, following “Shopping” and “Paper Planes,” Dennison (whom Waititi met on a commercial shoot three years ago) proves a most affable protagonist, one whose naivete and willfulness largely drive the improbable narrative. But pic’s stealth weapon is Neill, whose typical canny underplaying complements everyone else’s broader notes while lending both the comic and dramatic elements extra ballast.

Shot on various North Island locations, “Wilderpeople” makes full use of the spectacular scenery at hand. Lachlan Milne’s widescreen lensing also heightens the retro feel by indulging in frequent gratuitous zooms, while the original score amusingly incorporates some cheesy ’80s sounds. Other packaging elements are first-rate.

Sundance Film Review: 'Hunt for the Wilderpeople'

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Premieres), Jan. 22, 2016. Running time: 101 MIN.


(New Zealand) A Defender Films, Piki Films, Curious presentation, in association with the New Zealand Film Commission, NZ On Air. (World sales: Protagonist Pictures, London.) Produced by Carthew Neal, Leanne Saunders, Taika Waititi, Matt Noonan. Executive producers, James Wallace, Charlie McClellan.


Directed by Taika Waititi. Screenplay, Waititi, based on the book "Wild Pork and Watercress" by Barry Crump. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Lachlan Milne; editors, Luke Haigh, Tom Eagles, Yana Gorskaya; music, Lukasz Buda, Samuel Scott, Conrad Wedde; music supervisor, Natalie Wilson; production designer, Neville Stevenson; costume designer, Kristin Seth; art director, Jon Lithgow; sound, Ande Schurr; sound designer/supervisor, Dick Read; re-recording mixers, Michael Hedges, Tim Chaproniere; stunt coordinators, Mark Harris, Rodney Cook; assistant director, Seumas Cooney; casting, Stuart Turner.


Sam Neill, Julian Dennison, Rima Te Wiata, Rachel House, Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne, Oscar Kightley, Cohen Holloway, Stan Walker, Mike Minogue, Rhys Darby, Troy Kingi, Taika Waititi, Hamish Parkinson, Stu Giles, Lloyd Scott.

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  1. Pip says:

    Oh but the best reference is the embedded reenactment of Crump and Scotty’s iconic Toyota ad- a delightful treat for Kiwis of a certain vintage

  2. lotte says:

    I am difficult to please — I walked out on the movie half way through — to my mind the acting was pretty standard — the voices hurt my ears — the scenery was good. A few of my friends gave it the 5 star and made me feel that I must be a total outsider.

  3. Robin Ikin says:

    I was railroaded into accompanying grandchildren at the last minute. Thought it was wonderful entertainment, fantastic, so glad my daughter was too busy to go and I went instead.The scenery, the characters, the whole thing, gave me a few great chuckles. I would never have initiated attending a movie with such a difficult name(for me anyway).LOVED it

  4. The Laurel and Hardy act does not include Rima Te Wiata.

  5. Jartin says:

    This is not only a full reply…it is a full spoiler. I would have likely wanted to see it but now I can’t be bothered. I should have stopped reading when I realized the game was up. Why do so many so-called reviewers do this.? Maybe they are frustrated scriptwriters and can’t help it.

  6. Phoebe Reedman says:

    Bit awkward – the title of the article “‘Hunt for the Wilderpeople’ Review: An Australian Orphan on the Lam” in google search and as it appears on the tab heading on my browser. The actual article seems fine and I didn’t see any other references to Australia in an admittedly brief look, but he’s from New Zealand bro. So are the cast and director etc.
    I don’t really care if you don’t publish this feedback, but can you change the title to be accurate please?

    • Lucy Robson says:

      Saw that, still there, must have published then corrected but still in the preview text, definitely awks. I searched the page going really, they think he’s ours? I know we Australian’s love to claim every NZ including Sam Neill, although he does live here now and we would love to have Ricky Baker and Julian Dennison oh and Taika Waititi, oh hec or heck we love youse all.

      • Maria says:

        It also says the boy is about 10 when he has his 13th birthday on screen. This review is a mess of spoilers and misinformation. Still worth a look, though. The movie is 1000 times better than the review.

      • Mariah says:

        Actually Sam Neill lives in Otago, South Island, New Zealand

  7. Lisa says:

    Sounds great…but after this review I feel like I’ve already seen the whole movie. Perhaps try review without telling the whole story..leave a little for the viewers to enjoy without knowing what’s going to happen next.😱

  8. Brett says:

    Really looking forward to seeing this.

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