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.
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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.